Don Earley, 'Godfather' of West Chicago parks, remembered for life of public service
Don Earley was known as "The Godfather" of the West Chicago Park District, but his public service extended well beyond his pivotal role in creating the parks system.
Earley, who died Thursday at age 89, also served 12 years as a West Chicago alderman and a dozen more as the city's treasurer -- until he successfully lobbied for the post's elimination.
His efforts to help create the park district remain his enduring legacy.
"He wanted to make sure everyone had the ability to enjoy themselves in open space," said park district board President Frank Lenertz.
Earley's campaign began when he moved to West Chicago from St. Charles, where he taught mathematics in St. Charles School District 303.
"When they moved here, there wasn't a park district, and so he (said), 'We need one. We deserve one,'" said Courtney Voelz, Earley's granddaughter and a current park district commissioner. "That's when he started getting people together."
In 1972, Earley headed a committee called Better Recreation for West Chicago that created a stand-alone park district. At the time, the city had just one park, said Earley's stepson and former park board Commissioner Don Voelz.
"There wasn't a whole heck of a lot to do," he added.
While later serving as city treasurer, it was Earley who approached the mayor and advocated of the job's elimination to save taxpayers money, Don Voelz said.
He said Earley also was approached about running for mayor.
"He said, 'Yes I will run for mayor. However, if I run for mayor, my wife will not be there when I get home,'" Voelz said. "That put an end to that discussion forever."
Courtney Voelz said she inadvertently was responsible for the "Godfather" nickname when she referred to Earley and former Mayor Mike Kwasman as the "We-Go Mafia."
City and parks leaders gathered in November for a ceremony to rename Easton Park as Don Earley Park in his honor.
"He genuinely didn't expect it," Courtney Voelz said. "He was like, 'I thought maybe I would get a street sign.'"
Earley was a die-hard fan of the Chicago White Sox and the Chicago Bears, and also enjoyed fishing and hunting trips to Arkansas, often bringing his dog, Max.
He was devoted to his family, which included both children and stepchildren.
"He was a good, loving person," Don Voelz said. "I don't even consider him a stepfather. He was my dad,"
Earley's passed down his interest in politics to two generations of park commissioners.
"Just from growing up listening to my dad and my grandpa, I always knew eventually I would get into politics," Courtney Voelz said.
A funeral Mass will be held at 10 a.m. Monday, at St. Mary's Church, 164 N. Oakwood Ave., West Chicago. To attend, register on St. Mary's website, stmarywc.org. Interment will follow at Calvary Cemetery in West Chicago. Contributions may be made in Earley's memory to the West Chicago Food Bank or VITAS Healthcare in Lombard.