It’s easy to talk about transforming our region. But actually doing something to change the world – that’s the hard part. Meet 25 individuals who have made their mark through positive actions, both big and small. Some act in an official role; others simply follow their passions. They contribute a diversity of experiences, many job titles and dedication to serving the community. Through their tireless actions, these leaders have inspired a positive outlook on our region.
Click a name to read about a specific individual, or begin scrolling.
Jay Sandine, Assistant Executive Director, Rockford Park District
Jay Sandine quite literally grew up in the world of parks and recreation. His family lived inside Shabbona Lake State Park, where his father was park superintendent and helped to foster strong communities. Sandine’s grandfather held a similar role as the first superintendent at Rock Cut State Park.
As Rockford Park District’s assistant executive director, Sandine now emulates the dedication he saw in his two role models.
“I have fond memories of watching my dad,” says Sandine. “Every single day, he could not wait to go to work because he saw it as a way of life. Now, I’m in the business of serving and helping others to better their lives, and that’s a pretty cool thing.”
Sandine celebrated 20 years of working at the park district this January, five months after he was named assistant executive director. He now oversees the day-to-day operations of the entire park district and works with a passionate team of employees, partners and volunteers.
Residents have initiated some of his favorite projects, such as new pickleball courts, dog parks and the West Rock Wake Park. These often become the most successful and popular attractions.
“I love getting that phone call from someone with an idea,” he says. “The park district really belongs to the public, not those who run it, so we’re here to make it what you want it to be.”
Sandine serves as a board member for Crusader Community Health and the Harkins Community Memorial Fund. He’s also a team member in Transform Rockford. Such positions are a natural extension of his drive to serve others.
“My father had an unexpected heart attack when I was 18, and that’s a tough age to lose your dad,” Sandine says. “I started at the Rockford Park District a year after that. It not only has a culture very similar to my upbringing, but it also has amazing team members who inspire me on a daily basis. I just fell in love with it. The past 20 years have gone by very, very fast.” -SS
Kerry Frank, Co-Founder & CEO, Comply365
For Kerry Frank, entrepreneurship and faith go hand-in-hand. It takes a lot of trust and perseverance to push an innovative idea through rejection to success – especially to start a digital workplace software company like Comply365.
“As a woman leading a software company, which I don’t have a background in, I was laughed out of every boardroom you can imagine,” says Frank, CEO. “Most people didn’t take me very seriously. But I really just refused to quit.”
In 2007, Frank and husband Dude, Chief Technology Officer, founded Comply365 in the basement of their Roscoe, Ill., home. The company offers digital and mobilized optimization solutions for businesses. Most notably, Comply365 has led the transformation of the aviation industry’s paper-based manuals and forms into simplified automated mobile technologies.
“As we started to solve that first problem for aviation, they started to give us more and more ideas of what else we could do to automate,” says Frank. “Today, we own 90 percent of the U.S. commercial aviation market. We have 750,000 users in six countries around the world, spanning multiple industries.” The company is now headquartered in Beloit, Wis.
As a child, Frank traveled the world with her missionary parents. The experience exposed her to the impoverished and inspired her to start her own company. When Frank moved back to the U.S. at age 11, she was determined to help others. Now she’s poised to build a billion-dollar software company. Comply365 maintains 13 software products. In 2014, it gained a $12 million investment from Drive Capital, an Ohio-based venture capital firm.
“Our culture with our clients is a huge competitive advantage for us because many clients are part of our story,” says Frank. “Some of them took a chance on us when we were a small company, so they want us to succeed. We now have a nice head start in leading the digital workplace. ”
After moving more than 30 times in her life, Frank finally feels rooted, with the family and company she’s created. -SS
Bridget French, Executive Director, Alignment Rockford
It wasn’t until Bridget French moved back to the Rockford area that she developed a passion for community volunteerism.
“I have a sixth grader and a kindergartener, both in Rockford Public Schools,” French says. “When my oldest son was in kindergarten, I wanted to get more involved in our public school system.”
French took first steps by volunteering with Alignment Rockford after its inception in 2009. The nonprofit organization seeks to align community resources in support of public school strategies, in an effort to raise student achievement, improve the health and happiness of children, and advance Rockford’s economic and social well-being. The organization does this through a network of connections among district staff and community members who can support the strategic work of schools.
French became executive director in 2014 and quickly used her background in marketing and public relations to advance the organization. In 2015, she helped win grants totaling more than $150,000 to create pilot programs that prepare students for college and the workforce.
One such pilot in January 2015 enabled high school sophomores to visit 75 businesses, civic groups and community organizations. A follow-up survey showed that 94 percent of students felt more informed about their career paths after the visits, while 97 percent of teachers saw relevant connections to student coursework. Organizations said they’d host students again.
French hopes to continue targeting college and career readiness, while also addressing early childhood education.
“I think that prior to Alignment Rockford, the community didn’t know how to help,” French says. “There wasn’t a clear connection between the community and the school district. Alignment Rockford provides a systematic way to make those connections and ensures we’re making the most of our volunteers’ goodwill, time and talents to help the students in our district.” -LG
Dr. Neelu Puri, Lung Cancer Principal Investigator, U of I College of Medicine at Rockford
For the past 13 years, Dr. Neelu Puri has made it her mission to help eradicate lung cancer. She’s spent the past eight years at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford, where she now works 12 to 14 hours a day to help save lives from this silent disease.
“I was taken aback by the number of people dying,” Puri says. “Stage Four lung cancer is basically a death sentence; there’s only a 2- to 5-percent five-year survival rate. Early detection is effective; the five-year survival rate of someone with Stage One lung cancer is 75 percent. So, I felt this cancer was important to investigate.”
Winnebago County has a particularly high lung cancer mortality rate – something Puri attributes to late clinical diagnosis. In 2014, the county had 203 deaths out of 245 cases of lung cancer. Puri conducts public seminars to raise awareness of lung cancer screening guidelines recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In accordance with these guidelines, qualified Winnebago County residents are eligible for screenings at area hospitals. Through a grant from the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois, Puri and her team have conducted 301 screenings since August 2015 and detected nine cases of lung cancer.
At the college, Puri studies the biology of lung cancer and the effectiveness of various drugs and combination drugs.
“It’s a multi-plan approach,” Puri says. “We’re working in all directions.”
Puri is cultivating the next generation of scientists by training current and future doctors. She wants young minds to be capable of moving her cause forward.
“This is a day-and-night mission,” Puri says. “We really need to work hard. Thanks to the collaboration of local hospitals, the college, students and doctors, we’ve been able to come together to save people.” -LG
Steve Ehlbeck, Chairman, Jane Addams & Pecatonica, Prairie Trail Commissions
Tutty’s Crossing in downtown Freeport is on track to being a key juncture for bicyclists and hikers traveling from Rockford to Madison, Wis. This crossing is the point where the 29.5-mile Pecatonica Prairie Trail is expected to someday connect with the 17-mile Jane Addams Trail, which joins Wisconsin’s Badger Trail.
Steve Ehlbeck has played a pivotal role. He is Freeport Park District’s superintendent of parks and has been chairman of the Jane Addams Trail Commission since 1999 and chairman of the Pecatonica Prairie Trail Commission since 2007.
“I’ve been on every inch of the Jane Addams Trail, from the pre-construction days when we’d cross the 21 bridges without any ties or decking – just steering pickups along the 16-inch-wide bridge beams,” he recalls. “The spring flowers just south of Scioto Mills (Ill.), the old Blue Room in Scioto, and the long bridge at Buena Vista (Ill.) are just a few of my special spots.”
Ehlbeck says travelers along U.S. Route 20 don’t know what they’re missing a little off the roadway.
“After years just buzzing along Route 20 between Freeport and Rockford, it becomes an adventure getting a glimpse behind the scene, seeing what you’ll find just around the bend,” he says.
What really excites Ehlbeck are the connections found along the trail.
“Trails connect people, both in building the trail and in being out on the trails taking advantage of the enjoyment they offer,” Ehlbeck says. “Trails bring people and communities together – for recreation and for events to celebrate local heritage. Trails preserve beautiful natural corridors and make them available for public access – a unique thread linking our communities. Neither of these two trails would ever happen without the support and hands-on involvement of people in the communities they serve – citizen-driven, with public agency coordination.” -EH
Justin Fern, President, Urban Equity Properties
Justin Fern’s hard work and honed business sense have delivered success where others have failed.
His Urban Equity Properties (UEP) owns and manages nearly 800,000 square feet of residential, retail and office space – primarily historical properties around Rockford’s urban core. This year alone, nearly one-fourth of the company’s holdings are under construction.
“This isn’t just a career. This isn’t just me building a company. This is my passion,” says Fern. “Old, architecturally significant buildings are really what drive us. We can see these buildings as a diamond in the rough.”
Always a bit entrepreneurial, Fern became a landlord at age 19 when he bought a two-flat in South Beloit, Ill. Six months later, he bought another property, and then another, each time with a long-range view on buying and holding.
Fern launched UEP in 2008, an opportune time to snatch up properties. To date, UEP has acquired staples including the Chase Bank building, the Talcott Building, and Metropolitan Hall; it’s currently transforming Seventh Street properties and the Rockford Trust Building.
This year, Fern expects to bring to market 100 new residential loft apartments and 30,000 square feet of retail space. These renewed places are especially appealing to 20- and 30-somethings, members of the millennial generation eager to embrace an urban lifestyle.
“They want to rent, and what they want to rent is something unique,” says Fern.
The urban developer takes pride in finishing projects on time and on budget, even when a project calls for a complete gutting. He goes the distance to transform eyesores into economic engines.
“Once you’re in, you’re in,” he says. “There’s no option for failure.” -CL
Beverly Garcia, Oil Painter
It wasn’t until Beverly Garcia was in her 50s that she discovered a love for painting. As a nurse-turned-homemaker, Garcia had dabbled in crochet, needlepoint and cross-stitch while raising four sons with her husband, Dr. Heriberto Garcia, in Deerfield, Ill. Something clicked when a friend invited her to tole painting classes at the Studio in the Woods, in Wauconda, Ill.
“I found it exciting to be able to re-create something that you saw in a new and beautiful way,” says Garcia. “Art became a whole new avenue for me.”
Through continuous classes and workshops, Garcia found her stride in oil portraits, still life images and tranquil landscapes from her cross-country travels. When her husband died in 2002, Garcia moved to Grand Detour, Ill., and started a new chapter as a full-time artist.
“I always wanted to move to a small town because I grew up in one in Nebraska,” she says. “My father died when I was 2 years old and my family lived off of county welfare and the generosity of our neighbors. So, right after the major tsunami in Japan, I felt like it was my time to give back.”
In Garcia’s new life, art became her charity. For the past six years, she has organized her own art sale events and donated the proceeds to local nonprofits, including KSB Hospital in Dixon, Ill., the Mississippi Palisades, and Lee County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). In 2013, the Art in the Gardens event on Garcia’s 2-acre property raised $8,660 for the Sinnissippi Foundation and attracted about 200 people.
Now 81 years old, Garcia is holding her first “One Woman Show” at The Next Picture Show gallery in Dixon, Ill. Twenty-five percent of the proceeds benefit the nonprofit art gallery.
“We all have different chapters in life as we go along,” Garcia says. “I’m living in a completely different way than I have before. And who knows what’s coming up? But I’ll still be painting.” -SS
Mike Schablaske, Executive Director, Transform Rockford
Mike Schablaske has called Rockford home for the past 30 years, an experience that gives him both credibility and insight as he helps to lead a positive transformation of Rockford and its surrounding region.
Schablaske was tapped to lead Transform Rockford by Tom Gendron, the CEO of Woodward Inc. and a key founder of the nonprofit organization.
Transform Rockford strives to improve the social and economic well-being of Rockford by creating and overseeing a strategic plan for its improvement. Launched in 2013, the project aims to make Rockford a top 25 community by 2025.
As the Transform movement unfolds, Schablaske sees many positive results. For one thing, there’s improved interconnectivity among individuals, families and employers as a result of constant networking.
Making the most of homegrown resources in Rockford is important. For example, the Transform Rockford process works to develop education and work opportunities that produce a talent pool of young people right in the region, decreasing the need for companies to attract workers from other places.
“It’s important to develop talent, to show our residents and employers great opportunities, to make successful and sustainable sourcing from the inside,” Schablaske says.
He and the team behind Transform Rockford work diligently to make our region’s communities more aware of the true scope of opportunity available here.
“It’s a matter of asking where we go first in getting people aligned to achieve these opportunities,” Schablaske says. “We have to get people on a shared agenda and objectives.”
Though the project is still in its beginning phases, Schablaske is impressed by the regional input received so far. The vision of Transform Rockford continues to blossom. -RM
Dr. Robert Head, President, Rockford University
Dr. Robert Head has set some lofty goals for Rockford University. His vision, laid out in a four-point, five-year strategy, promises to put this 169-year-old institution on a firm foundation as a choice destination for students, faculty and staff in the greater Rockford area.
As he prepares to retire this June, Head continues his eight-year mission of making Rockford University a positive force in the region and beyond.
“The continued success of Rockford University means that generations of students to come will realize a high-quality education that prepares them to be productive global citizens,” Head says. “Our graduates will bolster the workforce and provide engaged citizens who will continue to serve nonprofit boards, hold political leadership positions and so much more.”
Since assuming leadership of the university in 2008, Head has pushed to improve Rockford University’s reputation with its hometown. Through several initiatives, he’s helped the university to provide $2 million in financial aid to Rockford residents, created a tuition-free program for area residents who have been unemployed for 18 months or longer, created leadership programs with UTC Aerospace Systems and Rockford Public Schools, and coordinated volunteer activities for students and staff.
“Rockford University has created programs to assist the community in so many areas,” Head says. “We recognize that our partnership with the community is multi-faceted.”
Head is proud of the university’s service to its hometown.
“The communities we serve have a higher quality of life as they benefit from the cultural experiences created by our performing arts programs and lectures from world-renowned speakers and experts,” he says. “Those of us who devote our efforts to Rockford University recognize that, at the core, our efforts support a mission to prepare students to become productive citizens.” -EH
Brian Doering, Orchestra & Choir Director, East High School
Brian Doering has always had a passion for music. He first picked up the violin at age 3; by age 10 he was traveling the world with a choir. As a homeschooled child, Doering found that music was a vehicle to make friends and discover the world.
“Music is something that everybody can do to some capacity, or at least enjoy,” Doering says. “It’s an avenue to build a community.”
Doering’s passion became his profession when he accepted a teaching job at Rockford East High School four years ago. He leads three choirs, a string orchestra and two classes on guitar.
But he wanted students to have more individualized attention. Two years ago, Doering began holding Saturday morning “open gym” sessions at East. All middle school, high school and homeschooled students in Rockford are welcome to attend.
“String lessons can be very expensive,” Doering says. “I just saw a need for more experiences. And it can be hard to give individualized help in a large class. So, basically, we invite students to come on the weekends and work on skill development with their instruments.”
Doering encourages students to lead groups, work on technique and find enjoyment in their music. His goal is to help students take ownership of their work, build leadership skills and learn to work independently.
Doering believes if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.
“I support these kids as musicians, as athletes, as students, and I hope they learn that whatever they get into, they need to strive to be their best,” Doering says. “Instilling a desire for excellence is the ultimate goal. They may not want to be violin players and singers, but they have to be good citizens. And I think that’s been the largest impact.” -LG
Beth Baker Simeone, Author, “The Art of Oregon”
It all began with a stolen painting from the public library in Oregon, Ill.
When someone made off with that William Wendt canvas in the early 1990s, there was no true catalog of the dozens of paintings and sculptures on display in an upstairs gallery.
Beth Baker Simeone knew the collection had a story to tell. The former library board member decided to act when a Sorolla portrait in the collection was loaned to an international traveling exhibit. At first, she just intended to catalog the works.
“I discovered the story was much larger than just that collection of paintings and sculptures in the library,” says Simeone. “The art colony founded by Lorado Taft and friends in 1898 spread its influence out into the Oregon community over decades. It was much broader and deeper and I decided it wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t tell the story now.”
From the stories passed down by her mother and grandmother, and from her volunteer work at the local historical society, Simeone knew about many sources connected with the art colony, including Taft, local art patrons, poet Margaret Fuller, and a collection of public artwork.
Simeone’s two-year journey took her through old photos, letters, books and contacts with faraway descendants. Along the way, she uncovered stories about the colony’s only black artist, famous Chicago visitors, local contributors and little-known John Prasuhn, chief engineer of Taft’s so-called “Blackhawk” statue.
Pre-orders are now being accepted for “The Art of Oregon,” Simeone’s volunteer historical account of more than 100 pieces of Oregon art. Full-color photography and design were donated by Bob and Colleen Logsdon of Grand Detour. Proceeds benefit the library gallery.
“It’s far more than art and sculpture that are in the library gallery,” Simeone says. “It’s history.” -CL
Erick Williams, Adult Services Program Manager, Community Action of Beloit
Erick Williams knows how to overcome rough circumstances and become a model citizen. In his youth, Williams struggled with substance abuse and was incarcerated.
“It’s not about the fall; it’s about what you do after the fall,” Williams says. “I threw myself into helping people and that’s who I am now. I know if a person is given adequate support and guidance, the sky is the limit to what they can do.”
In 2011, Williams joined Community Action Inc. of Rock and Walworth Co. to help struggling fathers find employment through The Fatherhood Initiative Program. The three-month program teaches computer skills, interviewing techniques and resume-building skills to help young men become gainfully employed.
The program also helps men adjust to a structured lifestyle by emphasizing attendance and a positive attitude.
“We take for granted that people know behaviors, beliefs, principals and morals from their parents,” Williams says. “Most of these gentlemen were fatherless – most of these gentlemen have all kinds of barriers and trauma in their lives. Eighty percent of them have been incarcerated.
“If we can teach these men to become independent, that’s fewer kids growing up fatherless.”
To date, 356 men have completed the program. Of the 36 graduates in 2014, 83 percent immediately obtained employment; some went back to school. Only 12 percent of graduates have had subsequent criminal offenses.
Because it costs taxpayers about $35,000 a year to jail just one person, Williams believes it’s imperative to continue building contributing members of society.
“I just believe in people,” Williams says. “I believe if they’re focused and have the proper support, anything is possible. Again, look at me. Is it easy? It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had in my life. But it’s the most rewarding.” -LG
David Anderson, Spring Creek Partners, Anderson Japanese Gardens
David Anderson is all about making tasks manageable.
He applies that tactic both in business and service work, as he builds on the world-class reputation of Anderson Japanese Gardens, which his father, John Anderson, built in 1978. David took over in 2011.
Assuming that leadership was a daunting task. The younger Anderson wanted to make the attraction appeal to a broader audience, especially to locals who’d never visited. Attendance has increased over the past five years, thanks in part to the summertime music series Tuesday Evening in the Gardens.
Away from the Gardens, community development is a major priority for Anderson, who’s also a board member of the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. He’s proud to see how events such as the holiday Stroll on State and the downtown Forest City Beautiful effort have boosted the region. “I think you need to celebrate the small wins along the way,” he says.
Anderson nearly missed out on making his mark in Rockford. He never intended to return after graduating from Boylan High School and Denison University in Ohio. But he did, in 1989, when he started working for the family business, which now includes real estate development and investment management.
Anderson has also served as a board member for The Literacy Council and spent 11 years on the board of YMCA of Rock River Valley, including a stint as chairman just as new President/CEO Mike Brown was hired. Anderson’s father also was involved with the YMCA.
David’s wife, Colleen, is an active community volunteer and his co-chair of the Rockford Health Gala this year. The couple works to instill the value of service in their children: Cameron, 7, Adelynn, 6, Keegan, 4, and Brooks, 3.
“If you want your community to move in the right direction, you have to be part of the movement,” Anderson says. -MW
Sarah Wolf, Executive Director, Discovery Center Museum
Sarah Wolf was a member of both the Junior League of Rockford and the Rockford Area Arts Council when she served on the committee tasked with developing a hands-on museum for area youngsters.
The result: Discovery Center Museum, co-founded in 1981 by the two organizations. Wolf was hired as the first director in 1985. Over the past 30 years, she’s played an integral role in creating what’s now a nationally recognized children’s museum.
“Seeing children experience something new is a joy every day,” says Wolf. “It’s refreshing to inspire creativity in children. I love when parents and grandparents play with their children here. It’s one of those ‘Oooh’ and ‘Ahhh’ moments.”
Wolf and her team have focused on partnering with community organizations, obtaining grants, joining with local museums and supporting programs like Head Start, a federally funded preschool program for children from low-income families.
In its early days, Discovery Center exploded from 6,000 visitors per year to nearly 21,000 by 1986. In 1991, the museum moved into its permanent home at 711 N. Main St., Rockford. I t joined with neighboring Burpee Museum of Natural History to build a shared traveling exhibition space that opened in 2010.
Now, with more than 250,000 visitors every year, Discovery Center offers more than 250 hands-on exhibits and an outdoor exhibit called the Rock River Discovery Park. It’s an important part of the mission, Wolf says, because children need a safe environment in which to play outdoors.
“I love working with so many staff members and volunteers, all of whom share the mission,” she says. “I’m proud of the way the museum has grown into a museum of distinction and recognition as one of the top 10 museums in the country. We really want to be an integral part of the community and provide a quality experience.” -RM
David Rydell, Chairman, Bergstrom Inc.
There’s no question about David Rydell’s loyalty to Rockford. He’s lived here his entire life, invested deeply in the city, and spent all of his working years growing the company his father helped to build. For more than 50 years, Rydell and Bergstrom Inc. have given back to their hometown in many ways.
Rydell’s compassion is a major influence in the work culture at Bergstrom, an international manufacturer of climate-control systems for commercial vehicles. Employees at all levels are encouraged to join nonprofits. Additionally, the Bergstrom Foundation supports charitable causes.
A firm believer in empowering others, Rydell has done much to nurture his employees. In the 1990s, he helped to launch a “mastery” program that rewards personal and professional development. Employees on this rigorous track become highly specialized in fields such as product assembly, material handling and quality. Nearly 60 percent of hourly employees in the Rockford plant are mastery certified.
“Our hourly employees are educated on the business and the client base,” says Rydell. “I believe they’re probably more attuned to the quality systems that are needed to assure a great product for our client base.”
Rydell knows that Rockford’s future impacts the well-being of companies like his. As a steering committee member of Transform Rockford, Rydell is setting a model for the city’s strategic vision of self-improvement. Nearly a dozen Bergstrom employees are members of the organization. By year’s end, the company expects to have contributed nearly 6,000 hours to the effort.
“Our products are sold around the country and the world, but we have to attract people to Rockford,” says Rydell.
“Bad publicity can have a negative effect on bringing people here. We want this to be a better place for a Bergstrom employee to live.” -CL
Estelle Black, Library field leader, volunteer & mentor
Giving back to the community is a must for Estelle Black. The lifelong Rockford resident, now 84, is still going strong as president of the Women’s Missionary Society at Allen Chapel AME Church, commitee member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. and member of Taus Service Club – but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Today, Black holds a long list of achievements spanning decades of community service, mentorship and professional leadership in the library field. A founding member of Rock Valley College Library and assistant executive director of Rockford Public Library for 19 years, Black simultaneously raised a family of four and participated in numerous nonprofits and community organizations to better the city she loves.
“I got it from my parents; they both were true volunteers,” says Black. “All of us need to volunteer, because that’s what really makes our community a place that people want to come back to. I have been to just about every part of the country through the work I’ve done, and I always like coming back to Rockford.”
Through various roles, Black has touched the state and national American Library Association, Rockford Women’s Network, the Visiting Nurses Board, the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois and the League of Women Voters, to name a few.
It’s also Black’s knack for mentoring that makes her an example for other community servants. After more than 30 years of friendship and guidance from Black, LoRayne Logan, now president of Workplace Inc. in Rockford, dedicated Rock Valley College’s library to her mentor, with a financial contribution to the college in 2007.
“These relationships are just natural to me, because I really want to give away whatever I have,” says Black. “I think God put us here to be examples and to do things that are helpful to those around us, so that’s what I love to do.” -SS
Debbie DeMars, Broker, Dickerson & Nieman Realtors
Debbie DeMars has played a role in the Rockton/Roscoe, Ill., area’s population boom. For 41 years, she’s helped clients here and around the Rockford area to buy and sell homes. She loves her work.
“I have this saying that realtors don’t retire, they die,” she says, laughing. “We’ve got an agent in our office who’s 80 or 81, and if he gets a call from a friend to list a house, he’s out there listing it. I’m going to be the same way. As long as I can drive and think and see, I’m going to sell real estate.”
Fresh out of high school in the 1970s, DeMars found a job as a secretary for a real estate firm. At her second job, with another agency, DeMars discovered her passion.
“I thought, if these agents can sell real estate, I can sell real estate,” she says. “I just felt like I could do what they were doing.”
She earned her license and at age 21 landed a job with the firm of Marian Schwab, Rockford’s first woman Realtor. In 1979, DeMars and her husband moved to the Rockton area, which was still a quiet rural community.
“And then this area took off, and all the business was here,” she says. “You meet people in school that have kids the same age as yours, and that generates more friends and business.”
In the mid-1980s, DeMars’ location helped her to land a job with Bob Nieman’s real estate firm in Rockford. About 12 years later, the firm merged with Dickerson Realtors to become Dickerson & Nieman Realtors.
Positive signs are emerging in the Rockton/Roscoe real estate market. First-time buyers are appearing, and DeMars is seeing homes sell within just a few days. When sales or clients get difficult, she keeps up a positive attitude.
“You have to be like a duck and let the water go over you; you just keep going on,” she says. “The market’s always changing and the agents are always changing. It keeps me young.” -CL
Dan Cataldi, Executive Director, NIU EIGERlab
Dan Cataldi spent the first six years of his career in big corporations, for whom he downsized and laid off workers. Cataldi has flipped the tables in the decades since, by becoming an empowering force for Rockford’s entrepreneurs.
He arrived at the EIGERlab business incubator in 2005 as a consultant and business coach for small and mid-sized firms. Guiding their growth, Cataldi shared his knowledge from 30 years of building executive search agencies, fending off corporate raiders, launching a business and streamlining client operations.
Cataldi became director of EIGERlab in 2010 and began forging new partnerships around the region. For the next five years, EIGERlab would mentor hundreds of businesses, including foundlings like B/E Aerospace and Accelerated Machine Design.
“I still get my biggest kicks out of the success stories, the individuals who send thank-you notes, who say, ‘Hey, without you I don’t know where we would have gone,’” says Cataldi.
Northern Illinois University acquired EIGERlab in 2015 and has breathed new vitality into the organization. Now based in two locations, the organization maintains the Launch Pad coworking office space and the Center for Product Design, where 3-D printers are building rapid prototypes. With NIU, Cataldi has a new platform to ignite innovation and adoption of technology – especially in manufacturing.
“It’s sometimes my job to throw the grenade and say, ‘This is coming, and you need to embrace this,’” he says.
Where is Rockford’s next big idea? Cataldi sees potential in enterprising young adults.
“Entrepreneurs and inventors are what Rockford is built on,” he says. “That’s how we got here. It was the Atwoods and the Colemans leading the way. Rockford has entrepreneurship and innovation in its DNA. I want to go back to a point where we’re embracing and celebrating that.” -CL
Anne Meyer, Native plant propagator
Anne Meyer fell in love with woodland plants at a time when most people still mistook them for weeds. In 1971, she took over her family’s business, Ender’s Greenhouse, in Cherry Valley, Ill., and jumped into the world of horticulture.
“I started taking seminars in Chicago, and I just decided I could learn to do this right,” says Meyer. “I liked taking the woodland wildflowers from my own yard to the greenhouse, and that’s when I realized a lot of people didn’t know what they were. So I became interested in growing other native plants.”
Meyer began promoting her native species, but for many years they remained a niche offering. She was often told that Ender’s was the only greenhouse selling native plants, and she often drew customers from as far away as Chicago. In 1994, she became a charter member of the Wild Ones Rock River Valley Chapter, a group promoting the use of prairie, woodland and wetland native plants. She’s still active in the group.
“These plants are being destroyed all around our area, despite their positive impact on the ecosystem,” she says. “Without these species, bees, butterflies and other animals can’t survive. And these plants, like hydrangeas and columbines, are so beautiful.”
That passion took her outside the confines of her greenhouse. In the late 1990s, Meyer began volunteering to plant native species in community spaces. With the help of Boy Scout troops and other volunteers, she’s led several successful projects, including 30,000 plants donated to Immanuel Lutheran Church and School in Belvidere and more than 180,000 plants donated to the Natural Land Institute in Rockford. Although she sold the greenhouse in 2000, Meyer is still actively planting wildflowers, installing many along the recreation path at Midway Village Museum.
“It’s rewarding to work with such wonderful people, especially children,” says Meyer. “Some customers from the greenhouse are still helping me. It just keeps growing.” -SS
Matt Langholf, Volunteer, Rockford Rescue Mission
After FedEx delivery driver Matt Langholf was involved in a car wreck in 2012, his family thought he’d remain unconscious. With no witnesses, it’s unclear exactly what happened. What is known is that Langholf’s FedEx sprinter van folded around his head, leaving him with a traumatic brain injury.
Langholf woke up after spending three weeks in a coma. He was left with low energy levels that now make it difficult to speak on the phone or stand for long periods of time. He also struggles to realize the passage of time. He couldn’t continue his job.
“I was diagnosed with ataxia, which is basically a lack of coordination that gets worse with fatigue,” says Langholf. “I spent the next year in a series of hospitals.”
About two years ago, Langholf began volunteering at the Rockford Rescue Mission, a nonprofit center in Rockford that helps to lift people out of poverty. The Mission offers a variety of services, including a full-service food pantry, vocational training and a thrift store. The mission helps homeless and low-income people to learn life skills while also meeting their immediate needs, like food and shelter.
“I think it’s important what we do at the Mission, mainly because of the mental state that men and women come to the mission in,” says Langholf. “Most were addicted to drugs or alcohol, or a host of other issues. Using what I’ve learned through my recovery, I’m able to help them understand that the Rescue Mission is an opportunity from Jesus.”
Langholf volunteers twice a week at the Mission, teaching math and computer skills in the Innovative Education Center. He believes Rockford needs places like the Mission to help others escape negative choices and start living for a higher purpose.
“I started at the Rescue Mission primarily to just get moving again,” Langholf says. “Now, I feel like I’m on the forefront of the change that is happening to this city.” -CS
John Wolf, Sales manager, Jack Wolf Cadillac-GMC
The shelf of awards at John Wolf’s office includes a plaque that’s bound to make you smile. Or scream – for ice cream.
It’s the “Big Dipper” award, complete with ice cream scoop, to honor the years John spent volunteering for the Boone County Historical Museum’s annual ice cream social. Next to the scoop is the 2013 Doctor of Civic Betterment Award from the Belvidere Area Chamber of Commerce.
“One thing that both the car and family/retail business have allowed me to do in Belvidere is volunteer, and I love to be active,” Wolf says.
The Wolf name is synonymous with business and philanthropy in Boone County. John’s grandfather, C.J. “Doc” Wolf, opened Wolf Chevrolet in 1924. His father, Bill, joined the family dealership after college and Army service; John joined after college. The dealership closed in August 2013, a casualty of the General Motors bankruptcy and the recession. John then joined Jack Wolf Cadillac-GMC, a dealership founded in 1963 by uncle Jack Wolf and now run by Jack’s daughter, Amy Wilcox.
John, 62, followed in his father’s footsteps and served on the Illinois Automobile Dealer Association board. He also serves on boards for the Belvidere Salvation Army, Alpine Bank, Boone County Community Foundation and Growth Dimensions. He and his wife, Candy, were part of the original economic development committee that started the popular Hometown Christmas celebration more than 20 years ago in Belvidere. Their children, Janna and Scott, have joined in, too.
Wolf is intent on leaving the world a better place.
“I’m one of those guys who, if I see a piece of paper on the ground, I pick it up and throw it away,” John says. “We try to take care of things, like the old Boy Scout rule of ‘leave things better than when you came.’ I believe in that. I know that Belvidere will be a better place even after we’re gone.” -MW
Karen Harding, Owner, La Paloma Gardens, Rockford
Watercolor artist Karen Harding and her late husband, Ben, established the privately owned La Paloma Gardens in 1984. The scenic landscape sits on 5 acres in the Hardings’ Rockford backyard.
The gardens have been a draw for both locals and out-of-town groups. Harding is grateful to provide visitors with a unique tourist attraction.
“We are blessed to show visitors this side of Rockford and to be able to make friends for the city,” she says. “We bring economic development to the city by involving out-of-town visitors.”
Harding, who’s done much of the planting herself, learned plant propagation from her paternal grandfather. The gardens began as an experiment but quickly took on a life of their own. In 1994, the Hardings bought a neighboring lot and expanded their creation.
The property now features curving pathways, herbaceous borders, open vistas, waterfalls, a lagoon and more. It’s a popular place for garden weddings and social events. Arrangements with nearby restaurants provide lunch boxes for visitors who like to picnic on the property.
Although you’ll find plenty of tourists here, a good many visitors strolling the gardens are locals who keep coming back for more. Many seek inspiration for their own properties. Some come for the enjoyment of an afternoon stroll and others seek gardening advice.
Harding is humble about the little paradise she has created; she doesn’t pretend to be an expert.
“Oftentimes I’ve been asked to come and help people with their gardens, but I say to leave that to the qualified landscape experts,” she says.
Still, she is flattered that people are inspired by what they see, and delights in seeing visitors enjoy her colorful creation. -RM
Dr. Edward Finch, President, Lincoln-Douglas Society
From the school board to classic films to American political history, Dr. Edward Finch is deeply engaged in Freeport.
In 2008, Finch co-chaired the 150th anniversary of the Abraham Lincoln/Stephen Douglas debate.
He now serves as president of the Lincoln-Douglas Society and helps people to better understand the contentious years before the Civil War.
“It mirrors our own times: nasty political rhetoric, a refusal to compromise and an unwillingness to accept the results of elections,” he says. “If one thinks the political commentary of today is biting, just look at the political cartoons of the 1850s and 1860s.”
Finch also co-hosts the Classic Film Series and the Spencer Tracy Film Festival, both held at the historic Lindo Theatre in Freeport. Such events bring a big-city cultural feel to a small-town setting.
“In co-hosting the Classic Film Series and the Spencer Tracy Film Festival, I very much enjoy getting to discuss films with discerning film buffs,” Finch says. “Secretly, however, I get to see these films in the environment in which they were meant to be seen: on a 40-foot-high screen surrounded by other filmgoers.”
But the place where Finch feels most comfortable is the classroom. In a career that spanned more than 30 years, Finch became a staple in the Freeport School District, where he taught debate, speech, film studies, British literature, AP English literature, American studies, U.S. history, multicultural literature and international relations. He also served as librarian for four years.
Now, he sits on the Freeport School Board, where his passion for education continues to impact the community.
“My classroom experiences allow me to inform my fellow board members of the potential consequences of our decisions where specifically teachers or students are concerned,” Finch says. -CS
Randy Snider, Chaplain, Byron Fire Department
For six years in the early 1990s, Randy Snider was a youth pastor by day and firefighter/paramedic by night. His experience with the Byron Fire Department was a stressful, yet inspiring, experience.
“I’ll always remember this lady,” Snider says. “Her husband was having a heart attack, and we were loading him up in the ambulance. The lady couldn’t drive, she didn’t have any family, she was crying, and there was nobody there to help her. We couldn’t do anything for her because we had to revive her husband. It broke my heart.”
Snider never forgot that night, even after he was promoted to senior pastor of what’s now Cornerstone Family Church.
In 2000, Snider and a fellow pastor began a chaplaincy program to assist firefighters, paramedics, victims and family members. The two are on call 24/7. When an emergency happens, they bring comfort to those experiencing tragedy.
“We listen to the calls, and if we feel the situation requires a pastor – such as a suicide, an unexpected death, a major auto accident, or any emergency involving a child – we just go automatically,” Snider says. “That way, the medics can do their jobs, and we can console people and help them understand what’s going on.”
Snider also debriefs with firefighters and is trained in counseling people experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Byron community has warmly accepted chaplain Snider.
“We’ve had firefighters say they’re relieved when the chaplain shows up,” Snider says. “And as for victims and their family members, we’re not just informational; there’s a spiritual aspect to it, which people appreciate. Most people are really receptive, but if they don’t want us there, we’ll leave a card and we won’t force anything. I think we provide calmness and a peace during a crisis. There’s a sense of hope to what we do.” -LG
Brenda Siegenthaler, Owner, Brenda’s Blumenladen & Kinderladen
In New Glarus, Wis., there are two shops that are sure to draw both tourists and locals. Brenda’s Blumenladen is a boutique with everything from home decor to fashion accessories to a garden center. Brenda’s Kinderladen is a toy store. Both shops are owned and operated by Brenda Siegenthaler.
The entrepreneur opened Blumenladen in 1996 and Kinderladen in 2013, but she had plenty of prior business experience.
“I grew up in a retail family,” Siegenthaler says. “My father owned the Ben Franklin store in New Glarus for 25 years. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Siegenthaler credits her father for inspiring her and helping her to get started, but she finds that all successful business people are a personal inspiration.
“I appreciate hard work and passion,” Siegenthaler says.
She’s just living the dream. “The best part about running the stores is the relationships that have been built over years with my customers, employees and vendors,” Siegenthaler says. “I’m so passionate about current trends, decorating, flowers and gardening. I enjoy the variety of work, as every day is different, is fast-paced and changes with the seasons. I love what I do. I can hardly wait to start each day.”
She adds that the New Glarus community can’t be beat. Her passion for the small, Swiss-infused town is evident by her membership in the New Glarus Community Foundation Board.
Siegenthaler is also a member of the New Glarus Chamber of Commerce.
“New Glarus is a great place to work because it’s such a vibrant small town,” Siegenthaler says. “The great restaurants and shops, along with the New Glarus Brewery, bring lots of people to visit for the day or weekend. I enjoy all the festivities New Glarus has throughout the year and appreciate the fact that our village is clean and safe, with lots to offer for a small town.” -CS