For Hank Salemi, life atop Great America and Six Flags was a big, fun ride
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The theme park industry has taken a hit with the death Sunday of Charles "Hank" Salemi, president of Six Flags Great America in Gurnee.
Industry colleagues, roller coaster afficionados, tourism and local officials were reeling from the loss of Salemi, who led Great America with flair.
"No words can adequately describe Hank's passion and commitment to the park and his team during his time as park president," marketing and sales director John Krajnak said in a statement.
"Hank was a mentor, leader, and friend whose impact on Six Flags Great America, the theme park industry, and the community will have a lasting legacy," he said.
As marketing director for Great America from 1997 to 2000, Salemi introduced "Raging Bull," the world's first hyper-twister roller coaster and the park's longest, tallest and fastest at the time.
He then served as Six Flags' chief marketing officer, overseeing 40 parks worldwide. In 2006, Salemi returned to Great America as president until his death.
He was responsible for finance, sales and marketing, maintenance, operations, in-park revenue and human resources/safety activities for Great America and Hurricane Harbor facilities in Chicago and Rockford.
Great America is one of the largest parks in the Six Flags system. A number of its most innovative attractions in the company and industry were introduced during his tenure, the company said.
Among them were "Goliath," which broke three world records for wooden coasters at its debut in 2014. The most recent addition is Maxx Force, the park's 17th roller coaster, which boasts the fastest acceleration for a coaster in North America.
"We are still trying to process the devastating news about Hank's death," said Maureen Riedy, president of the Visit Lake County tourism organization.
"Hank was a longtime passionate presence in the community and highly respected on a local, national and international level," she said.
Former Gurnee Mayor Kristina Kovarik took office in 2005 and worked with Salemi for 16 years until she opted not to run for reelection. In many ways, Gurnee was synonymous with Great America.
"Hank was a wonderful community partner," she said. "... He was always someone who was just nice to work with. You can't say that about a lot of people."
Salemi connected with people, remembering names and talking about employees like they were family, Kovarik said. He opened the park many times for charitable events and was committed to the park and community, she said.
"He never took an attitude like, 'I'm Six Flags, I'm the big employer,'" Kovarik said.
Others who knew him said Salemi had a good sense of humor and wasn't afraid to poke fun at himself.
Riedy said Salemi was a mentor and friend to many. Dozens of improvements he oversaw enhanced Great America's prominence as a top tourism attraction in Illinois and contributed to Lake County's stature as a popular destination for visitors, she said.