It’s hard to believe. Pete Vonachen is gone. Just a few days before his passing we were having coffee and donuts together at the Buehler Home. Pete was his usual charming and witty self, occasionally complaining about his sore bottom, but fully engaged in conversation with our “gang” that included Joe Stowell, Ken Goldin, Bob Gordon, Mike Olson, Phil Theobald, and Ron Ferguson. The coffee and donuts get together started last year. Sometimes the two of us would visit two and even three times a week. Soon it was a Monday morning ritual with Mike Olson bringing the donuts and I would chip in with decaf coffee, one sugar and one cream for Pete. Later the chat group grew to include Stowell, Theobald and Goldin. The morning summits were held in the sun room at Pete’s house every week after “Breakfast with Royce and Roger.” There was no agenda, just light-hearted conversation about everything past and present, sports and non-sports. Pete not only loved it, he wanted, and needed it. “I can’t get out like I used to,” he told me one morning when we were alone. “I’m so appreciative of everyone when they come over. It means a lot to me.” Actually, it meant a lot to me, to all of us. Our “Last Breakfast” was Monday, June 3. Pete had spent some difficult days in the hospital and was transferred to continue his recuperation at Buehler Home. He let it be known he wanted to resume the Monday morning “socials.” So, Pete made arrangements with Buehler Home administrator Rich Amberg to provide coffee and some delicious rolls. “You don’t have to bring anything but yourself,” he happily told me on the phone. We had stories and jokes and witty remarks and laughs. Lots of laughs. There was no indication his life was coming to a rapid end. But it was. You’ll recall in the moving eulogy for his friend Harry Caray, Pete said, “and poof, just like that, he was gone.” And so it was with Pete.
Much has been written and spoken about Pete and his life. Beautiful words. Beautiful thoughts. However, little, if any, included praise for his work on behalf of OSF St. Francis Medical Center where he served as a long-time member of the hospital’s Advisory Board, which, I learned, he started.
His love, affection and loyalty for the hospital had its beginning with his father, Dr. Harold Vonachen. That’s why I asked Keith Steffen, administrator at OSF St. Francis, to talk about Pete’s loving service to the hospital on our morning show. What followed was the most moving, touching, praise-filled and humorous eulogy I had ever heard about anyone, except the one Pete gave for Harry Caray. I regret I didn’t have the technological expertise to record it. I’m sorry Pete didn’t hear Steffen’s words. Or did he?
Yes, Pete Vonachen is gone, but not the wonderful memories that includes his wit and charm. Since he was a friend and frequent guest of “Breakfast with Royce and Roger,” we have his quips, jokes, comments (both funny and serious), and laughter on tape. With his passing, we’ve been playing excerpts almost daily on our WOAM morning show along with the humor of Royce Elliott and other community notables. His death is not news for a day or two as far as I’m concerned. We’ll be playing portions of past programs featuring Pete.
Years ago when Royce and I went on radio, Pete said, “I’ll come on anytime you want to help you build an audience.” And so he did almost daily. He had fun as we all did June 3, at the “Last Breakfast.”
IT’S OLD NEWS!
The Peoria Journal, TV and radio stations are alive with stories about District 150’s plan to sell Peoria Stadium. WEEK boasted on one of its newscasts Thursday, May 23, that it “was first released by this station.” That’s simply not true. The truth is, it’s old news. For weeks, no for months, the local news outlets were not paying any attention to the not so secret discussions at District 150. Terry Knapp, former teacher and coach in the school district, said as early as last fall on WOAM that officials were going to sell the public stadium. His statements were repeated on subsequent WOAM newscasts. This column revealed the hushed plans in last February’s Community Word. Now documents confirm the school board had been discussing it as long ago as 2011 without telling anyone. This is a gross lack of transparency, all too common with the district’s administration and board.
Be aware people. It’s important for those residents who live around the Peoria Stadium to demand transparency and accountability from District 150 and the City of Peoria. This means demanding public hearings to not only learn what’s going on, but having the opportunity to ask questions and voice opposition. When two members of the County Board attempted to secretly expand the Gift Avenue Juvenile Detention Home, I demanded a series of public hearings for the benefit of neighbors and taxpayers. The hearings were held and the secret plans were dumped and replaced by a new facility next to the county jail. When the city and county were quietly making plans for a cell growth area in and around Alta, we again demanded public hearings. The hearings resulted in changes to those plans after listening to people living in the affected area. Too often those in government will try to push projects through without seeking public input and support. I’m not surprised by the early deception and denials by the school district.
Meanwhile, the school district has been quietly purchasing properties around Peoria High. The goal is to develop a sports complex, similar to what exists at the closed Woodruff High School. Known as the Woodruff Career and Technical Center, the school serves up a small educational buffet for students of a variety of ages and interests. Recently, someone told me, “Woodruff is the busiest closed high school in the state.” Amen. You’ll recall the district also bought homes on Prospect Road which they still own with absolutely no benefit to school children and their families. These are properties that once were on the tax rolls. No more.
But here’s the real deal. Look for school officials to announce plans for a football stadium at Peoria High that will include a grandstand. It’s amazing that they closed Woodruff High School and sent close to 1,000 students scrambling on buses to save a little over $1 million and then turned around and spent over $20 million retro-fitting Peoria High. Go figure. Even some city officials exclaimed the city couldn’t afford four high schools and now the Quest program has a high school, but no sports facilities. Look for them to try and claim Woodruff. Duh.
Speaking of sports complexes, I wish the park district would take over all Peoria Stadium land and replicate Eastside in East Peoria. The stadium land already has ball diamonds and an excellent walking trail. It has a football field and the running track can be replaced and the stands renovated. Shoot, the football field could be developed as a diamond as it was for the Peoria Red Wings years ago.
Who knows, maybe someone can convince Bradley to field a football team as they do at Eureka, Knox, and even Robert Morris.
Peoria Stadium holds lots of memories for many Peorians. Both stands were packed every Thanksgiving morning for the traditional Turkey Day game between Manual and Central. By the way, when they throw out inflated figures for renovation and replacement, perhaps they can explain why the stadium was allowed to deteriorate over the years.
Since my last column, I traveled with my son, Zack, to Santa Barbara, California, to attend the memorial service for my friend, Jonathan Winters. It was held in the historic Lobero Theater with about 135 by-invitation-only attendees. The service opened with a Marine Guard posting the colors and a short narrative of Jonathan’s service as a Marine. Jonathan was part of a 90 member Marine detachment on the USS Bon Homme Richard. It was the only aircraft carrier that was not hit or damaged in the South Pacific. He often bragged about that in our phone conversations.
What followed were a series of very funny excerpts of Jonathan from movies, TV shows and interviews. The theater was alive with laughter. The excerpts were interspersed with eulogies from people like Gary Owens from Rowan and Martin’s “Laugh In” program; Frank Sinatra, Jr.; TV’s Bonnie Hunt; actor/comedians Rick Overton and Robert Klein. The eulogies ended with emotional remarks from Jonathan’s daughter Lucinda and son J. The moving service was narrated by TV producer Don Pasternak. On the theater stage were some antique children’s items. Jonathan was an antique collector. He loved to go to antique shows. He once sent me an antique pin dating to the 1800’s from Peoria. The children’s toys on stage included a bike, ball, bat, wagon, and a school lunch pail. In concluding the memorial, Pasternak said, “This has been a beautiful, wonderful tribute to our friend Jonathan Winters.” The people responded with applause. Pasternak continued, “It’s too bad Jonathan could not be here.” With that, Pasternak walked over to where the toys were, picked up the child’s lunch pail, walked back to the speaker’s lectern and gently set it down.
And then Pasternak announced, “But he is.” Like his wife Eileen, Jonathan was cremated. His ashes were in the pail.
It wasn’t announced then or even later during the family’s reception in the garden behind the theater the details, but I’m convinced this is what Jonathan had requested before his death. It was a memorable experience that only Jonathan Winters could have scripted…. one of the few things he ever pre-planned.
Though I had been invited many times to be a guest in his nearby Montecito home, I didn’t make the trip until he died. I was saddened by his death and by my failure to meet and greet him in person. I do have memories, wonderful memories. I’ll long remember our telephone conversations that not only included funny skits and improvised interviews with people in Santa Barbara, but words of encouragement for the health challenges our family is facing, similar to what he experienced with his wife. He was a magnificent man and friend. I thank God for his friendship. It was hard for me to believe, a simple man in Peoria, who became a close and personal friend of one of the greatest comedians who ever lived. He was loved and is missed.
QUOTES OF THE MONTH
“As long as one continues to live in the hearts and minds of those he left behind, they’re really not gone.”—Jack Brickhouse