Naperville Mayor A. George Pradel sits in the conference room where he oversees liquor commission meetings and listens to a woman talk about her son's military service.
"I'm George, from the nursing home," he says by way of introduction, but she doesn't seem to notice.
If you goIf you go
What: Small Business of the Year Awards and Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony
When: 6 to 10 p.m. Friday, May 30
Where: Bolingbrook Golf Club, 2001 Rodeo Drive, Bolingbrook
Who: Sponsored by Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce
Details: Naperville Mayor A. George Pradel will be honored with the chamber's Lifetime Achievement Award
Info: naperville.net or (630) 355-4141
Another visitor left Pradel's conference room seconds earlier, but he doesn't take a break. He just listens. His gray eyes focused, he's attentive and pensive.
His last year as mayor has begun.
On Pradel's mind is his wife, Pat, and her fight against bone cancer; his pride in what the city has accomplished during his time at its helm; and his plans to make his last year in office something of a "thank you" tour, uniting the city council and showering with gratitude all the people who have helped him in the process.
On Pradel's to-do list are writing a speech and making a video. He's receiving an award Friday, and he has to be prepared. The Lifetime Achievement Award from the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce will be his in honor of his 29 years on the Naperville police force as "Officer Friendly" and his nearly 20 years as the city's top elected leader.
It all makes Pradel feel "thrilled," but almost like he, personally, shouldn't be in the limelight.
"I'm excited about it, but I think there's a lot more people that deserve it than I do," Pradel says in the same second-floor conference room, overlooking the city's prized Riverwalk, which he has stewarded with funding and shepherded with appointments of qualified leaders.
Pradel, 76, says he's proud not so much of what he has accomplished in Naperville, but of what he and the businesses and charities, students, parents and leaders of the city have accomplished together.
"It's really not about me," he says. "It's about this whole city."
And then he realizes it is about him, in a way.
"I've touched a lot of lives in these almost 50 years," he says.
Indeed he has. Council members, former mayoral opponents, neighbors, business owners, lawyers, Riverwalk leaders, city employees, generations of Naperville children and, of course, Pradel's own family all count themselves among those whose lives have been touched and improved by his presence.
"Everyone loves George," says Bev Patterson Frier, herself a recipient of the chamber's Lifetime Achievement Award, a longtime Naperville resident and twice a neighbor of Pradel's. "George loves everyone and everyone loves George."
So as he steps to the podium Friday to receive his award, Pradel says he wants the people of Naperville to know how much he appreciates them.
"What makes me feel good inside is to see somebody else doing good things," Pradel says. "It always warms my heart whenever it's from Naperville."
Some have called Pradel a "born leader," a natural "cheerleader" for Naperville, the best ambassador a city could have. He's also a bit of a jokester, hence the "I'm George from the nursing home" introduction, and he's not afraid to don a costume and become Santa Claus.
"He's the No. 1 cheerleader. He has integrity, that's his personality," Frier says. "Some people couldn't to it, some people wouldn't like to do it. But George is a people person. He's had so many things to be proud of."
Pradel owns the cheerleader image with the booming yet sing-songy speaking voice he uses to perk up crowds at ribbon-cuttings and fundraisers. He considers his public positivity a gift, one of many that have helped him promote service, safety and sacrifice on behalf of Naperville these last 49 years.
"It's a gift to be a cheerleader," Pradel says. "I think people have come to realize that I am the mayor, but I'm just a regular guy as far as saying we're going to do it all together."
A lifetime of service
The chamber's Lifetime Achievement Award is presented each year based on service, President and CEO Nicki Anderson says. Whoever has been involved in a positive way, served or inspired others to service can be considered. Pradel, the almost lifelong Naperville resident and Marine Corps veteran turned upbeat police officer and unlikely but longtime mayor, was an obvious choice.
"Everything he's done has always been service-oriented. He wasn't just an officer, he immersed himself into the community and his focus was really kids. His goal was to make sure kids felt they were in a community that was safe and they trusted the police," Anderson says.
"When he went from being a police officer to serving as mayor, once again, he was in a position of service."
As mayor, Pradel has presided over a period of growth in Naperville, when its population boomed from roughly 85,000 people to 145,000.
He's often said he appreciates the city's retention of its small-town roots despite an influx of new subdivisions and fresh residents. He remembers attending Naperville High School before it became Naperville Central, and he remembers the days when Eagle Street was just a small footbridge over the west branch of the DuPage River, when young people would wash their cars on the river's bank, letting suds float away in the trickling current.
His secretary, Emy Trotz, says Pradel has kept at least one small-town relic in the way he runs his office in the state's fifth-largest city: the open-door policy.
"He's available if a resident wants to come in and talk to him. He's here for them," Trotz says. "He wants to always be there to help whatever the situation might be. Naperville, after his family, is No. 1 in his life, and he truly loves the city."
The door might be closed only if Pradel is elsewhere. Which happens a lot.
Anderson says Pradel always has made an extra effort to be available for ribbon-cuttings at new businesses. If he truly can't make it, the chamber will reschedule -- because everyone wants him there.
"He made the mayor's position more than anyone else has ever made the mayor's position because he's been so involved in everything," says Cliff Preston, who served as chairman of the Riverwalk Commission for 10 years, some of them under Pradel.
Helping children and food pantries or cheering participants at walks to raise funds for multiple sclerosis treatments, youth mentoring or animal shelters are just a few of Pradel's frequent charitable activities.
But ask him his personal favorite causes and he'll point to heart health and anything related to cancer. These are the issues that have hit home most -- heart health, personally, as Pradel has experienced heart problems and first underwent open-heart surgery in 1993; and cancer for his better half, as Pradel's wife Pat is battling bone cancer after a previous bout with breast cancer.
"His personality is to sell Naperville and he always did that no matter what was going on in his personal life," says longtime city council member Doug Krause, who twice ran against Pradel for the seat as Naperville mayor. "No one will ever be like George. He's one of a kind."
A town of safety
Pradel's other pet cause is safety. Combine that with his passion for children and it turns out Pradel considers the establishment of Naperville's Safety Town his proudest accomplishment.
His daughter, Carol, said Safety Town started as her father was preparing to retire from the police department. The who's who of business owners in town asked what he wanted as a gift, and he said he wanted a permanent location to continue his "Officer Friendly" tradition of teaching kids water safety, stranger danger, railroad safety and rules of the road.
"He didn't want anything for himself for retirement," Carol says. "He wanted something for the kids."
It took years of fundraising led by Naperville Junior Woman's Club members, but in 1996, Safety Town opened on Aurora Avenue, east of the police station, saving the hassle of setting up and tearing down the miniature village each summer.
The train caboose inside Safety Town is one of a handful of things named for Pradel, including the "Officer Friendly" sculpture on Washington Street, A. George Pradel Park on the southwest side of town, Pradel Drive near the Harmony Grove and Saddle Creek subdivisions west of Book Road, and the George Pradel bobbleheads, created and sold for charity in 2004.
"I was privileged to be a cop and then to start Safety Town," Pradel says. "I really think that our police reach out to young people and try to encourage them to do good things."
'Joy' of sacrifice
All this time serving Naperville as a community-minded cop or an everything-to-everyone mayor left less time than Pradel would like for his family, which includes wife Pat and daughter Carol, along with sons George and Gary.
"It's really my mom who has held this family together because my dad has made Naperville his No. 1 priority," Carol says.
Still, Pradel's family members have made him who he is. His parents taught him early on the importance of giving, saying "you get a lot further in this world if you put others first," he says. And they gave him his name, Arthur.
He changed it after graduating high school, when his mail was getting mixed up with letters for his father, also named Arthur. Longtime neighbors like Frier had been calling him George or "Georgie" anyway, so the name change stuck.
Rebecca Obarski, a Naperville attorney who helped run Pradel's re-election campaigns in 2007 and 2011 with the theme "Our mayor, your friend," says Pradel's servant-mayor approach has helped during trying political times.
"His perspective on being there to serve and to bring out the best in Naperville was valuable," Obarski says. "He really has given his lifetime to making Naperville a great place to live."
Pradel reminds council members to "agree to disagree without being disagreeable" when they start heated debates about topics such as pay and benefits for future elected officials. He stays silent and keeps order at many council meetings, but chimes in when he thinks a voice of reason is needed.
When he does, his focus remains on fostering a Naperville where, "we can raise our families and live in a well-managed city with jobs, great schools, modern medical facilities and great transportation for everyone."
It sounds a bit like a new Pledge of Allegiance, which would be fitting, because Pradel has made his allegiances clear. To Naperville and to family he has dedicated a lifetime, and chamber of commerce leaders think that's something worth celebrating.
They'll do so Friday with a ceremony during the Small Business of the Year Awards at Bolingbrook Golf Club.
"I'm just hoping my dear wife will be able to be there. The joy of it is that my family has supported me all the way along, so they deserve all the praise," Pradel says. "The people of Naperville have supported me, they deserve all the praise for a lifetime award, not me -- I just accept it for them."
When the award ceremony ends, the qualities that have made Pradel who he is -- a suburban icon, a Naperville mainstay, a genuine man recognized for his integrity -- will remain. And the tour of gratitude that will be Pradel's last year in office will continue.
"I'll be thanking the people that have believed in me," Pradel says, "and saying 'Keep up the good work and make Naperville shine for years to come.'"