Violence prevention cause hits home for Naperville's Ribfest planner

  • Sandy Rocush and Pete Paulsen have worked together to plan the Exchange Club of Naperville's Ribfest, which opened Wednesday for its "Last Nights at Knoch" and continues through Saturday. The two friends are working to help the festival raise money for charities that fight child abuse and domestic violence after Paulsen's sister was shot by her husband, who then took his own life.

    Sandy Rocush and Pete Paulsen have worked together to plan the Exchange Club of Naperville's Ribfest, which opened Wednesday for its "Last Nights at Knoch" and continues through Saturday. The two friends are working to help the festival raise money for charities that fight child abuse and domestic violence after Paulsen's sister was shot by her husband, who then took his own life. Courtesy of Pete Paulsen

 
 
Updated 7/3/2019 12:22 PM

When the gunshots came, Pete Paulsen was elsewhere, busy planning a major festival in Naperville and working as an electrical design engineer.

But from the moment his sister was shot by her husband, Paulsen became not a festival director or an engineer, but a brother.

 

It was a drop-everything emergency when Janet Paulsen nearly died from her wounds before beginning a challenging recovery. And it was a moment when a cause already important to many in Pete Paulsen's circle became personal.

Paulsen, who at the time his sister was shot in November 2015 was one of the leaders of the Naperville Jaycees' Last Fling, already was being courted to plan the city's even bigger festival, the Exchange Club of Naperville's Ribfest. Ribfest raises money to support charities that work to end child abuse and domestic violence.

His sister's shooting put Paulsen, now 40, on a path to become a co-chairman of Ribfest, a title he holds this year. Along with his friend Sandy Rocush, Paulsen has planned the 32nd annual event, dubbed the "Last Nights at Knoch" because the festival must move next year to a new location.

"That was my deciding factor," Paulsen said about the family tragedy, in which his brother-in-law took his own life. "I want to go run Ribfest for an organization that does things for kids and the prevention of domestic violence."

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At the time, Janet had been married 15 years and she and her husband were raising twin 13-year-old sons, her brother said.

"They were going through some hard times with their relationship, but they were trying to work it out," Paulsen said. "And for lack of a better term, he just snapped."

When Paulsen's sister returned home one day with groceries in the car, her husband emerged, shooting, Paulsen said. Bullets struck her sternum, abdomen, back, spine and legs.

"I boogied down to Atlanta where my sister lived to go take care to her and her family, all while still running the Last Fling," Paulsen said. "It was a lot to handle."

He stayed there for two and a half months, given the green light by his employers in the Witz family at Continental Electrical Construction Company in Oak Brook.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

When he returned, he had a new appreciation for the strain on families in distress and the importance of finding help. Paulsen said he advises people to be aware of signs that someone's ability to cope is dangerously declining.

"Now that I've seen it, I have a full understanding of when someone is about to crack because of stress or family issues or something like that," he said. "I always try to look at things in that perspective."

Planning Ribfest this year, Paulsen said, has been a way to ensure charities that work to prevent domestic violence are supported.

He points to Project HELP, a nonprofit started by the Exchange Club, as one organization focused on providing parent mentorship, education and resources to strengthen families.

Paulsen also values the work of counseling agencies that historically receive Ribfest funds, such as Evangelical Child and Family Agency, 360 Youth Services, and SamaraCare. He said his nephews received counseling after the shooting and they're now 16-year-olds who are doing well.

His sister, meanwhile, uses a wheelchair but is able to walk for short periods with the help of arm crutches.

"It's been a long road to recovery for her," he said. "But she's a very strong woman and she's definitely persevering."

In his role as Ribfest co-chairman, Paulsen said he's also a spokesman against a long-held misconception that he said clouds the charitable mission of the fest: people think it's run by the city

"When they tell me that, I always tell them, 'No, it's a charity. This is for kids. It's for prevention of domestic violence,'" Paulsen said. "We're trying to raise money to bring awareness to all of this and help people through their problems and get them better."

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