Atheist, activist and aviator: remembering Rob Sherman

 
 
Updated 12/12/2016 7:30 PM
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  • Rob Sherman

    Rob Sherman

  • Rob Sherman poses in a Zenith airplane in this undated Facebook photo. Sherman ran a Zenith plane kit construction business.

    Rob Sherman poses in a Zenith airplane in this undated Facebook photo. Sherman ran a Zenith plane kit construction business. Photo from RobSherman.com

  • The wreckage of the plane crash that killed pilot and famous atheist Rob Sherman.

    The wreckage of the plane crash that killed pilot and famous atheist Rob Sherman. Courtesy of Paulette Bodnar

  • Rob Sherman and his then-8-year-old daughter, Dawn, hold a news conference outside a Schaumburg store to protest the selling of floor mats with American flag symbolism on them.

      Rob Sherman and his then-8-year-old daughter, Dawn, hold a news conference outside a Schaumburg store to protest the selling of floor mats with American flag symbolism on them. Gilbert Boucher | Staff Photographer, 2002

McHenry County authorities confirmed Monday that Robert I. Sherman -- the famous and controversial atheist, activist, aviator and occasional political candidate -- died when his plane crashed into a field near Marengo over the weekend.

He was the pilot and only person on board.

Sherman, 63, a father of two and a 32-year resident of Buffalo Grove, died of multiple injuries from the crash, according to McHenry County Coroner Anne Majewski.

Sherman had just moved over the summer with his wife, Celeste, to a home with an airplane hangar in Poplar Grove, west of McHenry, where he was setting up an airplane construction business.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board returned to the crash scene Monday to try to pinpoint the exact time of the crash, believed to be either late Friday night or early Saturday morning. A preliminary report is expected either late this week or some time next week.

The plane, a Zenair CH601, crashed under unknown circumstances, FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said.

That plane has models hobbyists can build themselves, but the bright orange plane involved in the crash was built by the manufacturer, said Bob Meyers, a board member of the Schaumburg-based Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 153. Sherman also was a board member of that chapter.

"That plane, lots of people build it, and lots of people fly it," Meyers said.

Meyers speculates Sherman could have been flying from Poplar Grove to Schaumburg Airport, where the Experimental Aircraft Association was having its Christmas party Friday evening. Sherman's wife was at the party, Meyers said.

"I didn't see him there, and it was unusual for her to be there by herself," he said. "I assumed he was going to meet her."

In a 1995 Daily Herald interview, Sherman called life after death "a fantasy."

"People want to believe there is a life after death," he said. "They don't want to believe that when you die, it's over. One of the more unfortunate aspects about religion is they teach people the party begins after you die. Atheists know that the party is now, and after you die, it's over. A lot of people waste their life waiting for the party to begin."

Sherman burst onto the public scene on April 1, 1986, when he challenged Zion's right to display a Christian cross on a public water tower paid for by tax dollars. A life of activism followed.

His brash style often irritated critics and even supporters. Sherman sometimes referred to Christians as "Constitution-hating Christers," made jokes about God, used a coin with his likeness and the words "In Rob We Trust," and sported a "God is make-believe" bumper sticker. The Ku Klux Klan arrived in uniform to protest Sherman's atheist quest in Zion. But Sherman succeeded with that mission and he challenged many other suburbs -- and towns nationwide -- over religious symbols on public property, municipal seals or vehicle stickers.

Wauconda, facing Sherman's threat to sue, removed holiday season lighted crosses from its water towers in 1989, prompting many residents to put lighted crosses on their own property. Palatine and Rolling Meadows removed crosses from their municipal seals. Kane County covered up crosses when it bought a former seminary building.

Sherman sued and lost over an Illinois law that required a moment of silence at the beginning of the school day.

"I was taught that if you see a wrong, you right it," he said in a 1986 Daily Herald interview. "Very few things get me angry, but I hate apathy."

Sherman fought for more than separation of church and state. In Batavia, Sherman spoke against a plan to charge students d to attend full-day kindergarten in public schools, pointing out the state constitution guaranteed children a free public education.

Recently, he objected to a proposal to extend Route 53 in Lake County, saying tolls would be too high, speeds would be too low, and an idea to finance it partly with tolls on existing Route 53 was unfair. The extension is in limbo because of a funding gap.

"I think of him, in the best sense of the word, as a gadfly," said Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberty Union of Illinois. "He started conversations that are uncomfortable to have but are necessary. He was comfortable being in a minority, even a minority of one, and that is really critical in raising issues that others won't."

Sherman, who compared himself to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. and once referred to himself as "the Jesse Jackson of atheists," occasionally enlisted his son and daughter in his battles against religious programs in schools and Scouts.

The Buffalo Grove Police Explorers withdrew from the national Boy Scouts after the organization refused to approve Sherman's son's membership application, which had crossed out the parts about promising to practice his religion faithfully.

Sherman ran a few times, unsuccessfully, for public office. He lost the Buffalo Grove village clerk race in a landslide in 2011 and was the Green Party candidate this fall for the 5th Congressional District. Sherman recently announced his intention to run for Congress' 12th District downstate in 2018.

He often confronted critics who told him to find a better use for his time by noting that he served as a longtime volunteer with American Red Cross and frequently stepped in after fires and floods.

"Although we didn't agree on many issues, especially regarding his nonreligious beliefs, he always presented himself as a gentleman," remembers former Buffalo Grove mayor, state representative and current Lake County Board member Sid Mathias. "He'd tell me, 'I'm praying for you to win,' and I'd say, 'To whom?'"

Born into a Jewish family, Sherman left the faith shortly after his bar mitzvah. His parents took him to see their rabbi and a psychiatrist. As a young man, he worked as a teacher, at a bank, on a Good Humor truck, and as an office manager for the French consulate.

In recent years, he started a company, Rob Sherman Airplanes, that built kit aircraft. The business had a giant trailer with a photo of Sherman on it -- which he referred to as "The Sherminator" -- that was often seen around the suburbs.

Sherman had been with the Experimental Aircraft Association chapter for three years.

"He was really into airplanes and looking to be better educated about it. He was a thoroughly engaged member. He certainly asked lots of questions at lots of meetings when we had people there to talk about how to do things," Meyers said. "Most of our members are people who are trying be better aviators, and I would put him in that category."

Before he took up aviation, Sherman hosted a radio show and wrote a blog. He had been a national spokesman for American Atheists and even appearing on an episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

"When people have religious symbols on their private property or on their person, that's terrific," he said in a 1986 Daily Herald interview. "I only draw the line when government officials select one religion to endorse."

In 1998, Sherman was convicted of misdemeanor battery after slapping his then-teenage son. Sherman defended himself in court, refused to admit fault and spent time in jail for not following through on orders to complete his domestic violence counseling.

Despite differences, Sherman often expressed his love for his wife of 37 years and their kids, Rick and Dawn. His website includes photos of the four of them on a river cruise in 2010.

"I challenge those injustices that nobody else is taking on," Sherman wrote on robsherman.com, "most prominently, but not limited to, the civil rights of atheists, state/church separation and the need for lap/shoulder seat belts on school buses."

Sherman was certified as a sport pilot. Sport pilot licenses allow operation of light, single-engine aircraft and have certain restrictions that include not flying after dark, keeping away from busy airspace, and not landing at large and medium-sized airports, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

To qualify as a sport pilot, Sherman had a third-class medical certificate, FAA records show. A third-class medical certificate requires an applicant be in good health but has less stringent standards than those for a commercial pilot.

• Daily Herald staff writers Susan Sarkauskas and Marni Pyke and Metro Editor Lisa Friedman Miner contributed to this report.

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