The brilliant white bulbs blanketing the "Tommy Tree" towering above this Mount Prospect block will light in stages tonight to make sure the surge doesn't blow a fuse. The outpouring of love in this neighborhood doesn't have such worries. It's shining full blast all year long.
"It's like Norman Rockwell out there," says Rosemary Hinkemeyer. She is talking about tonight's annual block party that starts around the "Tommy Tree" and includes Christmas carols and food.
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But considering she and her husband, Larry, have lived on the block since 1967, Hinkemeyer could be referencing the wholesome American neighborhood scenes that also spring up on Fourth of July, at the annual cookie exchange, the poetry readings and whenever the neighbors on this 200 block of South Pine Street need each other.
Sprouted from tragedy, the "Tommy Tree" has grown into a symbol of just how tight these neighbors have become. The tree wouldn't exist without the neighbors. A plaque, which was brought inside years ago when the tree grew over it, reads, "The 'Tommy Tree' in memory of Tommy McGovern, Jan. 26, 1975-Dec. 1, 1991, with love, from the Pine St. neighbors, 5-7-92."
Grieving parents, Tom and Renae McGovern, and Tommy's younger sister, Megan, used a collection from their neighbors to pay a nursery $208.13 to plant the small pine tree in their front yard on the parents' 20th wedding anniversary, five months after Tommy's death. Since Tommy liked the Bill Cosby cartoon featuring "Fat Albert," the family thought it fitting to plant a squatty, 3-foot-tall "Fat Albert" spruce in the front yard of their home at the corner of Pine Street and Evergreen Avenue. Rev. Charles T. Rubey, a Catholic priest and family friend, said a few words on that spring day as dozens of neighbors gathered around the tree.
"This block is very tight. They were most gracious and kind to us in our grief," Renae McGovern says.
"The morning it happened, there was just a crowd of them around our house," recalls Tom McGovern. "They didn't ring the doorbell. They just kind of came in and took over."
The neighborhood already had that communal spirit when the McGoverns moved onto the block in 1976.
"When I moved in, I was the young man," says Tom McGovern, who is now 79. He remembers characters such as "Old Alice," who would enjoy her cigarette and coffee as she sat on her porch and watched over the neighborhood.
"Now, we're the porch-sitters," says Roberta Edmonson, who moved onto the block in 1976. She chuckles and gets a table full of neighbors laughing as she retells the story about the time her family went on vacation, left their gerbils with the McGovern kids, and the pets somehow got loose and chewed a hole through Tommy's raincoat. Everyone knows all the kids on the block.
"He (Tommy) came and shoveled my drive one day," remembers Carol Tortorello, who moved onto the block in 1961. "He did it without being asked."
A junior at Prospect High School, the 6-foot-4 boy with the gentle disposition was on the wrestling team for a bit. His father remembers how touching it was when a senior teammate slipped his wrestling letter into Tommy's casket.
For the first decade after Tommy's death, the McGoverns decorated and lit the "Tommy Tree" at Christmastime. When it grew too tall to reach without a cherry-picker, the neighbors began another tradition, with each house on both sides of the street displaying luminarias and a lit Christmas tree in their yard. Everyone celebrates Christmas, and many are members of the St. Raymond Catholic Church community.
On Dec. 1, 2011, the McGoverns hired Care of Trees to light the "Tommy Tree," which now is taller than their two-story home.
"Tommy was just a boy when he died shortly before Christmas that dreadful year," his mother wrote in a letter inviting neighbors to share in the tree lighting on the 20th anniversary of her son's death. The lighting ceremony has become just another special neighborhood event. People pack shoulder-to-shoulder around the tree, as Lorelei McDermott, a cantor at St. Raymond who moved onto the block in 1989, leads the neighbors in singing Christmas carols. She sang at Tommy's funeral.
"We all take care of each other," says Sue Lello, who moved onto the block two years before McDermott.
When someone moves into the neighborhood, they are given a list, compiled by keeper Alison Burdick, which includes names, phone numbers, email addresses and birthdays of everyone of the block.
"We were handed this legacy," McDermott says, noting the neighborhood spirit has been passed from elders to parents to kids, some of whom move back as parents on their way to becoming elders.
"We're teaching them how to do it, how to be a block," Renae McGovern says. "Is this like Mayberry or what?"
In that classic TV show starring Andy Griffith, everybody knew and cared about their neighbors. Residents of the 200 block of South Pine Street note they even threw a retirement party for their letter carrier, "Fast Eddie," who didn't get to spend as much time on the block with the neighbors as he probably would have wanted.
"We're not just neighbors," Tom McGovern says. "We're friends."
When those friends gather tonight, the spirit of Tommy will be part of the celebration.
"When the lights are on, it is like Tommy is here," says Renae McGovern, who also knows what it is like at the end of the Christmas season, when the lights come down. "As sections go off, it's like he is saying goodbye."