'A legend of Mount Prospect': Blind roller derby champion Sammy Skobel dies at 92

 
 
Updated 6/11/2018 5:38 PM
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  • Sammy Skobel in his "Hot Dogs Plus" restaurant, formerly on the northwest corner of Busse Avenue and Main Street in downtown Mount Prospect. Skobel died Saturday at 92.

    Sammy Skobel in his "Hot Dogs Plus" restaurant, formerly on the northwest corner of Busse Avenue and Main Street in downtown Mount Prospect. Skobel died Saturday at 92. Courtesy of the Mount Prospect Historical Society

  • Despite being legally blind from the time he was 5 years old, Sammy Skobel thrived as a professional roller derby player for 20 years. After his retirement from the game, he moved to Mount Prospect and opened a restaurant.

    Despite being legally blind from the time he was 5 years old, Sammy Skobel thrived as a professional roller derby player for 20 years. After his retirement from the game, he moved to Mount Prospect and opened a restaurant. Courtesy of Stephen Skobel

  • Sammy Skobel with his family on the night he retired from the roller derby.

    Sammy Skobel with his family on the night he retired from the roller derby. Courtesy of Stephen Skobel

  • Sammy Skobel

    Sammy Skobel

Sammy Skobel lost his eyesight in the beginning of his life. At the end, it was his memory.

Yet neither setback stopped him from seizing on a life of love and family, roller derby and hot dogs, beating the odds and empowering the blind.

Skobel, known to Northwest suburban residents as the founder of the now closed Hot Dogs Plus in downtown Mount Prospect, died Saturday nearly five years after doctors diagnosed him with Alzheimer's disease. He was 92.

"He was a firm believer that one's limitations should never dictate their outcome in life," said his son, Stephen Skobel.

When he was 5 years old, scarlet fever caused Skobel to become legally blind. He was entirely blind by the end of his life. Still, he enjoyed athletics growing up on Maxwell Street in Chicago, just blocks from the Chicago Coliseum.

It was at the coliseum that he first watched the roller derby as a teenager, a sport he would master later in life. In high school, however, he was a track star, earning scholarship offers from three colleges. But when the coaches learned that Skobel was blind, each offer was rescinded.

"Nowadays, they would probably give him a better scholarship," Stephen Skobel said.

Breaking into the professional roller derby would prove difficult, too.

As the story goes, Skobel had earned a spot on a roller derby team and was using a magnifying glass to read the final paperwork in a telephone booth when an executive of the team saw him struggling to see. It was the first of several teams that would deny him a spot because of his vision.

Eventually, he earned a spot on team in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but only after he first served as an equipment manager, cleaning the skates for team members. The coaches saw him skating before and after practice and decided to give him a shot, Stephen Skobel said.

He turned the opportunity into a 20-year career in a sport where athletes were treated as celebrities. Skobel would go onto win world championships and most-valuable-player awards, and set a world record for the fastest mile on roller skates. He met singer Tony Bennett, actress Debbie Reynolds and President Jimmy Carter, to name a few.

And he met his future wife, Acrivie, at a dance. She remembers that Skobel was tired and sat down throughout the night, until he asked her to dance during the final song. They married three months later in 1952. The couple had two sons: Sam Jr. and Stephen.

After retiring from roller derby, Skobel opened Hot Dogs Plus in 1967. The restaurant provided first jobs for many local high school students. He sold the restaurant in 1987.

In 1970, the Skobels established the American Blind Skiing Foundation, which helped hundreds of blind skiers learn independence. Skobel also talked to children at local schools about the power of believing in their dreams.

"Because of his own personal story, he focused on physical disabilities, but he would also speak with minorities and girls," Stephen Skobel said.

On Monday, Acrivie Skobel reminisced on their 66-year marriage. Their first date immediately after the dance, when he ate oatmeal and applesauce at the coffee shop. The times he called her at work and sang songs over the phone. The final months, when his memory faded and she played music on the radio.

She remembers one day in particular when she started music for Skobel and walked into the kitchen. From the other room, she could hear her husband singing along to Billy Eckstine's version of "I Apologize," a hit song when the couple first met.

"He was an amazing man," she said. "He was a legend of Mount Prospect."

Friends are invited to celebrate Skobel's life from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday at Mount Prospect's Brick City Tavern, 34 S. Main St. -- the site of the original Sammy Skobel's Hot Dogs Plus.

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