By Steve Robinson | August 4, 2019 - 10:20 pm
Posted in Category: District 87, News, The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL – With the number of days in summer vacation dwindling down for students, getting kids ready for school is on the minds of many parents these days. And if all children were on a level playing field for the school year from the very first day, that, too, would benefit the children, their families, and their teachers. That level playing field means holding to the belief that all families could afford the supplies needed for a child’s routine school day. Sadly though, there are students who need a little help to accomplish this.

Those students in need to acquire those supplies will receive that help by attending a by invitation only “Back 2 School” Party, to be held at Grossinger Motors Arena in Bloomington on Tuesday, Aug. 13 from 12 Noon-5p.m. Also, from 5p.m.-6p.m., an express line to pick up supplies will also be available.

The “Back 2 School” Party is jointly sponsored by the Back To School Alliance through Illinois Prairie Foundation in conjunction with Normal-based Unit 5 School District and Bloomington School District #87.

Students eligible to participate at this party are entering Kindergarten through 8th grade at either a Unit 5 or District #87 school, and qualify for a free or reduced lunch, as identified by the school, and have met all registration requirements for this coming school year. Those requirements include having physicals and immunizations prior to entering certain grades.

“In exchange for having the responsibilities regarding registration and health records current, we give the kids a free back pack with supplies to get the kids started on the year,” explained Jan Meadows, co-chair of the Back2School Alliance event, along with Taunia Leffler. Leffler is also a board member for Normal-based Unit 5 School District.

“Basically, on day one, we want everyone ready on the first day of school,” Meadows said of the event’s primary goal. A committee of 15 area residents work year-round toward the success of this event, Leffler added.

Children who fall within Federal guidelines concerning such things as reduced lunches are eligible to attend, but must have received an invitation where they registered to attend school. Students must bring the invitation with them to the event. Parents can check with school offices about obtaining the invitations, Meadows said. She said invites would have also come through daily mail to eligible families, as well.

Leffler said about 1,600 kids received backpacks filled with supplies for the child’s grade level last year. Meadows said the Alliance tries to maximize every dollar spent by taking advantage of sales for supplies stores advertise as the school year gets closer. She added the group takes in donations for supplies, too. Typically, Meadows said, those 1,600 are evenly divided per grade level at this event.

Leffler said the Alliance also takes monetary donations through Illinois Prairie Community Foundation which the Alliance uses for any needed purchases, as well. In addition, Back2Alliance has a link on its Facebook page which allows for monetary donations using PayPal.

In addition to the necessary supplies for students, parents and their kids can find out about groups or organizations of interest for kids. Leffler said representatives from both public libraries, Girl Scouts, Boys & Girls Club of Bloomington-Normal, and other organizations will be present “to offer services to the kids.”

Leffler said there are still supplies the effort is in need of. She said those include: Pencils, composition notebooks, dry erase markers, and Post-It notes. “We know we are really in need of those things right now,” Leffler said.

Leffler and Meadows said there are a number of locations where supplies can be dropped off which the Alliance will pick up in time for the event. Those drop off locations include: HyVee, Wal-Mart in both Normal and Bloomington, Meijer in Normal, and Bloomington Public Library. In addition, such donations are being collected at both the main offices for both Unit 5 and Bloomington School District #87.

In addition to the Alliance’s own efforts, Meadows said, The Salvation Army has had collection boxes out in the community gathering supplies, as well. Meadows said this is the first year the Salvation Army has assisted in the Alliance’s effort. Another partnership the Alliance has forged for their effort is with Midwest Food Bank, which donated some space at its facility located at 2031 Warehouse Rd. in Normal for the Alliance to assemble backpacks. Leffler said this is the first year for that partnership.

“We really appreciate being able to store our supplies there year-round, but also use the space for our packing efforts,” Leffler said, adding the packing effort in preparation for the Aug. 13 event takes 300 volunteers. During the school year, Meadows added, Back2School Alliance also gets a helping hand from students enrolled in Vocational Transitional Assistance Program, (VTAP), which operates out of Eugene Field School.

NORMAL – Prospect League newcomers Normal CornBelters may have been the hosts for the league’s annual All-Star Game July 23, but it was the guests from teams representing the league’s Western Division who stole the show, beating the Eastern Division squad, 11-2, in front of roughly 750 fans.

Cody Orr of the Chillicothe Paints opened the contest with a triple and scored on a single by Max Jung-Goldberg of the Danville Dans, putting the visiting Eastern squad in front, 1-0 in the first inning. The Western Division countered in the bottom half of the inning, when Tyler Clark-Chiapparelli of the Quincy Gems singled with one out, scoring Brendan Ryan of the Springfield Sliders, tying the game, 1-1.

Matt Rubayo of the West Virginia Miners doubled to get the second inning started for the East and scored on a sacrifice fly by Jacob Mulcahy of the Terre Haute Rex, putting the East up, 2-1. Chillicothe’s Gavin Homer walked followed by Orr hitting a ground-rule double, putting runners at second and third with one out. A single by Jung-Goldberg completed the action to score Homer and Orr, advancing the Eastern Division’s lead, 4-1. The Western Division closed in during their half of the inning, cutting the East’s lead, 4-2, thanks to a leadoff walk from league Home Run Contest champ Canyon McWilliams of the Normal CornBelters. From there, McWilliams stole second and scored thanks to a single from DuPage Pistol Shrimp’s Jack Surin.

But McWilliams’ run proved to be the last of the offense the Western Division would produce. With two outs in the top of the third, Rubayo smacked a double to left field and stole third before scored on a West Division fielding error, pushing the East Division’s lead, 5-2.

A one-hit single by Orr starting the fourth inning followed by Jung-Goldberg singling was followed by a three-run home run by Chris Monroe of the Lafayette Aviators, adding to the Eastern Division’s advantage, 8-2. The East would tack on two more runs in the fifth inning courtesy of Mitchell Garrity of the Terre Haute Rex, who singled home Danville Dans’ Andrew Meggs, giving the Eastern Division a 10-2 lead. Meggs reached base on a ground-rule double. The Eastern Division’s scoring was completed when Stephen Cullen from the Champion City Kings drove a solo homer out of the park in the top of the ninth inning, finishing the scoring with the East in front 11-2.

Chillicothe’s Zach Kendall was the contest’s winning pitcher.

CornBelters Front Office Pleased With Overall Event Outcome: Todd Kunze, CornBelters general manager, said both the game and the Home Run Derby which preceded it on Monday were well attended. “We did pretty well because, well, people have jobs and kids, and it’s a transition year for the team with new ownership and new league,” he reminded. “We had a fantastic night Tuesday night for the All Star event. Weather was fantastic, and for as hot as it was, we couldn’t have asked for as well as it was. I thought we did really, really well and had a great showing for the players who came out “

Kunze said the event “was an exciting experience for those young men and we were just excited to host the game in our first year in the league.” Kunze finished by saying the team is appreciative of the support of the Prospect League and Commissioner Dennis Bastien and his wife and Deputy Commissioner Lisa Bastien for “supporting our efforts for having the game here and the opportunity it gave us.”

The Tim Jankovich Connection: In his office, Kunze has a bar graph with an arrow moving upward – something to remind him which direction he wants to see the team move toward. He said the idea for that graph came from his friend, and former Illinois State University Men’s Basketball Coach Tim Jankovich.

Manager Rick White Admits To A “Frustrating Summer”: In assessing how the first version of the Prospect League CornBelters turned out, Manager Rick White said, “I think we played way below what we were capable of playing like way below.” Being 10 games below .500 was a disappointment for him, he said, adding that considering the talent the team assembled, he believed the team at this point in the year should have been 10 game above .500.

“It’s been a frustrating summer,” White admitted, adding, “We weren’t able to get everything clicking at the right time. And then, when we get what we think is the right lineup in, we lose a player here, we lose a player there, or pitching doesn’t perform, or hitting doesn’t hit when pitching is good.” He described what he experienced as “a lot of head banging against the wall all summer long.”

In preparation for the 2020 season, White said, “We’re only going to offer a few guys contracts, if they want to come back. That’s out of the whole 30-plus we’ve had here.” At the most, White said, only five players from this year would be offered contracts for next season, he said. He said when he was hired meant he worked on getting players starting in January. Now that he has a season under his belt, he said, he can work sooner to evaluate and sign players.

White said he had heard that during the All-Star Break, a total of 90 players league-wide exited teams for various reasons. He said those reasons could range from getting ready for the fall semester at their respective colleges to just giving themselves a break between the league season and going back to college.

Just as Major League Baseball and its minor league counterparts do, the Prospect League held a home run hitting contest prior to its annual All-Star Game, held this year at The Corn Crib, home of the Normal CornBelters. CornBelters infielder Canyon McWilliams faced off against 11 competitors each representing the other teams in the league.

The competition had two rounds with every home run accounted for to see how many the players could knock out of the park in a 45 second time period. Each man was permitted to call a time out during his time allotment and they certainly took full advantage of that, with supporters coming to give water or just an encouraging word before the player stepped back into the batter’s box. The participating batter was allowed to choose the person who would be pitching to them. In many cases, it was teammates, or a coach, or in one case, the player’s father did the honors.

McWilliams, a junior attending Ohio Wesleyan University, chose CornBelters head coach Rick White to do the honors. But by no means did McWilliams, or any of the other competitors look like they were facing so-called softball pitches to swing at during the event.

In the first round, Cole Andrews of the Chillicothe Paints, Alex Ludwick of the Spingfield Sliders, and Joey Polak of the Quincy Gems were eliminated, Andrews and Ludwick getting 3 out of the park each, Polak 2. The second round would take the total homers from round one and add the homers from the second round for a combined score.

The man to beat was Andrew Stone from the Cape Girardeau Catfish who hit four out in the first round and 11 out in round two for a !7 total. McWilliams, the second man in batting sequence on the night, hit six out in round one. He said he knew what he was up against. In the second round, spectators marveled at the 10 homers McWilliams sent flying over the fence for a total of 16. Only Stone and McWilliams had numbers which reached that level.

In the two-man runoff final, Stone blasted 8 out of the park to the delight of fans, but McWilliams kept his cool and steadily blasted 13 homers skyward to take the title outright. “I just kept swinging, and I trusted Coach to put it where it needed to be,” McWilliams said. “At these home run derbys, it’s so much on the thrower. I just appreciate everything he did.”

During a recent CornBelters-Cape Girardeau game, McWilliams said Stone hit what he described as “an absolute moon shot in a game against us recently, so I knew he had a ton of power, so I was definitely thinking I was the underdog. But I’m very, very happy to get the win.”

White said he assumed he’d be the man throwing to McWilliams “because I throw to him all the time. I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t think he was going to hit that many today,” White added. “Once he got in a groove, he just took off.” White said McWilliams’ “short, quick swing gives him an advantage over everybody else.”

East Squad Tops West In Game: As for the All-Star Game itself, the Prospect League East All-Stars outpaced the West All-Stars, 11-2, on July 23.

Former Players Madlock, Ankiel, Dawson, Manager Herzog Make Appearances: Four names easily recognizable to baseball fans signed autographs and shook hands with fans prior to the Home Run Hitting Contest. Former Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Bill Madlock, former St. Louis Pitcher Rick Ankiel, former Cards Manager Whitey Herzog, and former Chicago Cubs outfielder Andre Dawson signed autographs over two days for fans at The Corn Crib. Due to a scheduling conflict, Dawson appeared July 23 while the other men were present to sign mementos the day of the home run contest.

A native of Decatur, Madlock, now 68, played 15 years in the majors including with the Cubs from 1974-76, and with Pittsburgh in the late ‘90s when the Pirates adopted the Sister Sledge disco tune “We Are Family” as their theme and motto. About making appearance such as the one here, Madlock said, “Anytime, you come to a minor league park, you can interact with fans, you can talk to them, and it’s fun that way.” He said that’s not the kind of atmosphere you can expect at major league parks.

Ankiel, who was a fielder who turned into a pitcher, played from 1999-2001 for St. Louis under then-manager Tony LaRussa before injury forced him to be sidelined from the game for two years before returning to Busch Stadium in 2004, said although he could play both sides of the game, “it was clear my strength was pitching. I was throwing with the speed in the mid 90s with a big time curve ball that helped me in the big leagues.”

Such events are humbling because fans remember you and the good times,” added Ankiel, who turned 40 July 19. “You hear the stories they have and you remember the good times and the bad. To be able to shake their hand and say thank you is fun.”

Herzog, now 86, played in the outfield and at first base from 1956-1963 for four teams – Kansas City A’s, Washington Senators, Detroit Tigers, and Baltimore Orioles. But many folks around here will long think of Herzog as the manager who brought St. Louis a World Series title in 1982 and got three National League Pennants in 1982, 1985, and 1987.

“The fans I saw today came from all over Illinois and they were wonderful,” Herzog remarked. “A lot of Cubs fans, Cardinals fans, other teams. But they were really baseball fans and they really enjoyed it and they were so respectful. He was impressed with how polite the teen members of the public were when they asked for autographs. “I appreciate that,” he said. He said he still attends most of the home games at Busch Stadium and takes in spring training games, too.

Dawson, who turned 65 July 10, started his 20 year career with Montreal in 1976 and was granted free agency at the end of the 1986 season signing with the Cubs for the 1987 season where he played for six seasons until beging granted free agency again in 1992. He went to the Boston Red Sox for one season before joining the Florida Marlins, where hefinished his career in 1996.

Dawson spent the weekend before coming to Normal at Cooperstown, N. Y. for the annual Baseball Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony. Dawson has been a member of the Hall since 2010 going in on a plaque with the team he entered the Majors with in 1976, the Montreal Expos. Now that he’s in, and has been for some time, he said he goes “to enjoy the festivities and enjoy the weekend.”

He signed all manner of items including balls and bats for fans here as did the other guys who visited. “The fans who go to the ceremony are excited about showing their support for the players who get in,” Dawson said.

“It’s always good to see Cubs fans wherever I go, and as close as I am to Chicago, getting to hear people talk about witnessing me as a player and enjoying me as a player is something that’s always good to hear.”

All in all, it sounds as though, whether fan, player, retired player, or casual spectator, the Prospect League event had a little something for everyone and everyone enjoyed the festivities being held here at home.

By Steve Robinson | July 21, 2019 - 10:40 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

Normal Police Officer Greg Leopold has been a member of the force for 25 years. He began his career as a patrol officer in 1994. For 11 of his 25-year career, he was a patrolman. For 11 more years, from 1999-2010, he was assigned to the department Emergency Response Team, more commonly known as SWAT. He did those things before taking on a different kind of duty involving helping local youth.

Four and a half years ago, Leopold became NPD’s Community Service Officer. That means he visited schools giving talks to kids, and has overseen NPD’s week-long Summer Youth Program, held in June. The camp just wrapped up its 20th year this year. One of the activities the kids taking part in the program is participating in every year is to help set up for Relay For Life of McLean County. The kids get the job done with Leopold sometimes gently, sometimes sternly, making sure his charges show respect and lend a hand where needed.

But come the beginning of August, Leopold, 50, is retiring from the force, to pursue other interests including spending time with his wife, Sheila, and three children. He took over the job from Officer Amanda Street. “I put my name in for the job and they selected me to be the Community Service Officer,” he explained.

Dealing with the 50 kids each year who attend the Youth Program’s camp, ages 9-13, with a handful of NPD officers to assist, might not be classified using two certain words some might think – easy and fun, — but Leopold explained, “It’s an easy task, and it’s a fun task for me. I love doing it and there’s nothing I would trade for that.” He said not getting to spend a week with the kids will probably be the toughest thing about his retirement.

On the last day of the week-long camp session, “we like to make sure the kids are giving back to the community,” Leopold said about the time spent with the kids. During the prior four days of the camp, the kids are involved in team building activities.

Many of the kids come from different schools in the Twin Cities, and some from places in the county. But Leopold said in-town kids receive first crack at getting the chance to attend. Many of these kids, as a result, might not have met or been together before. So the goal for these kids are fun team-building activities.

In describing the make-up of the kids, Leopold said, “We take all kinds of kids with different socio-economic backgrounds. Kids that aren’t having any troubles in school who have never had contact with police officers, and we have them gain friendships with kids who aren’t at such an advantageous part of their life.”

But just as Leopold’s involvement with kids didn’t start when he put on a badge, it didn’t stop, either. For 12 years, he was head coach of Tri-Valley High School’s junior varsity football team and served as an assistant coach on the varsity squad specializing in working with both offensive and defensive linemen.

But knowing his retirement from the police force meant he could be devoting time to family, especially watching his daughter, who will be a TVHS junior, at her activities this year, he stepped away from that coaching role last year. His daughter will be on the Vikings’ girls’ golf team this year. “I’ve never seen a full event she’s been in, and I’m excited to follow her around the golf courses for the next couple years,” Leopold explained.

The last 4 ½ years were not his only experience dealing with kids, however. From 1997-1999, he served as a Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE Officer, visiting schools.

NPD Chief Rick Bleichner credited Leopold with taking on the Community Service Officer role that has what he considers “a pretty broad umbrella” of items, including community outreach through Neighborhood Watch, the Next Door app, and informing business owners regarding how to protect their property.

“Greg is certainly an excellent fit in that position,” Bleichner said. “That job touches so many areas within the community. Greg took this position and made it to fit his style.” Bleichner said NPD anticipates the officer who will take the reins from Leopold, NPD Detective Brad Park, will take it and stamp his own approach to the job when he takes over at the beginning of August. When the school year begins in earnest, I will introduce Park to you in a future column.

In the years he has had this job, Leopold said there have only been just a couple kids who have gone through the program who have had brushes with the law resulting in consequences. The rest of the time, having the kids see him and wave and say “hi” have been worth the experience at this job. Here is wishing Greg a great retirement with the thanks of the kids and others he has helped, even if that was not always brought to light to the public.

NORMAL – It took a little cajoling from the staff of Bloomington-based Boys & Girls Club to get Dorian “Dodie” Dunson to attend Normal’s annual “Mayor’s Appreciation Reception” Thursday, July 17 at the Braden Ballroom of the Bone Student Center on Illinois State University’s campus. But seeing him surprised as Mayor Chris Koos named Dunson Normal’s “Citizen of the Year” made convincing him to attend worth it for colleagues and family members who saw the honor bestowed on him.

Koos told the gathering Dunson “effected the quality of life for countless individuals in our community.”

Dunson, 60, told the gathering after being announced for the award, “I love the community. I truly love the community.” He added he met his wife of 35 years, Jaci, 39 years ago in Normal so the Town has “a special place in my heart.” Hearing that personal note, those attending the gathering applauded. He thanked Koos, City Manager Pam Reece, and Town Council members for the honor.

Prior to announcing Dunson as the recipient of the honor, Koos informed the gathering of roughly 300 people that the mission of the Boys & Girls Club was to “empower all young people, especially those who need it most, to reach their full potential as a productive, caring, responsible citizen.” He added the Town “has a history of recognizing citizens of the year who are humble and unassuming, never expecting or receiving recognition. It’s these kind of characteristics to identify these kinds of individuals who have had a lasting impact on our lives.”

After Dunson’s name was announced by Koos and applauded by those in attendance, Koos detailed some of the reasons he was given the accolade. “Dodie is described as a mentor, coach, role model, friend, and father figure to countless youth. He goes above and beyond, coaching kids in sports and in life.” Koos added Dunson has been described as “quiet and impactful.”

After the formal program, Dunson told reporters, “You know, I was really caught off guard. I didn’t expect it. I thought we were coming as a group, as a club, for an award. I had no idea. My wife, my co-workers kept me off guard.”

“I have a passion for what I do,” Dunson added during the interview. “I work with the youth in the community, sometimes, the youth nobody really wants to work with. I’m there for them to help them build dreams, to help them overcome a troubled past and life that the kids have.”

Having grown up in public housing in Bloomington, Dunson said he has overcome his circumstances in order to get where he is currently. He referred to his mother as “my rock, who taught me right from wrong. I try to instill in the kids there’s a better way of doing things.

Dunson said his job is “second nature” to him. “If you’re a caring person, you care about the kids and you believe in them. Kids will trust you.” Asked if the kids who are at the Boys & Girls Club will be inspired by his winning the award, Dunson said, “They will be. They will be.”

The Boys & Girls Club took over the Western Avenue Community Center in 2017, Dunson pointed out, adding he has had a personal relationship with the center for 44 years.

Jaci Dunson said a phone call from City Manager Pam Reece let her on her in on the honor her husband was to receive about three days before the event. She said to keep from giving it away, she called her sister out of town to inform her of the honor.

Dunson is the 66th individual named for the honor since it was established in the 1950s. Past recipients have included: Clarence Ropp (1960); Howard J. Hancock (1976); Hal Riss, Jr. (1982); Stanley R. Ommen (1994); Edward Jelks (2004); and Myra Gordon (2012). The honor has gone to a married couple five times during its history, the last couple to receive the honor being Dan and Kathy Steadman in 2014.