Constable: Gurnee school hero stepping down after 25 years
Called a "linchpin" at the school district where she works, Phyllis Martin never makes headlines. But she knows things.
"She's the hero behind the scenes who keeps all the district's operations running smoothly and on time," says Joy Swoboda, superintendent of Woodland Elementary District 50 in Gurnee, one of the largest in the state. Swoboda compares Martin to the fictional character Radar, the all-knowing company clerk in the TV show "M*A*S*H" who calmly kept track of everything going on amid the chaos.
That ends now as Martin, 60, who finished her last school board meeting Thursday night, retires after 25 years. Her official title is "the administrative assistant to the superintendent and the board of education," but Martin doesn't mind if you call her a secretary. She likes to make things simple. In her six decades, she's had only two telephone numbers, two addresses and one husband, Chuck, who works in maintenance at the Woodland Intermediate School.
A 1975 graduate of Libertyville High School, Martin has put together extensive information packets for school board meetings, where academics with doctorate degrees, elected school board officials, angry parents and concerned taxpayers might not agree on the issues but can feel good about dealing with Martin, Swoboda says.
"Phyllis has this gentle way about her," the superintendent says. Martin no doubt picked up some of those people skills and her work ethic as the youngest of five daughters born to Bill and Joyce Mincks in Libertyville. "He drove a truck in the day, came home for dinner every night and then would go to his second job," Martin says of her dad, who did mechanic work at local gas stations and also worked as a custodian at Libertyville High School.
The Mincks lived on Garfield Avenue, at the bottom of a hill. Her future husband, a year older, lived way, way up the hill, maybe a dozen houses away, so she didn't know him growing up. She'd walk to school and playgrounds and buy a snack from Dan the Popcorn Man or penny candy from the patient clerk at the Royal Blue store. Libertyville had a small-town feel.
"My mother would say, 'If you do something wrong, I'll know about it before you get home,'" says Martin, who played violin, performed gymnastics and was a cheerleader before she gave up those activities to work. As a girl she baby-sat the three children of Bruce and Darlene Rouse a decade before the couple's spectacular 1980 murders by shotgun while they were sleeping. That crime went unsolved until their younger son, Billy Rouse, who was 15 on the night of the slayings, confessed. He was convicted in 1996 and went to prison. Martin worked at Rudolph's Drive-In after school and in summers. She worked in the kitchen at Winchester House, the county nursing home in Libertyville. She worked as a bank teller in Mundelein after graduating from high school.
She met her husband in 1976 at the hospital. A guy she once dated was recovering from a serious auto accident. His hospital roommate, hurt in a dirt bike crash, was a good friend of Chuck Martin's. She rejected Martin's attempts to give her a ride home and turned him down when he asked her out.
"I hid my car behind the house in the grass so he wouldn't know I was home," she says. Noticing the Mincks were painting the inside of their house, Martin volunteered to help. "He painted our ceiling," she says. Because of that, she told him she'd go out with him on one date. They clicked, married in 1978 and bought a house in Wildwood, where they still live. Their son, Brian, works for a credit card company and is a champion sky diver. Their daughter, Gail, works in advertising. When her daughter went to kindergarten in 1992, Martin took a part-time job in the copy room at Woodland Intermediate School in the morning and added the same part-time job at the middle school in the afternoons.
"It was in the corner of the gym in an old locker room," Martin says, noting that the intermediate school now is Elementary East School. When Martin started, enrollment in the district was 3,253. It ballooned to more than 6,500 and now is just more that 5,600. Martin's commute was under four minutes until the school district office moved, so now it might take her seven minutes. Her work day started at 7:30 a.m.
"But I come at 7. It's quiet here in the morning. I get a lot done in that half-hour," Martin says, noting she'll miss her co-workers more than her work. "I just do my job. I do my work on time, as best I can."