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Article updated: 4/22/2013 11:45 PM

Judy Abruscato bows out in Wheeling

By Deborah Donovan

Judy Abruscato has been working since she was 14 years old, and for most of those years, she recently realized, she's been in charge.

At 78, she's still working as Wheeling branch manager and vice president for MB Financial, where she'll celebrate her 35th anniversary in May.

But on Monday, Abruscato bid farewell to one of her jobs, leading her last official meeting as Wheeling's village president after 26 years in public service. Next month, Dean Argiris, who defeated Abruscato in the April 9 election, will be sworn in as village president.

Against her expressed wishes the board presented her with a proclamation and standing ovation Monday night, declared May 6th Judy Abruscato Day and named the room where the board meets in executive session after her.

Abruscato attributes her independence and the enjoyment she finds in work to the fact that her grandmother raised her as an only child after the death of her parents. Her grandmother's example included working until she was 72 and using a wheelchair.

Abruscato won her first election at the age of 13, when she was elected student president at her elementary school. At 14, she started working in a Chicago store, decorating windows and doing whatever else needed to be done on the night shift. Before she was 16 she started working at a bank, showing other employees how to fill out statements and file.

"I love it," Abruscato said of working well past the age when most retire. "I love the bank and the people. I like to interact with people, and along the way you can always help someone."

Abruscato moved to Wheeling in 1969 with her husband, Mario, and became active in the community. Over the years she's chaired Wheeling's nonprofit 4th of July organization and been involved in the Wheeling Parent Teacher Organization, the Wheeling High School Instrumental League, the Wheeling Lioness Club and Wheeling Historical Society.

In 1987, she was elected village trustee, and, after 22 years as a trustee and two unsuccessful bids for village president, she broke through in 2009 and was elected to the top post.

Ironically, given her refusal to consider herself old, one of her points of pride from her years in office was lowering the age of seniors' discounts for refuse pickup to 62 from 65.

"There are so many people out there that are 62 and don't have as big an income," she said.

Other accomplishments Abruscato lists are starting the holiday Festival of Lights, Taste of Wheeling and Fourth of July fireworks. She helped get bulletproof vests for police officers and worked on a program to reimburse businesses for improving their building facades. And she enjoys a great relationship with the Korean Cultural Center.

Abruscato's husband of 52 years died during her re-election campaign this year, and she said the last month of his life was pretty hard for her. Before that, she could do her work knowing he was well cared for and had many visitors.

Abruscato declined to comment on why she believes she lost the election, but she appreciates the calls and flowers she's received since.

Many of the people she met while in office were public officials -- including President Barack Obama, Sen. Richard Durbin and former Congressmen John Porter and Robert Dold. Through her son, Tony, president of the Chicago Flower and Garden Show, Abruscato met former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and his late wife, Maggie.

"He's very congenial, she said. "He has that nice smile on his face all the time."

Abruscato loves to talk about Wheeling's fire and police departments, new businesses in town and the 6 percent vacancy rate in the industrial park. She praises Wheeling High School and the park district, saying they contribute much to the village's quality of life.

Her disappointments include the refusal of the village board to raise property taxes a bit each year, predicting it eventually will result in a large increase.

"Wheeling is a good place to live with a lot to offer," she said. "I like the people. It's large but still small enough. Like anything else, you only get out of it what you put into it. If you're not going to put anything into it, quit complaining."

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