Former Naperville mayor Chet Rybicki is being remembered for his role not only in leading the city during a crucial period in its history, but for being a founding father of the Riverwalk.
And he was a pretty good singer, too.
Rybicki, who died Wednesday at 96, served as mayor from 1975 to 1983 and is credited with pushing the city's commercial development and building the downtown in face of competition from Aurora's Fox Valley mall. He also was a driving force behind creation of the Riverwalk, often called the city's "crown jewel."
During the 1970s, Naperville's population exploded, doubling to more than 40,000. Historic structures were relocated and restored at Naper Settlement as the 19th-century village developed along with new subdivisions.
Naperville's boundaries also were set during Rybicki's tenure, and the property that became Fox Valley Center went to Aurora in the Route 59 boundary agreement.
Riverwalk Commissioner Rick Hitchcock said Thursday "it's no surprise Mayor Rybicki ended up being a pretty important figure in our history."
"My hat's off to Mayor Rybicki," he said. "In addition to being a huge, huge advocate for growth during a rapidly expanding period of time, he was always eager to show the city off, promote it and support it any way he could."
Most of all, though, he was proud of the four-mile stretch along the DuPage River that had become the Riverwalk.
"To say he was tireless in his advocacy of the Riverwalk would be an understatement," Hitchcock said. "He was always very proud of what the community created during his term."
Rybicki also was proud of his military service. He joined the Army Air Corps following the attack on Pearl Harbor and eventually piloted the B-17 "Flying Fortress" on several bombing runs.
American Legion Naperville Post #43 Cmdr. Terry Jelinek said Rybicki became "very active" in the legion following his mayoral tenure.
"Once he got here, he never stopped coming," Jelinek said. "Up until his health started failing, he never missed a meeting and had risen to the rank of post commander."
An active participant in all post activities, Jelinek said Rybicki saved one his lesser-known talents for Legion events.
"I don't think too many people knew, and I don't think Chet wanted too many people to know, but he was a big singer," Jelinek said. "He was never too bashful of a guy, so every Christmas we'd gather a group of guys and head up to (Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital) to spread some cheer. Chet would sing and another guy played the accordion. People may have just been polite, but they always got a great response."
Rybicki also found time later in life to study American and military history at College of DuPage, where he met his great friend, Purple Heart recipient Bob Owensby, who served in World War II as a Marine on Iwo Jima.
"We took classes together and we were in the same coffee group every morning. We hit it off right away because we were interested in the same things most of the time," Owensby said. "Chet was a great friend and I'm going to miss him greatly."
Mayor George Pradel ordered all flags on public buildings lowered Thursday until further notice to honor Rybicki's contributions.
"He was so involved in city life until his last days and never hesitated to share his thoughts with me on some of the big issues of the day. Even in his final days, he made sure to tell me what he thought needed to happen in our beloved town," Pradel said. "I will miss my good friend so very much and will never forget how he helped make Naperville the wonderful city it is today."
Rybicki was preceded in death by his wife Lillian, to whom he was married for 61 years.
Arrangements are pending at Friedrich-Jones Funeral Home, 44 S. Mill St.