Meet 25 individuals who have left a mark on our region.
Everyday heroes are all around us. Parents, emergency responders and teachers come quickly to mind. But what about the small-business owners, conservationists, philanthropists and quiet leaders among us? It’s easy to take for granted, but it’s important to recognize the many ways these heroes inspire us to dream more, do more, be more. So, we’ve found 25 individuals who have left a mark on our region by inspiring others through acts of courage, vision and passion.
Click a name to read about a specific individual, or begin scrolling.
Getting Things Done
Kristina Reuber had no intention of returning home to Rockford after graduating from Loyola University in Chicago. But then she had a change of heart.
“I came back with a different set of eyes and a sense of maturity,” she says. “You can get involved and progress in your career at a quicker pace here than you can in a bigger city. Coming back to Rockford was the best move I’ve ever made.”
A Rockford Jefferson High School graduate, Reuber worked for La Voz Latina as director of the youth department and then became the director of Golden Apple in 2012. Running a small nonprofit as the only paid staff member was eye-opening for her.
“It was really important to give the community an opportunity to build an appreciation for the teaching profession,” she says. “It also provided me the chance to get to know various aspects of the community and develop many relationships.”
These days, Reuber is director of Welcome Center Relations for Rockford Public Schools. She oversees a department that is responsible for the K-12 enrollment for the district. “I like that oftentimes my staff are the first faces many families see, she says.
Reuber has made a priority of giving back to her hometown. Over the years, she’s volunteered for the Rockford Coronado Concert Association board, United Way of Rock River Valley, Transform Rockford and now Next Rockford. “The best way to make change is to get busy,” she says. “Not everything needs a committee to get things done.”
Her latest project is serving as a mentor for Rockford Promise, a nonprofit scholarship program that supports Rockford Public Schools students in their pursuit of college. “The scholars are first-generation college students who need guidance from people outside of their usual network. Just being a college student was definitely a learning curve for me, as a first-generation student.”
Reuber, an environmental science minor in college, does her part to reduce her carbon footprint. She and her husband have installed solar panels in their home and Reuber recently purchased an electric car, a Chevy Bolt Premier, to save on gas.
“I can see where this movement is going,” she says. “The tax incentives are there. There’s no downside to it. Plus, this is the nicest car I’ve ever had.” – Paul Anthony Arco
Freeport’s Biggest Fan
J.R. Schaffner didn’t seem like the type of high school student who would someday grow up to become a CEO.
“I wasn’t a bad kid, but I really had no direction,” she says. “I smoked and drank. That’s what you did in the ‘70s.”
Her shot at a “bright future” seemed even dimmer after she got pregnant at age 17. “That’s when they tell you that your life is over and you’ll be on welfare and you’ll never amount to anything,” Schaffner recalls. “Looking back, that was absolutely the most defining moment of my life.”
Schaffner still managed to graduate from her high school in Mt. Carroll, Ill., and enroll in college for a short time. She got married, had two more children, got divorced, and enrolled in college again. Her goal was to get a degree in psychology.
“I never did get that degree, but what college actually did for me is it taught me I was smart,” Schaffner says. “Nobody had ever told me that before.”
While in school, Schaffner took a job in aggregate equipment. “My boss decided early on that for a female – and this was the language that was used – for a female, I was pretty smart. And so he set out to teach me the business,” she says.
Like a sponge, Schaffner absorbed the ins and outs of the aggregate equipment industry. Along the way, she developed the moniker “J.R.” to become more anonymous.
“It really served me well,” she says. “There were a lot of people who didn’t realize a woman was going to show up, and there were a lot of men who assumed I wasn’t warrior enough to succeed.”
In 1995, Schaffner started her own company, Inertia Machine, with Steve Fritz. Because of their reputations in the industry, they started with what Schaffner calls “enormous faith” from clients.
In 1999, Fritz and Schaffner relocated the business to rural Freeport in an effort to attract people with a strong work ethic.
“We’re a niche market, so you can’t really find the ‘best and brightest’ people in this field because there aren’t any,” Schaffner explains. “You have to train them and mold them.”
Today, Schaffner is hoping to spend less time working and more time traveling internationally, ideally with her family.
“But I still think Freeport is the greatest place in the world,” she says. – Lindsey Gapen Lukas
Seizing the Day
If you look up the Guinness World Record for the world’s oldest male scuba diver, you’ll see a photo of a 96-year-old gentleman. But at age 99, Rockford resident Bill Lambert has paperwork pending to claim that title as his own.
“I’m living now at a senior living home, and we were invited to go diving,” Lambert recalls. “I went, and decided I wanted to go on with it.”
Lambert became an SDI-certified open water scuba diver at age 98 after completing eight classes in the 13-foot deep pool at Loves Park Scuba. His final session was a dive at Pearl Lake, in South Beloit, Ill., where he saw a plethora of surprises underwater, including a school bus, an airplane and a submarine.
Recently, he took a trip to Cozumel, Mexico, to enjoy a few days of particularly scenic scuba diving.
“It’s really fun! I enjoy it,” Lambert says. “It’s a challenge, particularly at my age. Young kids come in here and it takes them only half the time it took me to learn. But I passed everything, and now I’m certified.”
Lambert tries to practice his hobby twice a week. Born on Sept. 5, 1920, he even celebrated his 99th birthday with a dive at Pearl Lake. “I’m tired when it’s over, but I feel better,” he says. “I’m working to try to get my time so I can stay down there longer. I’m at an hour and five minutes – trying to get past it.”
Lambert grew up in Chicago and moved to Rockford in 1966 for a job at Rockford Products, a manufacturer of industrial items. Before that, he worked in a steel mill and served in the Marine Corps from 1943-1945. “I’m lucky I never had to do any fighting – I just got sent all over the South,” Lambert says.
After nine years at Rockford Products, he spent the rest of his working days at The National Lock Company, which manufactured various forms of hardware.
Lambert’s daughter and son-in-law, both scuba divers themselves, were present when Lambert became SDI-certified. His two granddaughters witnessed the accomplishment as well.“They just snorkel… for now,” Lambert laughs.
His advice to every one of all ages?
“Don’t be afraid to take on a challenge,” he says. “If I’m lucky, I’ll be scuba diving at age 100.” – Lindsey Gapen Lukas
A Walk by Faith
She told God she wasn’t working with kids. He had other plans for Deanna Lacny.
The former homeschooling mom was looking for easy work when she landed a part-time job at Rock House Kids. An easy job soon turned into a full-time gig, and, eventually, a leadership role – one that Rock House founder Dola Gregory believed was pre-ordained.
“I never asked for this position, never wanted this position, because I was being selfish,” Lacny says. “But now that I have it, it is the biggest blessing I have had.”
About six years after her arrival the nearly 250 kids at Rock House, mostly inner-city youths, are firmly “her kids,” and many of them, in turn, call her mom. Husband Mike and their three children have similarly taken these youths under wing.
Many of these youngsters, age 6 to 18, come from unstable homes and uncertain living conditions in Rockford’s west and southeast sides. They arrive four nights a week for playtime, meals and Bible lessons in a safe and comforting environment.
“At least they have a place they can come and get that hug, even if they’re a little unkempt. It doesn’t matter,” she says. “You walk through that door, you’re family. I kinda like them.” She laughs. “Good thing I’m not working with kids, right?”
The children have come to learn that “Miss Dee” will always fight for them. It’s a trait Lacny credits to her childhood in Berwyn, just west of Chicago. Her extended family – dad was one of 14 kids – included gang members and a drug dealer across the street. She credits her father with teaching her to always defend what’s right.
The work at Rock House isn’t easy, and the need is always growing. The nonprofit is fully dependent upon donor gifts, which can fund everything from a new roof or a new kitchen to essentials like food, backpacks and fresh clothing (especially underwear and socks). Whenever times do get hard, it’s her faith that keeps Lacny grounded.
“Even if it’s scary, even if it doesn’t make sense, just trust Him. Just trust Him,” she says. “Because, when you run and try to do it your way, it doesn’t work out so well, and He will always push you toward where you’re supposed to go.” – Chris Linden
All Heart and Soul
Harlan Jefferson has played saxophone from New Orleans to Los Angeles, but he’s most comfortable when he’s home in Rockford. “My family and friends are here,” he says. “I feel the same way Rick Nielsen (of Cheap Trick) does. I like to get out of the area and play, but there’s no place like home.”
Especially these days. Earlier this year, Jefferson suffered a mild heart attack and spent six days in the hospital. The health scare, he says, has made him a changed man. “I’m more humble.”
Jefferson grew up in a musical family. His father, A.Z., taught him how to play saxophone. “When my father wasn’t playing in clubs, he was practicing in the basement,” Jefferson says. “He always had a lot of drive.” By age 10, Jefferson was performing in front of crowds. In junior high, he earned the nickname ‘national anthem player,’ for performing the song at sporting events throughout the Midwest, including Bulls games. While the saxophone is his money maker, Jefferson can play all wood instruments, and dabbles in piano and the drums.
Jefferson once worked for the Rockford Park District, but now devotes his time to the entertainment business. He’s been a deejay and given private lessons, but the saxophone has opened doors. “It was a hobby that turned into my profession.”
So far, Jefferson has recorded three albums and is now working on a Christmas album. His style can best be described as smooth jazz. “I have a soulful manner,” he says. “It’s R&B, jazz and funk without the vocals.”
When he’s not traveling for private functions, Jefferson can be found performing all over Rockford, including Giovanni’s, Franchesco’s, the Sinnissippi Band Shell and Mary’s Place. The venue doesn’t matter. “It’s about the music.”
His set list is expansive – the Eagles, Beatles, Rolling Stones, John Legend and Bruno Mars, among others. His idols include Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, even Beethoven.
“My diversity has kept me alive,” he says. “I live to work for all of God’s children. Music is a universal language. I once worked on a Spanish project. I didn’t understand it, but I felt it.”
As Jefferson recovers from his health issues, his music takes on an even greater importance. “Professionally, I’m further than I’ve ever been,” he says, “but God isn’t done with me yet.” – Paul Anthony Arco
Walking Her Own Path
After studying architecture at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Annie Mohaupt began her career in San Francisco with high hopes. But the Pecatonica, Ill., native quickly moved back home, which didn’t prove to be any easier for her career.
“Things can be hard in the construction industry, and I had done well in school, but when I got in the real world I was not taken seriously,” Mohaupt says. “One of my coworkers was someone who I went to school with, and I had done much better than him at school. However, when we got out in the field, everybody was listening to him and not me. It was frustrating, and after years of that I just got tired of people not making eye contact with me.”
So, in 2005, Mohaupt decided it was time set off on her own. She grew up on a sheep farm and was used to working with her hands. Her vision was to combine her artistic skills with responsibly made products that were 100% vegan. Thus, was born Mohop, which specializes in handmade shoes, handbags and accessories.
“Growing up on a farm, I was used to animal products,” says Mohaupt. “But now, I feel like that is not the future. They’re now developing leathers out of pineapple and mushroom, and different plant-based materials. It’s really exciting.”
Mohaupt spent months engineering shoes in her basement. She would often make a pair and walk them around the block. Eventually, she began selling her shoes at a craft fair.
“We were selling out, and there was a line out of the tent,” Mohaupt recalls. “After that, I knew I had something.”
But as quick as success came, so, too, did disaster.
“I got all of these emails that people’s shoes had broken because I had only tested them for comfort, and not durability,” Mohaupt says. “At that point, I had already been working on them for six months. I was like, ‘OK. I have to make a decision. Do I want to continue this business? Do I give people refunds for their orders and continue to remake the shoes?’”
Rather than give up, Mohaupt went all in and re-engineered her shoes to be durable and comfortable.
Today, she works with partner Justin Walker out of a small shop on Rockford’s southeast side, where they’re manufacturing their own, fully American-made products. – Sara Myers
Mary Ann Smith
For the Next Generation
As a child visiting the Coronado Theatre, Mary Ann Smith fell in love with the magic of the stage. But by the 1990s, Rockford’s movie palace was looking like something “between the opulent Taj Mahal and a white elephant,” she says. Smith and her husband, Gordy, could see the deterioration firsthand while leading the Coronado Concert Association.
“One day we walked in and a pigeon flew by our eyes,” she says. “Gordy went onstage and saw there was water leaking on the old light board. There were young men working to prepare for a show that night. And Gordy and I said, ‘We know something has to be done.’”
As co-chairs of Friends of the Coronado, the pair summoned the community to finance the theater’s $18.5 million restoration, which earned the U.S. Departmet of the Interior’s National Preservation Award in 2002. Tragically, Gordy died three weeks before the January 2001 re-opening.
“I was personally exhausted,” says Smith. “But Gordy always said, ‘It’s for the kids.’ And what we do in this world is almost never about us. It’s always about what follows us and the legacy we leave for our children.”
For the past two decades, Smith, who’s now president emerita of Friends of the Coronado, has worked tirelessly to keep the theater beautiful and accessible so people of all ages and means can experience the magic of live theater in a beautiful space. In particular, she’s proud of Reach for the Stars, a program that brings in every Rockford fourth-grader for a special performance.
“I’ve been privileged to be on the stage and look out on the crowd, knowing that we had the courage and the stamina to do the right thing,” she says. “That gives me goose bumps. That feeling never wears out.”
A lover of history and a defender of Rockford’s rich neighborhoods, Smith is now working with Greenwood Cemetery to preserve and restore its 1894 chapel and the surrounding grounds.
“I think believing in a project, and yourself, and your community, you never know how much you can move,” she says. “That’s why I think the rewards of giving back are so great. Money can’t buy the experience of opening the doors to a wonderful theater that’s now accessible, safe and beautiful. It’s about the kids.” – Chris Linden
Seeing a Bigger Picture
Family and support are severely needed when a loved one dies. But sometimes, people need something more. That’s where Joe Marek comes in.
The bereavement coordinator at Mercyhealth Hospice can provide people with comfort and care for 13 months, sometimes longer, after their loved one dies from a terminal illness.
“It happens every day,” says Marek, who’s been a pastor for 40 years. “I have about 500 bereavement contacts who I work with. That results in me providing follow-up in the form of phone calls, mailings, support groups, celebration of life services or whatever I can do to help.”
Marek is that proverbial shoulder to cry on as he guides families through the grieving process. He makes roughly 2,000 phone calls a year to check up on people.
“I realized at a pretty young age that I was not afraid of death,” Marek says. “My parents are that way, and we were just strong believers in something other than the earthly life. My sister is a social worker and my brother has gone down the road of caregiving, so I was surrounded with people who saw a big picture of what life is.”
The first year after a loved one’s death is always the hardest, Marek says.
“Some families might not want to talk to me, but if they do want to talk, I’ll put together a plan to follow up with that person for the whole year,” Marek says. “It’s like a roller coaster, because they can be fine one day, but when Christmas or a birthday comes, they bottom out. My job is to make sure every person has that personal care.”
Marek believes working in bereavement is what he was meant to do. He’s able to share some of his blessings and pass them to families in desperate need.
“I feel like I’ve been blessed with some grounding, so I use that grounding to reach out to others and help them professionally and deliberately through the grieving process,” he says. “I want to get them on the road that says, ‘The loss I’ve experienced is not the end of my life.’ I’m able to help people reconcile and move ahead with the rest of their lives, and that’s very appealing to me.” – Jermaine Pigee
The Art of Success
Tom Heflin never wanted to be anything but an artist.
Born in Arkansas, the well-known Rockford artist was always in trouble with his teachers for doodling in his school books when he should have been paying attention to his studies. That is, until he met Mrs. Markham, a teacher who encouraged his love of art. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Heflin, who was 14 at the time. “She planted the seed.”
A full-time artist for more than 40 years, Heflin is best known for his landscape paintings. His work has been showcased in galleries across the country and desired by various collectors. He’s a signature member of many prestigious art societies. He works out of his home studio, where he also has a gallery that’s open by appointment. Most of his work is done in acrylic and oil, but he uses charcoal and pastels for a change of pace.
“I enjoy different forms,” he says. “Painting in one style would bore me.”
Early in his career, Heflin attended art school in Chicago, but he and his wife were expecting their first child and money was tight, so he returned home to Rockford, where Heflin, who is self-taught, worked for a sign company. Eventually, he quit his job and in 1970 started painting full-time in an abandoned farmhouse outside of Freeport that had no indoor plumbing and where his closest neighbor was a cemetery. But the isolation helped keep Heflin focused on his work.
“There was no TV or telephone to interrupt me,” he says. Heflin worked out of that farmhouse for 28 years before opening his home studio.
Over the years, Heflin has had several opportunities to set up shop elsewhere. One gallery owner told him he’d be a millionaire if he moved to Arizona. But money has never been the motivating factor.
“I had my family here in Rockford, and I was making enough money,” he says. “Rockford has been very good to me for over 40 years. I am very fortunate.”
Heflin shows no signs of slowing down. He still paints every day. “If I don’t paint I’m in a funk; I don’t feel good. I get hard to live with. Painting is therapy, income and nurturing to me. It’s what I’m all about.” – Paul Anthony Arco
Like Mother, Like Daughter
Tiana McCall credits her mother, Birdia Cooper, for instilling within her a passion for volunteer work. “My mother was a community advocate,” McCall says. “I remember every time it rained in the summertime, our streets would flood. And so I would hear my mother calling the alderman saying we deserved to have drainage. And the next thing is, we’d have drainage.”
It left a big impression on McCall. Her desire to help people led her to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology and work in social services. But the work was heavy on her heart.
A television commercial for Rockford College provided a lightbulb moment. “It was like, go get your Master’s of Business Administration. And I thought ‘Yeah, that could be good, I could do anything with that,” McCall says.
Even though she had a 3-year-old son and numerous volunteer commitments, she still managed to earn her MBA in 2009 and begin a career change. In 2010, she started working at Rock Valley College for a program that assisted youths in getting their GEDs. When grant funds were cut, she switched worked for the State of Illinois in public aid.
Before long, she was working for Congresswoman Cheri Bustos. After a few years there, McCall was watching TV yet again when she had an epiphany. She saw on the news that the Winnebago County Clerk was retiring, and they were looking for a replacement during the interim.
“It was the hardest thing of my life, because I really loved working with the congresswoman,” McCall says. “I decided to just apply, and I read all the names of people who had more experience than me, with decades-long job titles, and I thought ‘There’s no way I’m going to get this.’”
In landing the job, she became the county’s first African-American clerk. Now, she has her own “decades-long” job title as the vice president of community outreach in strategic partnerships at Rock Valley College. She still volunteers in many capacities, but her favorite is taking up to 50 high schoolers each year to tour colleges, which she’s done since 2004. Her now 17-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter tag along.
“I love when students find out, ‘This is where I’m going to be.’ You get to see a little spark in their eyes,” McCall says. – Lindsey Gapen Lukas
With Love for Our Wildlife
Jerry Paulson retired as executive director of the Natural Land Institute in 2013, but he’s still a busy guy.
“I’ve stayed involved with Natural Land Institute to help them get accreditation from the Land Trust Alliance, a national land trust group – going through old files and putting things together that they needed for that – and I’m working on a couple of watershed projects with them now,” Paulson says. “It’s always been my big passion, protecting rivers and streams, and wetlands like the Nygren Wetland Preserve, which was one of my biggest accomplishments when I was at NLI. We’re also working to protect Raccoon Creek, which is an almost pristine creek that comes down through the wetlands.”
In 2018, Paulson accepted a part-time position as executive director of Indian Hill Manor. “It’s a fascinating property, between the historical gardens, the historic buildings, the farm, and all the wild, wooded land along the Kishwaukee River. It’s really right down my alley, so I’m thrilled to be working with them.”
Paulson’s interest in conservation was cultivated on his family farm, where he currently resides.
“My father was one of the early practitioners of soil conservation,” he says. “He never talked about it, but I picked up on it by example. He was one of the first farmers in Winnebago County to put in terraces and grassed waterways, and to plant up trees for wildlife,” he says.
A lot has changed over time, including how people react when they learn of his dedication to conservation.
“I’ve been doing this work for over 50 years, and no longer do you get blank stares or people thinking you’re crazy when you talk about preserving wetlands, or that you’re planting prairie grass. It’s pretty much accepted by most people now.”
It’s working, too.
“Fifty years ago, the American bald eagle was on the endangered species list. Now, you can see them flying through downtown Rockford,” Paulson says. “A lot of other species have recovered because of efforts by conservationists to clean up the rivers. But at the same time, we’re still losing our songbirds, and a lot of our butterflies and other beneficial insects are in trouble. I’ve accomplished a lot in 50 years, but we still have a lot to do.” – Paula Hendrickson
Lending a Hand
Kristen Smith saw a big need in Belvidere, so she decided to do something about it.
With the help of Life Church in Roscoe, Ill., Smith helped launched B1 Food Pantry in 2017.
“There’s no other client-choice pantry in Belvidere, so we thought it would be a good idea to start one,” Smith says. “There’s no looking away once you see the need.”
The pantry is housed at Belvidere First Assembly of God Church, in Belvidere. It’s open from 1 to 3 p.m. each Thursday, but Smith says people begin lining up as early as 10:30 a.m. She estimates about 1,100 people visit the food pantry each month.
Running the pantry feels like a full-time job to Smith. Among other things, she has to set up the food, organize it and help distribute it. She also does plenty of paperwork.
“I spend a lot of time at the church, but this is a calling for me,” says Smith, who’s been married to Dave Smith, the church pastor, for 25 years.
As the need continued to grow, so did the pantry. It started out with basic food items, like bread, cereal and various snacks. It’s since grown to include pet food, baby supplies, hygiene products and other items – all of which clients can select for themselves.
“The kids are always my favorite,” says Smith, who’s a mother of three. “We have a table where kids get their own bag and fill it with snacks. If they’ve been here before, they run to that table. Thinking of their little faces is what gets me out of bed each morning.”
Smith says the pantry is open for anyone who’s interested, especially for people who are down on their luck.
“We consider ourselves an emergency pantry, because if you were making good money and you’ve lost your job, you can come here. It’s free, and there are no income limits,” Smith says. “You think everyone has what they need, but that’s not true.”
In addition to running the pantry, Smith is also the Sunday school teacher at the church. She also works with the local Lions Club and the Illinois Hunger Coalition.
But, the food pantry is her top priority.
“It’s an amazing opportunity, and once you do it, you want to do it more,” she says. – Jermaine Pigee
A Passion Beyond Words
Something clicked when Steven Larsen took up trumpet in high school, but it wasn’t until college, when he switched from pre-med to music that his passion became a true calling.
“I know nothing about pop music of the ’70s and ’80s because I was too busy trying to catch up on classical music,” he says. “Pop wasn’t terribly interesting to me anymore.”
Larsen landed a leadership role at the Chicago Opera Theatre before he found an opening at Rockford Symphony Orchestra (RSO), where he’s remained for the past three decades.
Coming to Rockford as music director in 1991, Larsen spent almost as much time planning concerts as he spent reviving the orchestra after the difficult tenure of his predecessor. At first, he figured he’d stay for a few years and move on.
“But it kept getting better,” he says. “I thought, well, I don’t want to go somewhere else when it just keeps getting better.”
Indeed, it has. The RSO has grown from five concerts and a budget of $225,000 a year to nearly 16 concerts and a budget of $1.4 million. Larsen was named Conductor of the Year three times by the Illinois Council of Orchestras, with RSO twice named Orchestra of the Year. Larsen has also sought new ways of engaging the public, including radio broadcasts and lectures.
Along the journey, Larsen has met superstars like Itzhak Perlman, Bobby McFarren and Yo-Yo Ma, in addition to countless other rising stars, including the talented RSO musicians who perform in multiple cities. Larsen has guest conducted in places as diverse as Milwaukee, Mexico City and Czech Republic.
Perhaps the biggest change of his life came in 2018, when Larsen was struck by a car. His injuries included 38 fractures, kidney failure and a crushed ankle. “When you go through an experience like that, it realigns your priorities a little bit,” he says.
This past winter, Larsen announced he’ll retire in the spring of 2021. He plans to spend more time traveling and enjoying international venues as he rediscovers music in new ways.
“Music expresses things that nothing else can – not just emotions, but concepts you can’t even put a word to,” he says. “But when you’re versed in a great piece of music, and you form it and know it, there are parts of the universe that are opened up to you, that you don’t get to see any other way.” – Chris Linden