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.
A Man and His Bike
Rick Barder made his living in the banking business as a commercial lender. But after retiring more than a decade ago, the Beloit resident now spends his time exploring southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois on his bike.
Barder was a “jock” in school but turned to biking later in life. “My knees and back were talking to me and I listened,” he says. “Biking is healthy. It helps clear my mind, and you can do it forever.”
Fifteen years ago, Barder decided to share his passion with other biking enthusiasts. Barder, along with friends, started the Stateline Spinners, a volunteer group of bicycling enthusiasts who gather on Tuesday evenings to ride in the state-line area.
“We had four or five riders in the beginning and now we have anywhere between 15-30 riders every week,” Barder says.
The group rides all over. They have 33 map routes to choose from, ranging from 5 to 100 miles. The group selects the weekly route together. “The typical ride ranges between 20-40 miles,” says Barder, whose favorite routes include a 52-mile trip to New Glarus, Wis.
In addition to riding, the Stateline Spinners get together for potlucks and other social gatherings. “It’s a bonding experience,” he says. “I’ve met so many wonderful people. We’re like family.”
While Barder enjoys riding with his group, he realized a bigger goal on his bike. In 2006, Barder fulfilled part of his bucket list when he rode 4,000 miles from Bellingham, Wash., to Yorktown, Va., in 69 days.
“It was a life-changing experience,” says Barder, who took a sabbatical from work. “I was chased by a buffalo that looked like retired Chicago Bear Dick Butkus, and I met many people I’m still in touch with today. It made me a better person.”
But biking isn’t Barder’s only passion. For 15 years, Barder has volunteered with other local business professionals at Beloit Memorial High School, teaching interview skills to students. The sessions show students how to build a resume, participate in an interview, and even write thank you notes.
“I was fortunate to have parents who helped me,” he says. “I want to give back to students who haven’t had that type of relationship in their life. Everyone needs a mentor.” – Paul Anthony Arco
Flipping the Narrative
Krystal Scroggins has become accustomed to that funny look when she tells people she works at Rockford’s Roosevelt Community Education Center. “Isn’t that where the bad kids go?” they ask. For the past several years, Scroggins and her nearly 600 students have been turning that idea upside down.
Graduation rate has grown 32 percent over the past three years. Student attendance has jumped; credits earned have doubled; literacy gains have grown by 125%. Students rate their engagement and teacher-student relationships at the highest levels.
Behind the scenes, Scoggins has been a quiet force in Roosevelt’s turnaround. As an Academies coach and project-based instructor, she’s taking students who’ve struggled in traditional schools and redefining the way they learn.
“If you were to look at the past history of some of the kids who’ve been in my room, you’re going to see students who might have had a negative experience or outlook on school in the past,” she says. “They just get a clean slate walking in our door.”
In this largely self-directed educational setting, students are provided hands-on assignments that apply classroom work in real-world situations. Scroggins is developing a makerspace for students and leading a Precious Plastics-style initiative where they’ll turn discarded plastics into 3-D printing filament – which then becomes part of a new project.
On a deeper level, though, her work is empowering students to take charge of their futures. No longer is the focus merely on graduation. It’s about success beyond school.
“They’re so different from the day they enter the building to the day they graduate,” says Scroggins. “They’ve grown so much just beyond the academic standards.”
Ask her students, and they’ll tell you their own stories of self-discovery. “Krystal opened me up to the idea that there are a lot more options than I was thinking,” says one student.
Scroggins first fell in love with so-called “alternative education” when she was an undergrad at Illinois State University. Out of school, the Rochelle native landed a job teaching English at Roosevelt and hasn’t looked back in 15 years. Her school is now a highly sought-after building among Rockford teachers. “I can’t imagine not walking through these doors,” she says. – Chris Linden
A Passion That Keeps Growing
In 1995, Todd Tucker was just a young intern at Byron Forest Preserve District (BFPD). But, he showed promise. So, after his six-month internship ended, he was hired on as a full-time naturalist. As he continued to climb the ranks, he learned how to educate others about the surrounding natural area while also working to restore it.
Today, Tucker is the executive director, a role he’s held for 13 years. “I’m not in this field for the money, and none of us are,” he says. “We’re very dedicated and hardworking employees who believe in the environment and the preservation of land and animals in this area.”
A native of Franklin Grove, Ill., Tucker knew from a young age he wanted to work outdoors, especially since he was exposed to nature through his work with Future Farmers of America while in high school. “I originally went to school thinking I’d be a banker, but I thought if I had to wear a suit all day, I’d hate myself,” he says. Under Tucker’s leadership, BFPD has grown tremendously. Before he took over as executive director, the preserve only had 700 acres of land. Today, BPFD has acquired roughly 2,500 acres.
One project Tucker is proud of is the Bald Hill Prairie Preserve in Mt. Morris, Ill. After receiving a $444,000 grant in 2017, BPFD acquired that land. It now has 380 acres, as well as the largest tree in the state – a giant cottonwood that’s 28.5 feet in circumference and stands 122 feet tall.
“It’s a neat property in the corner of our area,” he says. “We only have one-tenth of one percent of original prairie in Illinois, so those plant species are very important.”
BFPD has also taken home some serious hardware under Tucker’s leadership. The preserve received an award in 2017 from the American Association for State and Local History, recognizing BFPD’s Jarrett Prairie Museum. “One hundred years ago, forest preserves just bought a piece of land and it sat there,” Tucker says. “Today, we have museums, observatories, preschools and lots of programming.”
Tucker admits he has bad days at work, just like everyone does. But, he never wakes up dreading it. “I believe in what I do, and I enjoy it,” he says. “More importantly, the people I work with are just as passionate about this preserve as I am.” – Jermaine Pigee
Working for Women
After working in sales and marketing for years, Nancy Whitlock found herself taking on a different challenge in 1996: the presidency of Rockford Woman’s Club. She describes the step as a “presidency by marriage,” since her husband’s great-great aunt, Jessie I. Spafford, was president of the club for 43 years.
Whitlock grew up outside Belvidere but moved to Rockford shortly after accepting a job at First National Bank. She became involved with the club after her sister-in-law asked her to help.
“At the time, the club was in bad financial shape,” Whitlock recalls. “They had one of the longest-operating restaurants in Rockford, called The Food Shop, and it was very popular but not profitable.”
Whitlock and the board made the decision to close the restaurant in order start putting the club back on solid ground.
“I look at the club as a big challenge on one hand, but the building and the history of what the club has given to the community are something that women should be proud of,” she says. “Today, the club is in better condition but continues to be a work in progress. Our 100-year-old building is one of the few buildings that was completely established and funded by women of Rockford. The members were involved from the design work all the way forward to completion.”
Throughout her presidency, Whitlock has helped the club to evolve in many ways. One of the Club’s most popular events is the creative writing contest.
“It’s one of my favorite events when the winners are invited to present their works at a luncheon attended by their parents and teachers,” she says.
Whitlock remains proud of the club’s philanthropic efforts, including work with The Literacy Council, Sharing Our Closet, the She-Vets, Remedies, Shirley’s Place and Keeping Your Culture. It’s a reminder of the club’s commitment to the community.
“In every single thing you will have both joys and challenges,” she says. “The club is where some days you have the creative writing contest, and it’s just a joyful day. Then, you get the gas bill and it’s a challenging day. I’m really looking for the next generation who really want to continue to keep the club moving forward.” – Sara Myers
Blending Art and Business
By the time Larry Pittsley was 16, he had already worked about 16 jobs.
“I started doing lighting and sound with my dad when I was just big enough to carry something,” he recalls.
Pittsley and his father worked the lights and sound production at almost all of the theaters in the area, including the Freeport Masonic Temple, the Coronado Performing Arts Center and the Midway Theatre. Pittsley still works gigs when someone “twists his arm.”
Around three years ago, another passion came into Pittsley’s life. He’d spent 11 years as an instructor at Highland Community College and was a mobile deejay on the side. He’d been a store manager for big-box stores, but he wanted to run a different kind of store. Thus was born American Garage Art, in Freeport. The shop is a trove of art, antiques and historical memorabilia. Pittsley also offers customized printing on apparel and more.
“I bought the building and started working with other artists. I didn’t even know how to do any of this,” Pittsley laughs. “Thank God for YouTube because you can learn anything on YouTube. You make a lot of mistakes, and you learn what you’re doing wrong and what you’re doing right.”
Some of his favorite designs include Little Cubs Field and quotes from Abraham Lincoln. He’s also printed GPS coordinates of local attractions and used his father’s historical photography.
Meandering through American Garage Art, no one can doubt Pittsley’s love for Freeport. The store is bursting with local pride, sporting shirts that read “Pretzel City” as well as “Fritz Brew,” “Sterling,” “Schmich Bros.,” and “Yellow Creek Brewery” – paying homage to Freeport’s original breweries.
Ultimately, the most important thing to Pittsley is customer service and a solid reputation.
“I’ve worked for a lot of professionals – I’ve worked for President Bush, President Obama, Steve Martin, Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash,” he says. “They don’t say, ‘Maybe next time you can do a better job for us.’ You’ve got to get it right the first time. There’s no room for error when people are counting on you. If you’re not giving it your best shot and doing a quality job for someone, I think you’re in the wrong business.” – Sara Myers
The Universe is Calling
Call it destiny, or call it the product of positive thinking – either way, it’s been a driving force for this serial entrepreneur.
Growing up in DeKalb, Henry McDavid never dreamed of owning his own business, even though he was earning fistfuls of cash selling goods to friends and colleagues. Dozens of jobs and failed ventures later, fate has granted him a taste of success.
“Opportunity usually comes in the form of misfortune,” he says. “So, what you think is a bad thing or a negative thing and you’re like, ‘Why did it happen to me?’ – it’s not why did it happen to you; it’s that it happened for you.”
And so it’s been with his latest venture, Kikifers Beauty Supply, in Rockford. He was out of work and looking for a new direction when McDavid met a couple who were producing black soap.
McDavid saw a chance to create a liquid version that could help people with skin conditions. He had some early interest, but no major breaks until fate came knocking.
“We took our last $20 and jumped on the road to Milwaukee, didn’t even have gas money to get home,” he says. It was a sell-out, and in time, McDavid and his wife/business partner, Keishonda, were opening a store where they could sell more. The couple now make and sell some 60 multiethnic beauty products.
The store’s success brought new opportunities, as the McDavids launched Kikifers Entrepreneurial Academy to fill an empty room in their store.
The private school is aimed at children with achievement gaps, and it’s built around a self-paced curriculum. Between learning the three R’s they also get a hands-on education in business skills. In fact, children can’t apply to the school without pitching a business concept. The school now operates out of the Booker Washington Community Center and has plans to raise $1 million to build a strong foundation. “I try to give people what I didn’t have as a child,” McDavid says.
In between the store and school, McDavid can also be found refereeing at local sports matches, advising on financial and entrepreneurial matters, giving motivational speeches and finding ways to expand Kikifers to other parts of the country.
“Failure is a part of success, so we take the failures,” he says, “and when the successes come, we take those too.” – Chris Linden
Making Life More Colorful
Belvidere is known as the City of Murals, and Jay Allen, owner and president of ShawCraft Sign Co., Inc., in Machesney Park, Ill., is a big reason why.
Born and raised in Belvidere, Allen is an original member of the Walldogs, a passionate group of mural-painting artists. Since their founding in Allerton, Iowa, in 1993, Allen and fellow artists have completed more than 700 murals across 14 countries.
“Whenever we go to a community, we always see a new sense of spirit,” says Allen, also a board member of the Boone County Arts Council. “I’m addicted to helping communities improve.”
Allen helped to create 10 murals in downtown Belvidere during the city’s Walldog Festival back in 1997. As a result, Belvidere received the 1997 Governor’s Art Award from the Illinois Arts Council and was given the City of Murals nickname by then-Gov. Jim Edgar.
There are 31 murals in Belvidere, and the Walldogs created 11 of them. Several other artists, including local high school students, created the remaining murals. Each one depicts a piece of Belvidere’s rich history, says Allen.
“Every community needs to hang its hat on something in order to have a sense of community pride,” he says. “The murals help give Belvidere an identity.”
Many of the murals can be found in the downtown district along State Street, from Hurlbut Street to Logan Avenue. Other murals can also be found along First Street.
Allen – who’s married to his wife, Jody and has one son, Evan – has been in the sign and mural business since 1983. He’s also a recipient of numerous awards for his work. In 2009, the Belvidere Area Chamber of Commerce awarded Allen with the Distinguished Citizen Award for special services performed in the Belvidere/Boone County area.
That same year, the Illinois Humanities Council awarded him one of the Studs Terkel Humanities Service Awards for his public artwork and work in the humanities.
“Imagine driving into Belvidere every day and seeing that water tower that says ‘City of Murals,’” he says. “Is that something I can really walk away from? These murals cost me time and money, but I love it.” – Jermaine Pigee
Embrace the Journey
Glasa Gottschalk considers herself a natural-born leader.
Whether it’s working with a music shop, a bank or a startup furniture company, it seems every job or organization she’s worked with, she’s climbed the ladder into leadership.
“Business has always been something I’ve been drawn into,” says Gottschalk. “It’s been really fun to create culture, and see businesses thrive, and lead that charge.”
At one point, Gottschalk wanted a breather from the long hours and grueling work she’d been accustomed to. She planned to take a year off for travel and spending time with family and friends. It was during this sabbatical that she started volunteering with Habitat for Humanity’s Rockford ReStore, a thrift shop with a knack for hardware and home finishes. A college friend who happened to work with Habitat, Laura Butler, introduced Gottschalk to the group’s director.
“They were looking for someone to join their board,” Gottschalk recalls. “We talked, and I sat in on one of their board meetings to see if it was going to be a good fit. I instantly fell in love.”
The commitment started with some social media work and grew into more-detailed marketing and communications. Along the way, Gottschalk stumbled into her own business opportunity: a consulting firm.
“I had an old client who wanted help with his business,” she explains. “He referred a person to me, and then friends and family found out and they started referring to people as well. It just blossomed, and I was like, ‘I guess this is what I’m doing now.’ So, I made it all official. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past three years now.”
Perhaps the biggest lesson Gottschalk has learned along the journey is that it pays to embrace change and adapt with circumstances.
“I think the mindset prior to my generation was very much that you stay in an industry, and you work hard, and you move up the ladder in that industry, and you retire with a pension,” says Gottschalk. “But that type of mindset is changing. Life is just too short to stay in an industry just because you’re afraid or because you’re afraid of what other people will think. It’s really about being OK with pivoting and following your passions.” – Sara Myers
Prepared for Anything
When Tia Lasswell was voted Rockford’s No. 1 Wedding Planner by The Knot, her own fiance wasn’t surprised.
“He was like, ‘Everyone can see the passion you have for what you’re doing,’” Lasswell says. “He pushes me to do more. I’ll stay until the bitter end of your wedding and pack you up in your car, and not everyone does that, but it’s important for me to know at the very end of the night that you’ve enjoyed yourself to your fullest.”
A 1994 graduate of Rockford East High School, Lasswell began her career by managing restaurants like Thunder Bay Grille, in Rockford, and handling food and beverage operations at resorts like The Abbey, in Fontana, Wis. Helping out with events, especially weddings, was always her favorite part of the job. “So, I just decided to take the plunge and open my own business,” she says.
Since 2011, Lasswell has organized weddings as the owner of Capstone Occasions. And, since 2014, she’s partnered with D.C. Estate Winery to run all of their events.
There have been many times when Lasswell has saved the day.
“I had one wedding where the deejay thought he didn’t have to show up until 20 minutes before the ceremony, but he got stuck in traffic and then didn’t do any sound checks,” Lasswell recalls. “So, I had to improvise for the ceremony. That’s why I always ask everybody what songs they’re walking down to the aisle to, and I always download them on my phone, just in case.”
Wedding planning isn’t all glitz and glam. Though Lasswell admits most brides aren’t “bridezillas,” she has helped quite a few intoxicated wedding parties, whether it’s by holding back a bridesmaid’s hair or tying a groom’s shoes. And, it’s pretty typical for Lasswell to do a bit of cake decorating and flower arranging at every wedding. She aims to have a “Plan B” for any situation.
“I had another wedding where the officiant texted me that she was sick on the side of the road. I’m better at getting people down the aisle, but I am ordained as a backup,” she says.
Being able to alleviate stress for brides and grooms, and their parents, is what drives Lasswell to put in countless hours of work.
“It’s so rewarding to see everything come together, and to see how much joy the entire experience brings,” she says. – Lindsey Gapen Lukas
It’ll take more than a tragic accident to keep Keith Scott down.
He was towing a car out of a ditch just north of Rochelle, Ill., in 1985, helping a stranded motorist during a bad snowstorm, when another car ran into him. He was only 22.
“I was in the hospital for almost three months and my jaw was broken,” Scott says. “My arms were also broken and I got my leg amputated, so I was messed up pretty good.”
As time went on, Scott slowly began to heal. Instead of getting down on himself, he made the best out of a bad situation by earning a degree in civil engineering from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign before eventually becoming the public works director for the City of Rochelle.
It sounded like a good job, but Scott wasn’t happy.
“It was a lot of shuffling papers,” he remembers. “It’s not like you’re calculating storm sewers or designing something. You’re going through a lot of paperwork, going to meetings, and I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do.”
Against his family’s wishes, he left the City of Rochelle and opened Atlas Auto, a used car dealership, in 2007. To date, Scott says, the Rochelle dealership has about 180 customers. “I’ve always loved working with cars, so I thought this was my opportunity,” he says. “The building went up for sale, so I just said I’m going for it.”
Running the car dealership was right up his alley, but he wanted more. So, after noticing a vacant building and seeing all the potential profits from the video gambling industry, he took another risk last fall and opened The Rabbit’s Foot, a bar in Rochelle less than a mile from Atlas Auto.
“I never had a dream of opening a bar,” he says. “But, I’ve seen what these video gambling machines can make, so it made me dream a little bit. Rochelle doesn’t have a nice bar like this, so now people can come here, and I can hopefully make a little bit of money.”
These days, Scott is enjoying life. The accident that happened 35 years ago didn’t ruin his happiness.
“That accident did a lot for me – it made me stronger mentally, physically; it gave me determination,” he says. “That’s what makes me want to work harder and do better.” – Jermaine Pigee
Following Her Roots
For as long as she can remember, Joyce Gibbons has been interested in biology and the environment.
“I had an aunt who lived up in Wisconsin. We used to go visit them when I was little,” says Gibbons. “She was very knowledgeable about the native plants and some of the medicinal qualities of them. We would go for walks together, and she would explain to me and point out things about the environment. I really treasured those moments.”
And so began a lifelong interest for Gibbons, who’s earned degrees in wildlife biology and entomology and worked at places as diverse as the Natural Land Institute and the University of Illinois College of Medicine-Rockford. She now works at the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency as an environmental protection specialist.
“I visit factories and oversee how they’re handling their hazardous waste, making sure that all the rules are being followed,” she says. “I inspect landfills, open dumps and clean construction or demolition debris operations.”
At times, Gibbons can feel overwhelmed by the environmental damage she sees at work. During times of anxiety, she often asks herself, “What can I do?”
The answer has involved getting back to her roots.
Gibbons loves to volunteer with Forest Preserves of Winnebago County, the Natural Land Institute, the Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, doing her part to help restore the region’s natural ecology.
But perhaps her favorite work is related to a project in which she monitors dragonfly populations in the region. It was while working on that project that Gibbons and her colleagues found species of dragonflies known to occur in other areas of the state and country, but never before in Winnebago County.
The work involves hiking through area forest preserves from April through October.
“I walk through various habitats such as pond edges, stream and river banks, woodland pools and prairies,” says Gibbons. “I observe the various species that I find in the different habitats and record them. It’s not always easy, and it takes a lot of patience and skill.” – Sara Myers
A Youthful Spirit
At one point, Susan Johnson was making “buckets and buckets” of money as a computer programmer. But in all honesty, that was the only part of her job she actually enjoyed.
“When I was younger, women were either teachers, nurses or moms,” Johnson explains. “I thought ‘Pssh, forget that, I’m going to study math!’”
After graduating from Illinois State University in 1973, she found a “prestigious” job in computer programming.
“But you know what, it was boring,” Johnson says. “I just didn’t care that the Florida office made so many tons of ammonium nitrate last January. I mean, who cares, right?”
So, Johnson started looking for jobs in social work. She had a desire to help people, especially people who faced the stigmas of mental illness. She found work at a community crisis center in Elgin, Ill., where she balanced her shifts while earning her master’s degree in social work from Loyola University, in Chicago.
Since graduating with her master’s in 1992, Johnson has helped people of all backgrounds through her work at various mental health agencies and domestic violence agencies. She spent a few years working near Lake Tahoe, in California, but eventually moved back to Rockford to live closer to family.
In 2016, Johnson retired. But that didn’t last long.
“It just wasn’t my time yet – retirement was so boring,” she says. So, for the third time, Johnson decided to go back to school. This time, she picked Aurora University. “I earned my doctorate in social work at age 64,” she says. “Age should not be a limiting factor. In fact, I would kind of like to go to law school.”
These days, Johnson is the executive director of Family Counseling Services, in Rockford. She’s held that position for a little over a year, fulfilling her passion of helping people. “I’m very passionate about the agency and the work we do,” she says. “Compared to other agencies, we’re small, but I think we have a big impact on people’s lives.”
In her free time, Johnson enjoys playing video games, teaching in the doctoral program at Aurora University, and taking banjo lessons that her sister gifted her for Christmas. “Apparently, after you’re 60, you’re supposed to crumble into bacon,” Johnson laughs. “But, no. I like to learn new things.” – Lindsey Gapen Lukas