At today's memorial service at West Chicago's Community High School, I'd bet you'll hear one story after another about Mayor Mike Kwasman, who died Tuesday following a weekend heart attack.
He was 65, and news of his passing shocked the city. It didn't take our reporting staff long to learn how well-respected he was -- from people in West Chicago and those outside the city.
Kwasman's achievementsThe city of West Chicago released this list of Mike Kwasman's achievements:
Ÿ Spearheaded initiative to purchase and convert an old building on Main Street into a successful municipally-owned center for the arts and a downtown revitalization tool.
Ÿ Created opportunities for effective, consistent and superior customer-centric communication for residents and businesses
Ÿ Streamlined the development review process to further enhance economic development opportunities.
Ÿ Advocated a business approach to running the municipal operation, and focused on strategies to save the taxpayers money including the refunding of a bond issue 10.5 years early, privatization of traditional and untraditional city services and reduction of the city's operating budget five years in a row.
Ÿ Directed the purchase of underutilized and incompatible properties along West Washington Street in the downtown as part of his vision for a new city hall campus and retail corridor.
Ÿ Brought Special Olympics to West Chicago.
Ÿ Formed the DuPage Veterans Foundation and had been the driving force behind its first Honor Flight Chicago fundraiser.
Ÿ Supported West Chicago youth through multiple programs which sparked civic engagement in their community.
Ÿ Championed successful referendum to increase the property tax levy to hire additional police officers, which ultimately lead to the city now having one of the lowest crime rates in the Chicago area.
Ÿ Led multipronged effort to prevent the siting of a second solid waste transfer station in the city.
Ÿ Proactively advanced long-term sustainability through the city's treatment of its own water and the building of its own water treatment plant rather being reliant on the DuPage Water Commission for Lake Michigan water.
Ÿ Succeeded in removal of West Chicago from the jurisdiction of the DuPage Water Commission, which resulted in a sales tax decrease for consumers in West Chicago as well as a substantial rebate from the Commission.
Kwasman was enjoying a weekend lunch at Pal Joey's in West Chicago when he was struck by a massive heart attack. He died three days later with his wife, Crystal, and other family by his side.
In our next-day news story, staff writer Christopher Placek recounted Kwasman's political life, which was estimable. He got his start as a founding member of a local political group charged with the daunting task of convincing West Chicago it needed to increase taxes $1 million a year to hire 10 more police officers and help clean up a gang problem.
He was successful, and in many ways that was the beginning of his legacy -- a man who cared deeply about his community and its image. That's a challenge in a largely blue-collar town with gang problems and the residual stigma of a long-closed factory in the heart of town that was so toxic it qualified for a federal Superfund cleanup. Leaders pointed to other image enhancers accomplished on Kwasman's watch: his stand against allowing a second garbage transfer station in town; his crafting of local legislation to close a notorious strip club; his work with predecessor Michael Fortner, now a state legislator, to enable the city to make the bold move of dropping out of the DuPage Water Commission and building its own water treatment plant, saving tax dollars in the process.
Placek, with the help of staff writers Justin Kmitch and Marie Wilson, were able to tell that part of the story through interviews with local leaders as well as those from the county and neighboring towns. But what really tells you the whole story is the human side. Last year, we decided to celebrate Valentine's Day in our Neighbor editions with tales of our how our local leaders met their spouses. Kwasman's story was a gem -- he used the old engagement-ring-in-the-popcorn gambit to propose to Crystal. Well into the VCR showing of "To Kill a Mockingbird," she found it. And said yes. Online, we attached that heartwarming story to this week's news story.
Another human touch about the late mayor came from Jake Griffin, known to our readership as the man behind the Suburban Tax Watchdog column, which ferrets out all sorts of indiscriminate and, some would argue, reckless spending by our local governments. But in his early days at the Daily Herald, Jake's beat included West Chicago, and as you'd expect from one of our most intrepid reporters, he was well-sourced. So he kept in touch with Kwasman, long after moving on to other beats.
"What can I do?" he asked me late Tuesday afternoon as we were assembling our story on Kwasman's death. I told Jake I very much appreciated the effort, but we had things under control. Good thing he didn't exactly listen to me. Instead, he called up one of Kwasman's best friends, John Smith, also a founder of the group that fought for more police and a longtime member of the local fire board. It was Smith who reminded us of Mike Kwasman the man -- the gruff-voiced, barrel-chested, often impeccably dressed guy with the handlebar mustache. It was Kwasman, too, who even though Smith didn't tell him about the honor, showed up to watch his pal get an award for years of service with the fire district. And it was Smith's quote from Griffin that provided the perfect ending to the story:
"I'm going to miss his advice, his energy, his humor, his vision and most of all his friendship."