Heun: A look back at 2023’s top stories in the Tri-Cities

Maybe it’s a leap of faith to believe readers enjoy looking back at the people and places featured in “Talk of the Town” the past year, but we’re stuck in that mode anyway.

So, here I am again providing a summary of the past year, which stood out for me because it marked the 20th year in which “Talk of the Town” has appeared. It’s at least somewhat impressive (in my own mind) because when Herald editors first asked if I would like to do it, I was working a full-time job writing about medical equipment.

I wrote newspaper columns for many years previously but never while working another unrelated job. So, I said yes even though I wasn’t sure I could do it for more than a year or two. And you’re still stuck with me.

And 2023 again proved there was no shortage of people to meet and places to check out. Here are a few:

That flowing river

The year started with a column informing readers about the St. Charles Active River Project, an ambitious vision for the Fox River in which tourism and family attractions, easier access to the riverfront from downtown areas and any other number of improvements stood out.

The Fox River Corridor Foundation took the lead on this one in cooperation with government entities and a boatload of volunteers. But talk of dam removal along the Fox River put the project on hold as the fate of the St. Charles dam had a lot to do with what would happen next regarding river flow and depth.

It's still a significant consideration, as evidenced by a race against time of sorts, as the cities along the Fox eventually have to respond to the Army Corps of Engineers’ recommendation for removal of nine dams.

The River Corridor group is hosting a presentation by Scott Shipley from 7 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 17, at the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles about alternative approaches to river engineering. Shipley and his S2O Design group have played a key role in designing the Active River Project concept plans. Planners are hoping for a big crowd at the Arcada that night.

A pleasant surprise

Grace McWayne Elementary School first-grade teacher Chad Clarey was pleasantly surprised when he earned the Volunteer of the Year award at Marklund Hyde Center in Geneva.

Many students and clients were on hand for the surprise announcement at the center, where Marklund’s developmentally disabled students have benefited from Clarey’s years of thoughtful help and interaction from students in his classes and those at Marklund.

  Fox Valley Hands of Hope's home base in Geneva was updated to reflect the nonprofit organization's new focus on grief counseling and mental health services. Brian Hill/

For better health

• Fox Valley Hands of Hope opened its remodeled facility on the east side of Geneva, but it was more than just a physical makeover.

The agency changed its mission to grief counseling rather than its previous role as an end-of-life care center.

Jeff and Aleida Vokeny of Geneva go through rehabilitation at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital after both had heart surgery. Courtesy of Northwestern Medicine

• In March, we told the amazing story of a life-saving effort with a major twist of fate. Jeff Vokeny of Geneva had revived his wife, Aleida, with CPR when she had suffered a massive heart attack at their home. Aleida then underwent successful heart surgery.

Jeff had been feeling his own chest discomfort even before he saved his wife, and the incident forced him to go see a doctor. At his checkup, he learned he also needed heart surgery — and quickly.

What could have been a disaster for Aleida or Jeff turned into a life-saving series of events that could easily be a TV public service segment about heart health.

  Betty McKeown, 98, of Elgin walks three miles a day at the Centre of Elgin recreational center. “She's got one of the most positive attitudes of anyone I have ever known,” her stepdaughter Colleen McKeown said. Brian Hill/

• In April, the good health news kept rolling — or walking — along after we had an inspiring chat with 98-year-old Betty McKeown of Elgin.

She was walking three miles a day at the Centre of Elgin, citing her daily routine as a key to better mental and physical health. She was active and around new friends regularly.

What made it more interesting than other amazing senior citizens who still follow great health habits, McKeown kept at it even after being hit by a car when walking outdoors near her neighborhood.

A woman was backing out of her driveway and knocked down McKeown, who was fine and said she actually felt worse for the lady who was so shook up.

In any case, it didn’t stop her from walking. She just moved her activity indoors.

Getting the words out

Chris Cudworth of North Aurora and his latest book, “Honest to Goodness ... Why Christianity needs a reality check and how to make it happen.” Courtesy of Chris Cudworth

• During the spring, three local journalists I have known for many years — Sammi King, Chris Cudworth and Kurt Wehrmeister — all had books published around the same time.

The books covered all of the bases. King wrote a humorous book about motherhood, Cudworth examined the complicated layers of Christianity, and Wehrmeister penned a children’s book that touched on life’s cycle in a thoughtful, caring way.

Chris Kempf of Algonquin paddles through Nippersink Lake, as he joined his daughter, Jenni, on a 10-day trip in September down the entire 202-mile Fox River. The trip is highlighted in a new short film, “Watershed Warriors.” Courtesy of Jenni Kempf

• Friends of the Fox River got its message across about the importance of cleaning the river of trash, plastic and other debris in a new film titled “Watershed Warriors.”

The film highlighted the organization’s work in keeping the river clean and thriving.

• In one of the more interesting concepts when it comes to recognizing students in our local high schools, the Tri-Cities Exchange Club again honored students who have overcome physical, mental or family challenges to reach their school goals.

The ACE Awards, or Accepting the Challenge of Excellence, honor two students from each of the high schools in the Tri-Cities area, including Mooseheart.

The slide has been removed and it can no longer be climbed, but the iconic ‘rocket ship’ structure in Kehoe Park, St. Charles, has been repainted and will remain. Courtesy of Dave Heun

For love of the rocket

It’s officially called Kehoe Park on the St. Charles Park District roster, but it’s mostly known as “Rocket Ship Park.”

And the popular west-side park at Howard and Prairie streets welcomed area residents to new features, a project that included keeping the beloved original Rocket Ship climbing ladder in place, but just for history and nostalgia.

Newer, safer equipment was featured throughout the park. Many people played there as kids, took their own kids and now bring grandkids. It was a story that tugged at many heart strings.

A tornado watcher

After experiencing a tornado in Geneva as a youngster, Brian Smith figured he wouldn’t mind spending the rest of his life learning about this force of nature.

The 1976 graduate of Geneva High School did so for the National Weather Service for 35 years out of Omaha, Nebraska, sending initial warnings about extreme weather across the country.

He was also instrumental in creating the popular tornado seminars at Fermilab with WGN weatherman Tom Skilling.

Wiffle Ball reunion

After 44 years, it was apparent the kids and their families who lived along Fourth Street in St. Charles had not forgotten about a series of Wiffle ball games they had played against the local newspaper team.

I organized those newspaper teams and we engaged in some memorable battles each summer in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Kane County judge Clint Hull was one of those young kids and he organized a reunion at his home. Getting together with these fellows was fun — and a highlight of the summer. Especially when we went out in Hull’s yard and knocked around a Wiffle ball.

Vietnam veteran Duane Buttell of St. Charles, at left, is shown with his daughter Beth Spiegel and son Chad during his recent Honor Flight experience. Courtesy of Duane Buttell

An honor for veteran and family

Duane Buttell of St. Charles was part of the Honor Flight group in August that made the trip to visit the Washington, D.C., war memorials.

Buttell, an Air Force 1st lieutenant who flew more than 150 battle missions in the Vietnam War, enjoyed the trip with daughter Beth Spiegel and son Chad Buttell, who went as a trip guardian for Bill Toth, also of St. Charles.

Buttell summed it up well when saying the trip represented “the emotions of 57 years.”

Jeff Orland, 82, cuts the hair of Herb Knight, 95. Orland is the owner of Avenue Two Barber Shop in St. Charles, which he opened in 1969. Courtesy of Dave Heun

The real St. Charles

A visit to Avenue Two Barber Shop in downtown St. Charles would most often result in a haircut, but I was simply hanging around with Jeff Orland as he reminisced about his 54 years as owner of the shop.

It was a trip down memory lane for the 82-year-old Orland, but also for me in hearing about his start in Batavia, his years of cutting hair at the Hotel Baker, and then opening his own shop.

One of his customers summed up Avenue Two quite well in saying, “This is really St. Charles.”

Some super service

After attending the birthday party of former St. Charles Mayor Sue Klinkhamer at Salerno’s on the Fox in St. Charles, I had to write something about how excellent the staff was at the popular pizza/Italian food eatery.

It was also good to catch up with owner Joe Salerno, who has kept the restaurant going strong since the passing of his father, Adam, who opened the place in 1975.

Geneva lawyer Pat Crimmins returned to his alma mater of St. Charles East to coach the school’s mock trial team, after doing that as a volunteer mentor at St. Charles North for 22 years. Courtesy of Dave Heun

With a bit of nostalgia

• Late in the year, Geneva lawyer Pat Crimmins returned to his alma mater of St. Charles East to coach the school’s mock trial team, after doing that as a volunteer mentor at St. Charles North for 22 years.

He had initially coached at East along with his former teacher and mentor, Ray Rogina.

• With Batavia and Geneva doing so well in the prep football playoffs, it was a good time to reminisce about how long-gone WGSB radio covered all of the local prep sports for many years.

I first met sportscaster Brian Henry when he had me on the air during halftime of a prep game in 1978 — and we’ve been friends ever since.

By the way, the quarterbacks in that game were quite notable. Randy Wright was a junior for St. Charles and went on to be considered one of the best this area has ever seen. For Geneva, Pete Temple was a sophomore making his first varsity start. He went on to have a great career at the helm of some powerful Vikings teams.

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