It doesn’t take someone extraordinary to be a hero. Many times, it’s the little, ordinary, everyday things that stand out the most about a person. Little acts of kindness or courage can quickly add up to something amazing.
Everyday heroes are all around us. Parents, emergency responders, teachers come quickly to mind. But what about the businessmen and women, judges, conservationists and philanthropists among us? It’s easy to take for granted, but it’s important for us to recognize, the many ways these heroes inspire us to dream more, do more, be more.
Meet 25 individuals – ordinary, everyday heroes – who have left a mark on our region in ways big and small. Their stories of courage, vision and passion present a powerful reminder that it doesn’t always take extraordinary bravado to be a hero. Sometimes, it’s simply having the courage to make a difference in the world around you.
Click a name to read about a specific individual, or begin scrolling.
Brandon Erickson, Owner, Brown’s Shoe Fit
At just 25 years old, Brandon Erickson is the owner of Brown’s Shoe Fit in Freeport. The ambitious entrepreneur started out when he was just 17, working part-time before becoming an assistant at a location in Fort Dodge, Iowa.
“It was kind of like an apprenticeship,” Erickson says. “I’ve probably put in 50 hours a week, at the very least, since I started. Now that I’m an owner, it’s more like 60 to 80 hours a week. It’s just about saving your money and working hard.”
Brown’s Shoe Fit has 76 locations nationwide. Erickson spent four years in Fort Dodge, learning on the job while taking accounting classes at a local community college. Then, he transferred to a store in Kansas for two more years of training.
When the previous owner of the Freeport store retired, Erickson finally got the call he’d been waiting for.
“It was 5 p.m. when they told me this opportunity opened up here in Freeport, and I was on the road at 5 a.m. the next day,” Erickson remembers.
In 2016, the Freeport store was ranked 68 out of the 76 locations. Erickson knew he had to roll up his sleeves.
“I grew up with a single mom, and she had to work hard to give us what we had,” Erickson says. “I know it sounds weird, but I want to be the best role model for my kids, and I don’t even have kids yet. I’m just planning and working toward that eventually.”
Already, the Freeport store’s ranking has improved drastically, even though other shoes stores in town have closed down. Erickson’s philosophy is to add value to the community in the most honest way possible.
“It’s about getting a person into the right shoes for them, regardless of price,” he says. “My goal is for the customer to like a pair of shoes so much, they wear it more often than their other shoes. I don’t ever want someone to buy a shoe, not like it, and let it just sit in their closet. I tell people if they have any issues to come back and we’ll take care of it. We probably do more exchanges and returns that way, but it’s part of why we’re so successful. We take care of the customer.”
Reflecting on this philosophy, Erickson decided to develop a mission statement for his store. To his surprise, the entire company adopted it for all 76 locations.
“That’s something I’m really proud of,” he says. “You can tell that hard work pays off.” – LG
Trisha Peters, Forest Preserve Site Steward
Trisha Peters regularly walks the paths of J. Norman Jensen Forest Preserve in Rockton, Ill., looking for things like trash, downed branches and anything that might be unsafe. But she sees so much more. That’s because, for a 12-month period, she couldn’t see anything.
“About six years ago, I woke up and realized I had lost my vision,” the Rockton resident says.
She had been stricken with optic neuritis, known in the medical field as ON. The cause of ON isn’t well understood, but can be due to an infection or an inflammatory immune system response. Most who experience ON will recover their sight, but there is no guarantee of how much or how soon.
“At the time, they couldn’t tell me if I would regain my vision,” Peters says. “I made a decision that if I ever got my vision back, I would look for something beautiful every day.”
Peters, who’s also a photographer, regularly walked in nature before experiencing ON. She was determined not to give it up.
“Because I couldn’t see initially, my husband walked me through the preserve,” she says. “Eventually I was able to walk the trail alone. The roots and trees were landmark touchstones.”
Over the next year, her vision gradually returned; during one of her walks, fate stepped in. “I was walking at Hononegah Forest Preserve and ran into someone who was a trail steward. He referred me to the volunteer coordinator at the Forest Preserve, who asked if I would be interested in a steward position.”
It was a perfect fit. “During my recovery, walking the forest preserve was an important part of my healing, both physically and spiritually,” Peters says. “I had always been a lover of nature. It really grounded me. And this was a great opportunity to give back to the forest preserve that gave to me.”
She now goes out most mornings with her dog Oscar, a German Shepherd-terrier mix, enjoying the sights and sounds while also making sure the trails are safe and clean.
“The vision loss put things into perspective for me,” says Peters, who’s also an educator at Angelic Organics Learning Center in Caledonia, Ill. “I realized how much a distraction vision can be. There were things I could not see until I went blind. I really became attuned to the sounds of the forest and prairie, the wind in the leaves, the prairie grass in my fingers. I feel really lucky to have gotten my sight back, but I was also lucky to have lost it.” – RR
Suzette Muck, Special Education Teacher, Poplar Grove Elementary
Suzette Muck loves taking care of people, so it was only natural she’d land a career in one of two places.
“I wanted to be a nurse, but I knew I couldn’t get past the needles, so teaching was the next logical thing,” she laughs.
Muck spent 11 years as a special education teacher at schools in Rockford, Roscoe, Ill., and Rockton, Ill., before becoming a stay-at-home mom. Eleven years after the birth of her twin daughters, she felt called to return to the classroom. “My kids didn’t need me as much,” she says. “I knew when it was time to go back to the classroom, God would make it clear to me, and He did.”
When she was in high school, Muck wanted to teach kindergarten. She signed up to shadow a kindergarten teacher, but instead was told to report to the special education classroom.
“I was not pleased, because it’s not what I wanted, but after a couple of days with those kids, I was glad my advisor put me there,” she says. “My time there was so informative and so helpful, and it helped me see what I wanted to do down the road.”
Years later, returning to the classroom after raising her children, Muck became a special education resource teacher in Poplar Grove, Ill., and two years later became a full-time special education teacher. She’s works with three paraprofessionals who together oversee nine first through fourth-graders, each with their own special need.
“I love this age range because this is where all the major learning starts,” Muck says. “If you’re able to catch the kids early, you’ll have more success in trying to get them to become more successful down the road.”
Muck was a finalist for the prestigious Golden Apple award last year, and although she didn’t win the ultimate prize, she believes the recognition has helped her career.
“I felt like I was in a rut and I needed something to make me step up my game, so the process gave me something to fight for,” says Muck, who was nominated by her principal, Heather Walsh. “I think it built me up and made me a better teacher.”
The children she teaches might struggle in general-education classrooms, so Muck feels a purpose to be there for her students.
“So many of these kiddos come to school looking for a comfortable learning environment, and predictability to their day,” she says. “Their special need for peace and familiarity is what keeps me going.” – NJP
Fr. John McNamara, Priest, St. Bridget’s Catholic Church; former professional chef
Fr. John McNamara is used to waking up at 5 a.m. As a priest at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, in Loves Park, Ill., he has full days of praying, attending meetings, celebrating Mass, hearing confessions, and visiting local hospitals or nursing homes on a daily basis.
But before he became a priest, McNamara woke up at 5 a.m. for long days of traveling and cooking for celebrities on concert tours. He still has his backstage passes from those days.
“I worked with Brad Paisley, Limp Bizkit, Tina Turner – but the main groups I toured with were Rascal Flatts, John Mellencamp, Alicia Keys and Kenny Chesney,” McNamara recalls.
Growing up, he developed a passion for cooking by helping out in the kitchen at family parties. That led him to eventually attend Harper College in Palatine, Ill., where he earned a degree in hospitality management.
When he was 26 years old, McNamara’s colleague from an old catering internship had an exciting proposition.
“He had this gig with Rascal Flatts and asked me if I wanted to be involved,” McNamara says. “I would lead the kitchen and cook all the food for their tour. I figured ‘I’ll give it a shot!’”
Thus began his life chapter of traveling around the country on a tour bus and cooking three meals a day for 125 to 300 people.
“It wasn’t just the artist, I’d cook for the lighting crew, sound crew, stage crew – it was quite a big group,” McNamara says. “I think the most amazing thing was meeting an array of people from all different walks of life. That experience helped prepare me to become a priest.”
It was hard for McNamara to practice his Catholic faith while on tour, and eventually the “roady” lifestyle became too much.
“My fingers were curled up at one point from excessive use,” McNamara remembers.
He decided to take a break from touring and go to northern Wisconsin to help a friend run a restaurant.
“That’s when a deeper transition started taking place, and I really felt God’s call to be a priest,” McNamara says. He entered the seminary in 2010 and was ordained in 2015.
McNamara still likes to cook, but now he cooks for fellow priests or for parish families.
“It’s been a beautiful life so far,” he says. “I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had.” – LG
Tracie Burress, Founder/owner, sockTABs
The first hint of opportunity came when Tracie Burress’ husband, Glen, was wearing mismatched socks to work. He felt embarrassed about it. Then the couple visited friends.
“In front of their fireplace they had three baskets of socks,” Tracie recalls. “I said, why do you all have these socks here? They said, ‘We go through these socks every day to find a mate.’”
Remembering that a solution to a problem makes a good business idea, the avid “Shark Tank” viewer started toying with a sock-matching solution. She visited Rockford’s EIGERlab, a specialist in business incubation and product development, and with some help from an engineer, started designing and prototyping a product. “I described to them how I wanted something similar to a cufflink for socks,” she recalls.
Thus was born sockTABS, a small plastic device that clips socks together before they’re washed. Starting the new business required several costs, including plastic molds, locating a manufacturing partner and establishing distribution channels, for starters.
In 2014, with just a prototype in hand, Burress won EIGERlab’s annual FastPitch competition, which, like “Shark Tank,” enables local entrepreneurs to pitch their product and receive funding.
Then fate opened a new door. The same weekend she was planning a trip to Las Vegas, Tracie discovered “Shark Tank” producers were holding a casting call. Among 500 applicants, the Burresses were chosen. And for the next six months, they continued meeting with producers, until they finally entered the Tank. Their dramatic meeting aired in November 2015.
In those final minutes of their segment, when it looked as though she and Glen would leave empty-handed, Tracie made peace with her fate. “God spoke to me and said, you don’t serve any of them. You serve me,” she recalls.
That’s when Daymond John, founder of the FUBU apparel brand, made an offer. “It was just another testimony for me, because I have to remember where my blessings come from, and it’s just another example of keeping focus and knowing where all good and great things come from.”
Today, the Burress family sells sockTABs online, at several local stores, and at regional Bed, Bath & Beyond stores. Tracie’s son, daughter and niece, now in college, have helped with social media and processing orders at the family’s kitchen table.
And her biggest customer to date? Men, still looking for that missing sock. – CL
Danny McDade, U.S. Marine Corps Veteran, helicopter pilot
You’ve heard of the “Luck of the Irish?” Well, Danny McDade represents the “Love of the Irish.”
You might not know McDade by name, but you’ve probably seen him. Maybe rolling down State Street in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Or celebrating during PaddyFest. Or maybe strumming, drumming and singing with his two-man band.
There’s no denying his passion for Irish history, music and lifestyle, something the 64-year-old comes by naturally, thanks to his Irish and Scottish ancestry (with a little German thrown in, too).
“And my wife Mary’s maiden name is McWethy, a blend of Scottish and Irish,” McDade adds.
When the McDades first moved to Rockford in the 1990s, they started the Rock River Valley Celtic Society and launched a festival in Rockton. But when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks occurred, McDade, a Marine who flies helicopters, had to put things on hold for a yearlong deployment. When he returned, he had hoped to get things started up again, but duty in Iraq called three more times.
That last time he came home, he was home for good. He and Mary joined the Irish Marching Society, which at that time was simply a parade and after-party. They thought it could be more.
“We eventually took it over, and in 2016, we made it a real cultural and educational event,” McDade says. “And we added PaddyFest, which is designed to promote the Irish culture and music.”
The music may be McDade’s greatest love. He originally was part of a band called the Danny Boys, but that broke up. Then came Gaelic Fury, a name McDade readily admits is a rip-off of Gaelic Storm. But that also dissolved. Now he fronts Danny’s Gone Rogue, an occasional two-man operation that features a fiddler and McDade doing his one-man show.
“I have a guitar and harmonica,” he says, “and I play an Irish drum with my left heel, and with my right foot, I stomp on a harmony pedal which harmonizes my voice.”
Between the parades, PaddyFest and the music, McDade, who also pilots an emergency helicopter for Mercyhealth, keeps his Irish heritage alive not only for his pleasure, but also for posterity.
“We are one big melting pot,” he says. “And in that pot, you like the flavors to be distinct. We’re a blend. And what makes the dish taste good is the little flavors. You don’t want the melting pot to be a pot of mush, but a pot of flavors. You want to keep these things alive.” – RR
Lori Luther, City Manager, Beloit
Driven by a passion for public service, Lori Luther has moved four times to advance her career.
“No – I don’t think moving is fun,” she laughs. “But I have a passion for making communities better places to live.”
Twenty-three years ago, she landed a coveted internship in Kansas City, Mo., where she had an up-close look at city leadership. From there, she gradually climbed the ladder of local government work.
“I always knew I ultimately wanted to become a city manager,” she says.
So, she put in the effort. She’s had multiple job titles over the years, each one advancing her toward her goal. Finally, in 2015, Luther reached the mountaintop of her public service career. Beloit needed a new city manager, and Luther had been training 20 years for this exact role.
With the help of a seven-member council, Luther makes sure Beloit has a variety of services, from recreational to public safety. One of her largest tasks is approving an annual budget for the city, which requires strategic thinking.
“Becoming the city manager of Beloit has been the highlight of my career,” she says. “It’s what I’ve been working toward. But also, my husband and I really wanted to put down roots and finally find a place to be settled. Beloit is perfect for us.”
Luther has four children: one at Beloit College, one at Beloit Memorial High School – where her husband also happens to be a teacher – one in middle school, and one in elementary school.
“So, when I say we’re heavily invested in the schools in Beloit, I really mean it,” Luther laughs.
Her personal philosophy is that there is no such thing as work-life balance. She’s both a mom and a city manager 100 percent of the time.
It’s a busy life, and it’s not easy, but Luther thrives in the daily chaos.
“Depending on what the circumstances are, some things are going to have more of my time and attention,” she says. “When we’re in the midst of the city’s budget prep, that ends up getting more of my time and attention. When one of my children is sick, they get more of my time and attention. It’s a give and take. Sometimes it’s a give and take throughout one day, but you just have to roll with it.” – LG
Merlin Hagemann, Owner, Merlin’s Greenhouse & Flowers
Growing things is something Merlin Hagemann knows a few things about.
Between the business he started in 1971 and the yearslong effort he has put into growing and improving the City of Oregon, Ill., he’s been a persistent cultivator of good things.
“I am originally from Byron but came to Oregon at age 17 as part of a school work program,” Hagemann says. “I’ve been involved in the city for 48 years now.”
He firmly planted his roots when he established Merlin’s Greenhouse & Flowers, in 1971, buying out the retiring owner of a longtime business. Merlin’s has steadily grown over the decades.
“We own three buildings in Oregon,” says Hagemann. “In 2004, we opened the Other Side Boutique, which offers more floral decor along with jewelry, handbags, gourmet foods and clothing.”
The “we” includes Hagemann’s daughter and son-in-law, who operate the Cork & Tap in a downtown building the Hagemann family owns.
“My son has also taken over part of the florist business and will be running the greenhouse this year,” Hagemann adds. “I would also like to say that my success is primarily because of family involvement, especially Cindy, my wife of 36 years. No success is accomplished alone.”
His efforts go far beyond tending to his own businesses. Hagemann has served on the Oregon Chamber of Commerce and its “Village of Progress” board. And he’s been involved in some of Oregon’s signature annual events, including the Autumn on Parade festival, which happens the first weekend of October.
“It is a showcase of all that is great about Oregon,” Hagemann says. “It’s been going on for more than 40 years, and that weekend is absolutely crazy. It’s one of the biggest festivals in Illinois. There’s just so much going on.”
Lately, that’s meant more new businesses taking root in the city, which Hagemann says prides itself on a low crime rate and family-oriented atmosphere including several parks.
Even the town’s charming use of flowers to welcome visitors is a point of pride.
“Other communities have told me they are jealous of Oregon’s beautiful hanging baskets,” Hagemann says. “But we are mostly proud of Oregon’s progress while maintaining its warm, down-home country atmosphere.” – TR
Samuel Sarpiya, Pastor, Change Agent
Samuel Sarpiya looks at complex social change through a simple frame. “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time,” he says. “I take it to heart, that we can address a social problem and bring social change in the city of Rockford by addressing one problem at a time.”
Born in Nigeria to South African parents, Sarpiya knew he brought a unique perspective when he accepted a call to begin Rockford Community Church in 2009. “If there is any country in the world that can tell the same story as the U.S., because of apartheid and minority relations, it’s South Africa,” he says.
Since arriving in Rockford in February 2009, Sarpiya has made a mission of healing racial divisions using Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of nonviolence. And he’s engaging these principles one step at a time.
For his first few months in Rockford, Sarpiya rode the bus almost daily, making a point of walking every corner of the city.
Early in his mission, he targeted West Middle School with a series of constructive programs: a Parent/Teacher Organization that welcomed local volunteers, cooking classes that engaged students after school, sports physicals provided by a local hospital, a volunteer-led “recovery room” where students vented their frustrations to adults.
“We ran that [recovery room] for two years, and we saw a total change in the school,” Sarpiya says. “From food fights every day and fire alarms being pulled almost every day, to zero incidents in a semester.”
Sarpiya has been a familiar presence among Rockford’s police, as they integrate crime-deterring strategies focused around community building. It’s a different mentality for officers and residents.
In 2015, Sarpiya got the City of Rockford and the police department to lend him two former FEMA trailers which he then converted into mobile learning labs. Now, local youth are learning music production and computer coding in these trailers – with some help from local police officers.
A familiar sight in tough neighborhoods, the trailers are helping to bridge relationships with kids whose families are torn apart by crime, and redirecting kids away from a life of crime.
When he’s not tackling social change (and even when he is), Sarpiya leads his church, directs the local Center for Nonviolence, and travels the globe with a message of peace. – CL
Cathy McDermott, Executive Director, Rock River Development Partnership
When Cathy McDermott agreed to oversee City Market in downtown Rockford, she did so with modest expectations.
“I remember that first day, June 11, 2010, we were all pitching in to get ready,” says McDermott, executive director of the Rock River Development Partnership. “We were hoping for a couple hundred people and 1,000 showed up. We were thrilled.”
Nearly a decade later, the Friday-night City Market is the place to be. Over the 20-week season, more than 100,000 people turn out to soak in the atmosphere. This spring, a year-round market opens at 116 N. Madison St. with fixtures such as trivia nights, dance lessons, paint classes and permanent food vendors.
“People love the social aspect of the market,” McDermott says. “You see old acquaintances, friends or co-workers. You get to talk directly to the vendors who make the jewelry or grow the zucchini. You have an outdoor setting along a beautiful river, adjacent to downtown restaurants. You can make a night of it. It all plays into our success.”
McDermott never imagined being in this position. She stayed home to raise her three children, sandwiched between jobs as administrative assistant for Mayor John McNamara and later as campaign administrator for Mayor Larry Morrissey. McDermott and her husband, Kevin, have three grown children: Sarah, Emily and Luke.
She joined Rock River Development Partnership 10 years ago. With no public market experience, McDermott had plenty to learn. But now she’s a leader in her industry. She serves on the boards of the Illinois Farmers Market Association and the National Association of Public Market Managers. She even visits other markets while on family vacations.
“I didn’t know this would become a passion,” she says. “One thing that I’ve learned is that no two markets are the same. They can be different times of the day, different days of the week, 70 vendors on a Friday night or 10 farmers in a parking lot.”
There have been plenty of memories over the years. McDermott played matchmaker with two volunteers who eventually got married. Another time she had to escort out a guest who showed up holding his “pet squirrel.”
“There’s always something going on at City Market,” she says. “Part of the fun is to be ready for what the next year brings.” – PAA
Hon. Fernando Engelsma, Former Judge, 17th Illinois Judicial Circuit Court
Not many people end up becoming what they dreamed when they were kids, but retired judge Fernando Engelsma knew from a young age that he wanted a career in law.
Engelsma emigrated with his family from Brazil when he was only seven years old. He got a crash-course in speaking English from TV shows like “Perry Mason” and “The Untouchables.” It was watching shows that dramatized the American legal system that first inspired his love for the law.
“I was forced to learn English pretty quickly,” Engelsma says. “Portuguese is pretty different from Spanish, and not very many people in the area spoke Portuguese.”
Engelsma grew up in what was then called North Park but today is Machesney Park, Ill. He says having to learn English after coming to the United States taught him to weigh his words carefully when making legal arguments. He developed a passion for intellectual debates, enjoying the process of trying to truly understand what another person is saying.
“I don’t find legal arguments to be ‘arguments,’” Engelsma says. “They’re really about trying to understand the other person and their side of the story.”
Engelsma is best known as judge in Illinois’ 17th Judicial Circuit Court, where he served from 2005 until he retired in December 2017. Before that, after he graduated from Chicago Kent School of Law in the late 1970s, he spent much of his career as a public defender in Wisconsin and Illinois. In 1981, when Engelsma’s family started to grow, he took a position at a private firm doing trial work, criminal work and contract litigation. But his love for helping people who didn’t have the means to afford legal defense drew him back to the public defender’s office four years later.
“I found that the people I represented were always appreciative of the effort put into their cases, and it was a chance to be in a courtroom on a daily basis presenting something or another,” Engelsma says.
After becoming appointed judge in 2005, Engelsma also took on a teaching position at the Northern Illinois University Law School for about 12 years, where he taught students the nuances of listening and asking questions in the legal sense.
After a storied career in law, Engelsma says his greatest achievements were those moments when his clients thanked him for his help. – MD
Allan Barsema, Founder, Carpenter’s Place
There was a time when Allan Barsema stood on the brink of suicide. Homeless, addicted to alcohol, his marriage ending, he had driven to a mountain lookout in Alaska with his only friend, a 24-pack of beer.
“I decided it was a good place and time to end it all,” Barsema recalls. “Instead, it was a ‘Jesus, take the wheel’ moment as I realized I had lost everything. I turned my life over to God and turned around. I drove down the mountain and called my parents to say I was coming home.”
It took eight years for Barsema to free himself of his addiction and straighten out his life. In the process, he met his second wife, Cathy, a registered nurse, and started a construction business, acquiring a building on Railroad Avenue, in Rockford.
“I wanted to help those who were in the same position I had been,” Barsema says. “I invited eight homeless people to a roundtable discussion, learning what they needed and wanted. In 2000, we launched Carpenter’s Place (CP) at 1149 Railroad Ave.”
The daytime center provides the homeless with amenities such as showers and storage facilities, in addition to case management, employment training and housing assistance.
Barsema quickly found that running a homeless day center was a lot like running his construction business. “Finding resources and sub-contractors works pretty much the same way,” Barsema explains. “But what we needed was case managers and a software program to adequately handle resourcing and other matters.”
So successful was the software Barsema developed that it was acquired in 2013 by SupplyCore owner Peter Provenzano. Now known as MPOWR, this software assists not only the homeless but also communities at large through collective connectivity.
“[Churches] all have kitchens and other amenities but are being underutilized,” he says. “We started the nonprofit One Body Collaboratives so we could match resources to individual needs, assist with life planning, fill resource needs and coordinate volunteers.”
Meanwhile, Cathy serves as Director of Guest Services.
Through the assistance of many organizations including churches, agencies and Northern Illinois University, Barsema and his colleagues have achieved a remarkable impact on the Rockford community, turning around the lives of those who are homeless as he was – by giving them the tools they need to be successful.
“It’s really cool,” he says. “It’s all a grassroots effort.” – TR
Kimberla Lawson Roby, New York Times Bestselling Author
Just before entering college, Kimberla Lawson Roby decided against following her passion for writing.
“I saw what people made with a major in business, and that’s what I did,” says the Rockford native.
She bounced around the business world, but she felt like something was missing. “When I was in my late 20s and early 30s, I thought about what my teachers said when I was in school,” Roby says. “They all said I have a talent for writing and storytelling.”
Roby followed their advice and penned her first book, “Behind Closed Doors,” which follows the relationship of two women struggling to rebuild their marriages as they put their lives into perspective.
After receiving many rejection letters, Roby’s husband, Will, borrowed money from his 401(k) so she could self-publish 3,000 copies of the novel. Independent booksellers took notice, and Roby sold 10,000 copies of the book in just six months.
Today, she’s published 27 books and sold more than 2.8 million copies of her novels. She’s also a recipient of the 2013 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work – Fiction, which she calls the highlight of her career.
“I remember the days of going into some cities and sitting down for two hours at various bookstores, and not a single person would stop at my table,” she says. “It really became about building relationships with my readers individually, so I began visiting with book clubs. Once social media came into existence, I was able to personally connect with readers daily and nationwide.”
In “Casting the First Stone,” one of her earlier novels, fans were introduced to the Rev. Curtis Black, a womanizing and corrupt pastor. “Readers are interested in the Curtis Black series because they can relate to him,” Roby says. “Initially, my primary audience was African-American women, so that’s who I was promoting to, but they told their co-workers, neighbors and members of their churches about my books and the next thing I knew, my books were being read by all women. When Curtis Black came around, men started reading them, too.”
As she looks back, Roby wishes she had followed her passion earlier. “Don’t let money be the deciding factor when you’re figuring out what you’re going to do with a big part of your life,” she says. “The money will come when you figure out what you’re purpose is.” – NJP
Jean Crosby, Principal, Crosby Starck Real Estate
Her first job in real estate was a failure, but if anything, it’s that much sweeter for Jean Crosby to say she’s enjoying a fruitful, decades-long career in the field.
When she’s not managing the firm she and husband Dick have owned for 30 years, Crosby is a consummate volunteer, representing fellow Realtors at the local, state and national level for most of her career. She’s presently serving on the Winnebago County Board, in addition to boards for the Chamber of Commerce, the nonprofit Annie’s Locker and the Rockford Area Economic Development Council. In 2015, she earned the prestigious Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of Realtors – an honor given to just two longtime volunteers each year.
“Real estate has been very good to me and my family,” she says. “We have benefitted greatly from this industry, and it’s nice to give back.”
And to think it almost never happened. Crosby was a 32-year-old single mom when she was hired as a secretary for a local agent. She took a real estate class on the side. Secretarial work wasn’t her forte. “I was always inverting phone numbers and spelling things wrong, and they just went bonkers with me,” she laughs.
When she got fired, the agent told her she’d never succeed in the business. Crosby finished the class, earned her license and fell in with a local real estate firm. She got the last laugh when, in 2002, she was appointed Illinois’ real estate director, responsible for overseeing all of the state’s 90,000 licensed agents.
“My signature was on everyone’s real estate license, so the guys who fired me ended up with a real estate license with my signature on the bottom. Coup de gras,” Crosby laughs. “Now, how often does that happen in a lifetime?”
Through her wide array of volunteer work, Crosby has built relationships around the country, and she’s found that many of the same traits that make a good Realtor – listening, teamwork, customer service, building connections, setting aside one’s ego – are also powerful tools when debating issues.
To the aspiring community servant, Crosby offers simple advice: Do the work and commit to the investment.
“To me, there are two types of volunteers: There are participants and spectators,” she says. “I am a participant. I am not a good spectator. I like to contribute and I like to be a part of something important.” – CL
Dr. Robert Geller, Infectious Disease Specialist, FHN
A lifetime achievement award is just one of the reasons why Dr. Robert D. Geller, MD, MS, FACP, FIDSA, stands out in his profession.
The dedicated physician says he has received more than a half-dozen awards in his career, but it’s his work to prevent and treat infectious diseases that takes priority in his life.
Board certified in internal medicine and infectious diseases, Geller has been on the staff at FHN Memorial Hospital in Freeport since 1977. He also serves as an associate professor at the University of Illinois College of Medicine-Rockford and has faculty appointments at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Illinois-Chicago, where he shares his experience with medical students.
But medicine is just the start. This man of many interests also holds a degree in metallurgical engineering, something he earned before he applied to the Cornell University Medical College in New York City.
“My application was accepted, I was told, because Cornell had never received one from an engineer, and they were curious to see how that would work,” Geller jokes.
Asked why he decided to follow such diverse disciplines, Geller explains, “They are both analytical.”
Geller adds that he has had the benefit of metallurgical studies, which in some ways supports his chosen profession.
“I attended a physics lecture on the graduate level as an engineering student,” he recalls. “After it ended, I admitted to the man sitting next to me that I really hadn’t understood much of what was presented. The man smiled and said, ‘It’s OK not to know everything.’”
Later, Geller learned the 28-year-old acquaintance had been awarded the Nobel Prize for physics just two years before – the second-youngest person ever to receive the prestigious award.
While Geller says he enjoys physics, his first love is medicine. Deeply involved at all levels of his chosen discipline, Geller says he follows the precepts of the Physicians’ Prayer in addition to the Hippocratic Oath.
“The Physicians’ Prayer thanks God for allowing me to help alleviate at least some of the suffering of humankind,” Geller says. “I enjoy my work and feel I am contributing to a better world.” – TR
Laura Furman, Curator of Collections and Education, Midway Village Museum
You could say that Laura Furman is the Sherlock Holmes of Rockford history. But instead of bloodstains and footprints, she follows community conversations and clues preserved in a 150,000-item historical archive in her care.
“I love solving puzzles of all kinds,” she says. “I love the thrill of the hunt. It’s really satisfying to search for something elusive and then find it.”
Furman has been sleuthing Rockford’s elusive past for 22 years now. Her curiosity about all things historical began in third grade, when she found herself drawn to biographies.
A native of Grand Rapids, Mich., Furman accepted a curator position at Rockford’s Tinker Swiss Cottage in 1997, after earning her Master’s in Public History from IUPUI in Indianapolis. When she became chief curator at Midway Village Museum in 2006, she made it her mission to unearth stories about all kinds of people in Rockford’s past.
“There’s this idea that Rockford was founded by New Englanders, then the Swedes came, followed by the Italians. That’s all true, but there’s so much more complexity to it. It’s challenging to find and interpret the stories not only of the founders and entrepreneurs, but also people from all classes, races and backgrounds. We do that by building relationships with as many segments of Rockford as we can.”
Some of those stories are now available on the museum’s website with an online collection of images and documents.
Furman appreciates Rockford’s many contributions to the world.
“People say that Rockford isn’t what it once was, but it doesn’t need to be what it once was,” she says. “It needs to do what it has always done well – to reinvent itself.”
From a riverboat town to a farming, furniture and manufacturing hub, our story evolves, she says. And she’s glad to be a part of it, along with her husband, Sam Furman, a small-business owner, and their daughter Hannah, 8, a busy Girl Scout.
“I have a wonderful community of professional museum colleagues here,” she notes. “Rockford is home.”
In the rare moments Furman isn’t busy with her job or family, she enjoys – what else? – solving puzzles, from jigsaw and crossword to family ancestry and murder mysteries.
She smiles. “The thrill of discovery never gets old.” – JP
Carolyn Bailey, Founder, Rockford Dance Company
In the early 1970s, there was nowhere in Rockford for Carolyn Bailey’s daughters and other aspiring young dancers to excel beyond the classroom. So, Bailey joined with Nancy Stuckey-Hyzer and Virginia Babcock to secure just such a place.
Bailey had heard that Jayne Poor, then a Rockford University Professor of Dance, and dancer and choreographer Chuck Hoenes were also interested in starting a dance company. Poor and Hoenes jumped on board, and the pair became co-artistic directors.
With some guidance from Ann Barzel, a dance critic from Chicago, Bailey applied for grants – at that point, the fledgling company’s only source of income.
Rockford Dance Company’s first dancers – 86 in total – were accepted in 1973, and by the following February, they were performing their first concert before a sold-out crowd at Rockford University’s Maddox Theater.
“We had ‘Watch Us Move’ as our slogan, and we even made bumper stickers, T-shirts and pins, which the dancers often put on their dance bags,” Bailey reflects. “We wanted to build loyalty and enthusiasm. The young dancers loved it. I loved the fact that we had a dance company. I loved working with the dancers and the young people. I could hardly wait to wake up in the morning and go to work the next day.”
In those early years, dance practice happened wherever space allowed. Dancers often performed at area schools to attract interest. Eventually, the company found a permanent home in Rockford’s Riverfront Museum Park and added a dance school, summer classes and workshops.
Bailey was president of the board of directors for the first two years and subsequent times thereafter. Her daughters danced until they went to college. One of them, Jamie Johannsen, presently serves on the board of directors.
Bailey eventually stepped back and took up writing and poetry, but Rockford Dance Company remains close to her heart. She follows its progress, attends performances and relishes her memories.
“The company and quality of dance offered have continued to improve over the years,” Bailey says. “It gives the public an opportunity to see a professional show without having to drive to Chicago. Rockford Dance Company offers quality dance for people who may have never had the chance to see something like ballet.” – RM
Scott Bierman, President, Beloit College
Scott Bierman has no problem getting out of bed and going to work.
“Your future, my future, the future of this country is in the hands of 17- to 21-year-olds,” says Bierman, the 11th president in Beloit College’s history. “Being part of their development process and helping those students find themselves and find their place in the world, and helping them to develop their skills, makes it really easy to get up in the morning.”
The economics professor came to Beloit in 2009 after 27 years of teaching and leadership experience in liberal arts education. In addition to his role as president, he’s also a tenured faculty member in the economics department.
“The college has been welcoming and supportive of me since the time I arrived here,” Bierman says. “It’s rare to have college and city relationships that are as deep as what we have here in Beloit. Connecting the college to the city and building on the college’s 170-year history is one of the most important legacies that I want to leave.”
Bierman is accomplishing both by spearheading the Beloit College Powerhouse, a $38 million project that is repurposing a decommissioned power plant located just off campus into a 120,000-square-foot student union, recreation center and athletic facility. The project is scheduled to be completed this fall.
“Colleges are like sharks. They either keep moving or they’ll die,” Bierman says. “We’re a river college that’s never really made it to the river, and here’s a power station sitting right on the banks of the Rock River. This building will surely be one of the most important buildings in higher education for the next decade, and this project wouldn’t have happened if not for the support of the college and community.”
Bierman says it’s a precious thing to have a community and a college on the rise together. He’s excited about what the future holds for Beloit.
“What this community and this college are showing is that, combined, they provide a powerful pair of ingredients to people who are fortunate enough to be part of these communities,” he says. “It’s with such great pride that I get the opportunity to serve a role at the intersection of these two places. It puts the responsibility on me to promote these connections with as much creativity and energy as possible, and it’s enormously meaningful to me.” – NJP
Sheena Amble, Firefighter/Paramedic, Rockford Fire Department
Sheena Amble believes she’s had the best job ever – for 14 years running.
“There hasn’t been a single day I’ve woken up dreading going to work,” she says. “I feel very fortunate to have found my passion at a young age.”
The Madison, Wis., native and mother of two was studying advertising when she came across some firefighters working out at the gym. “I thought it would be fun to be on a team like that, and to be out there helping people,” she says. “I thought, ‘I want to do that.”
She signed on with a local volunteer fire department. “The Monona [Wis.] Fire Department was a great intro into the field,” she says. “I count my lucky stars I had such warm, welcoming and encouraging associates.”
She went on to Madison Technical College for a degree in fire science and received a medical EMT certification. In 2004, Amble signed on with Rockford Fire Department.
Though her job largely revolves around ambulances and medical emergencies, she says the position offers a variety of opportunities.
“Any hazard that life can bring, we help with,” Amble says. “We are constantly helping people, and I really enjoy that.”
After 10 years assigned to an ambulance company, Amble recently was reassigned to Engine 4, located on Shaw Woods Drive. She’s also diving deeper into her field and pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Public Safety Administration.
“Goals change, and I want to have a productive career and say I gave it my all – gave the city of Rockford everything I could to make it a better place,” she says. “Things have changed in the field since I was in college, and it’s important to stay fresh and look to other certifications.”
Pursuing a career one loves, Amble adds, is a conscious choice and an attainable goal, especially as the field opens up for women. For the past two years, she has coordinated 2nd Alarm Girls Fire Camp, a program aimed at getting girls into fire service.
“There is a need and want for women to be successful in this field,” she says. “There is a world full of amazing opportunities and also so many examples of successful women we can look up to. It’s great to have a woman you admire, where you can say ‘I want to be like her.’ I hope that I can be that image for someone.” – RM
Wes Burandt, Tree Farmer
Wes Burandt left a long career as an aerospace engineer in 2005. Some might call it a retirement, but not Burandt. “I simply changed my priorities,” he says.
Burandt spent a bulk of his career at BVR Technologies and Sundstrand, responsible for new business development. He has 16 patents issued in five countries and spent 35 years volunteering for the Society of Automotive Engineers, an association for engineering professionals. He still serves as a consultant to a few aerospace clients.
But Burandt has always had a passion for nature and particularly, trees. He grew up on a farm in Gurnee, Ill., where Great America now sits. These days, he has 175 species of trees and shrubs on his New Milford, Ill., property.
“I’ve always been on a parallel path in my career,” says Burandt, who met his wife, Kathryn, during his college days in Milwaukee. “I wanted to be an engineer at 13, but there were always other things I wanted to do.”
Forty years ago, he started his own tree farm on Baxter Road. He first sold Christmas trees but now focuses on red oak and black walnut trees that are sold to companies from Iowa to China interested in making veneer from the tree trunks.
“I put them out for bid to companies who are interested in 50 to 60 trees in one shot,” says Burandt, who fell out of a tree in 2013 while trimming branches, crushing his right ankle. He chose to amputate below the knee, but leads an active lifestyle, thanks to a prosthesis.
Burandt volunteers at Klehm Arboretum as chairman of the living collections committee, where he’s working on a master plan that includes adding 12 new oak species and a small conifer collection to the sprawling property.
“Klehm is a hidden gem,” he says. “There are many people who are just as passionate as I am about trees.”
Given his love for nature, it’s no surprise that Burandt enjoys backpacking. He’s hiked more than 2,800 miles in locales such as Hawaii and New Zealand. Burandt hikes 1 to 2 weeks at a time, mostly with his brother and good friends.
“You get a different perspective, hiking 8,000 to 13,000 feet up in elevation,” says Burandt, who’s survived everything from whiteouts to hungry bears. “I’ve seen hundreds of mountains and a kaleidoscope of colors. There’s nothing else like it.” – PAA
Kevin Lalley, Director, Lee County Emergency Management Agency
After spending 33 years as a firefighter with the Dixon Rural Fire Department, including almost 10 years as its chief, Kevin Lalley could have ridden off into the sunset.
Instead, his love for serving Lee County residents led him to a similar job – as Lee County’s emergency management chief.
“When I retired from the fire department, this job was open, so I stepped in and took over,” Lalley says. “I’m working with most of the people I worked with at the fire department.”
Since 2006, Lalley has been coordinating disaster responses and preparedness in and around Lee County.
“We focus on all hazardous events, such as tornados, flooding, disasters, chemical releases and active shooters,” Lalley says.
After an EF-2 tornado ripped through Woodhaven Lakes, a privately owned campground in Sublette, Ill., in 2015, Lalley and his team were on the scene.
“We responded and helped people, but we also gave them guidance on how to get back to normal, day-to-day operations,” Lalley says.
When Lalley arrives at a disaster scene, he immediately wonders if anyone is missing or injured.
“During an emergency, there are a lot of decisions that have to be made quickly,” he says. “Once everyone is safe and accounted for, the tempo slows down a bit.”
Like firefighting, emergency management can be stressful, but Lalley doesn’t mind.
“I’m not sure it’s for everyone, but it’s for me because it’s rewarding and it’s challenging,” he says. “There can be pressure when you’re in an incident or event, and you’re making decisions quickly and you have to make sure they’re the right decisions.”
When disaster strikes, Lalley experiences some long days on the job. After the Woodhaven tornado, he at one point was on site from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. When a train derailed in Tiskilwa, Ill., in neighboring Bureau County, Lalley was on site at 2:30 a.m. Emergency management directors fill in for each other, and his local counterpart was out of town. “We worked that for about three days,” Lalley says.
Whenever a disaster strikes, Lalley is ready.
“Events can happen anytime, anyplace and anywhere,” he says. “Mother Nature doesn’t care, and these events are not planned.” – NJP
Dr. Sandra Martell, Director, Winnebago County Health Department
Dr. Sandra Martell considers her responsibilities as more than focusing on medical care and diseases. For this 30-year veteran of public health services, it’s about strategic health initiatives.
“In this role, I am responsible for driving initiatives that address the social determinants of health,” says Martell, who has spent four years in Winnebago County. “Examples of those social determinants include public safety, education, job training, transportation, access to healthy foods, sources of clean water, exposure to crime and violence, and access to health care services.”
Martell has required partnerships with community agencies that provide and/or are responsible for services including health systems, academic institutions, first responders and housing authorities, to name a few. Also, the Winnebago County Health Department is responsible for assessment, policy and assurance, covering activities including communicable disease control, environmental health, clinical services, case management, public health nursing and prevention education.
Martell believes one of the most rewarding parts of her job is seeing various partners unite toward a common goal.
“Our community has a tremendous network and history of agencies and individuals that work together,” she says. “It is one of our best assets.”
Right now, she’s engaged in a major cooperative effort assembling the latest Illinois Plan for Local Assessment of Needs, or IPLAN. It’s a critical part of the certification and accreditation process for county health departments, she says.
“The goal is to develop a community health improvement plan outlining what we will be focused on as a health department and community to improve the health of Winnebago County,” Martell adds. “The health priorities should resonate with everyone in the community. The next steps after the priorities are identified is working collectively to develop strategies, action plans and measurable outcomes that we all can agree on.”
The process may require some to step out of a comfort zone.
“But in the end, Winnebago County will have groups working actively and collectively to achieve the health goals of the community,” she says. “Data will be real-time accessible to both community members and agencies working to improve the health of the community.” – RR
Kathy Hennessy, Executive Director, Monroe Arts Center
While sifting through job posts on indeed.com, Kathy Hennessy daydreamed about a new career.
She had studied theater in college before working professionally in the industry for 10 years. But her priorities changed when both of her children were born with rare neurological disorders.
“It’s called apraxia of speech,” Hennessy explains. “Basically, my kids knew in their brains what they wanted to say, but there was a disconnect to their mouths. It’s very rare, very complicated, and very hard to treat. Back when my kids were little, this didn’t even have a name.”
Frustrated with the lack of tools or support, Hennessy co-founded a nonprofit in her hometown of Pittsburgh, Penn., to address the lack of information about apraxia. The nonprofit, now called Apraxia Kids, was Hennessy’s focus for almost two decades. She raised money for research, provided support to families going through similar circumstances, and brought awareness to the disorder that afflicted both of her children.
She even co-authored a book with her daughter about navigating apraxia, called “Anything but Silent.”
“With any nonprofit, there comes a time when the founder needs to step back and let the next generation take over,” Hennessy says. “With my kids grown, it was time for me to move on.”
Hennessy decided to go back to school for her master’s degree in public policy and nonprofit management.
“I decided if I was ever going to make a turn back into the arts, it had to be now,” she says.
So when indeed.com showed her that Monroe Arts Center (MAC) had a job opening for an executive director, Hennessy applied with high hopes. She fell in love with Monroe, Wis., over the internet – it fit all of her criteria.
“It had a town square, a community theater and an arts place where I could work,” she says. “I made the leap last May.”
Already, Hennessy is achieving her goals for the arts center. The community wanted more children’s programming, and Hennessy has delivered with children’s theater classes. But there’s still more to come.
“Whatever the community wants, we’re going to do it,” she says. “I would say to anybody who’s thinking of making a change, just do it. Take the leap.” – LG
Eric Anderberg, Vice President, Dial Machine
Eric Anderberg is a chip off the old block.
More than 50 years ago, his father, Malcom, started Dial Machine, a large precision shop located in Rockford.
“My father grew up with a wrench in hand. He got a job with a machine shop and was a natural,” says Eric. “Eventually he started his own company at age 26.”
While he had other options, Anderberg chose to join the family business following graduation from Augustana College. Today, Eric is vice president and co-owner, while his brother Jeff is president. “My dad put me out on the floor like everyone else,” says Anderberg. “I spent years running machines and learning from the ground up.”
Most of Dial’s customers are in the U.S., but their products go overseas. Their clients include operations in government, military, nuclear science, mining, oil and gas. They’ve done work for the navy rail gun. They made a telescope which can see light that is 11 million years old. In 2003, Saddam Hussein’s statue was pulled down by an armored vehicle whose hoist was made from parts created by Dial. “We collaborate with extremely intelligent people who want to further progress within their industries,” says Anderberg.
On two occasions, Anderberg has testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in Washington, D.C., on the state of manufacturing in America. “Companies are regaining their confidence,” he says. “People are spending money again.”
Anderberg serves on many boards including those of Blackhawk Bank and the Rock River Valley Tooling Association. He’s also chair of the Illinois Financial Authority Board. And, he’s involved in a successful apprenticeship program that helps 140 apprentices.
Anderberg is proud of his volunteer work. “I feel it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “The core of our area is manufacturing and will be for a long time. My goal is to keep the apprenticeship program rolling.”
Away from the company, Anderberg spends time on the family’s 700-acre farm in Kirkland, Ill., with his brother and father, who still comes to the shop from time to time. For Anderberg, it’s a chance to escape the stress of running a large machine shop.
“It’s enjoyable,” says Anderberg. “It gives me time to think. Every day, our work is very challenging. But I’ve been fortunate to spend my career with family. I wouldn’t change a thing.” – PAA
Gina Caronna, Vice President of Workforce Development, Rock Valley College
Gina Caronna wants to help people find a great career – one that’s fulfilling, well-paying and constantly advancing.
As Rock Valley College’s new vice president of workforce development, Caronna is on a mission to connect the talent needs of local businesses with the educational pathways available in every area school, from kindergarten to college, and beyond. From the student to the displaced or advancing worker, she’s building a talent pipeline that promises to be an economic differentiator for our region.
“My belief is that many people in our community just haven’t found their groove yet,” says Caronna. “It’s not that they can’t, it’s just that they’ve never had the opportunity to do so. That’s what we’re trying to do with our Linking Talent with Opportunity program, which is our main workforce initiative.”
She’s no stranger to mixing education, manufacturing and community relationship-building.
Caronna was part of the team that launched Rockford Public Schools’ high school academies, redesigning the curriculum around five career tracks. In 2015, she became dean of RVC’s career and technical education programs – at a time when the community college was finalizing plans to offer a four-year engineering degree with Northern Illinois University. Along the way, she helped numerous companies to pair up RVC grads with local companies, in one case tripling the college’s aviation maintenance program so students could have an open pathway into AAR’s new airplane maintenance facility.
After a year helping NIU to develop its own pathways, Caronna is back at RVC, ready to further bridge the divide between what employers need and what students are learning. On her radar are abbreviated programs that allow students to quickly acquire skills and certifications they need on the job – and that can compound, over time, into a degree. She’s also pursuing a new program for mechatronics, a field that blends mechanical, electrical, programming and automation systems. The ultimate goal: provide numerous “off ramps” from school into high-demand jobs.
“My generation has had maybe two different career trajectories,” Caronna says. “Younger workers, they’ll probably do eight different things in their lifetime. What people need to learn about is not just the content of a job but how to make it happen. What do I need to know to make the magic?” – CL