By Steve Robinson | September 7, 2021 - 4:14 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

NORMAL – Three decades in any profession can leave any one person with a range of emotions depending on the person and their experiences. As he’s about to celebrate 30 years as a member of Normal Police Department, Chief Rick Bleichner admits joining the Town’s police department is one he described as “his first real grown-up job.”

Bleichner, 51, joined NPD as a patrol officer Sept. 9, 1991, and worked his way to being a detective and was promoted to the rank of Sergeant in 1999. In 2001, Bleichner was promoted again, to the role of Lieutenant and assigned to oversee the department’s Criminal Investigation Division. From there, he was appointed to Assistant Chief of Police in 2004. He became chief Aug. 1, 2011. Upon succeeding then-retiring Chief Kent Crutcher, Bleichner became only the fourth police chief the Town has had in the last three decades.

He accomplished this having graduated from Carl Sandburg College and earned a degree at Western Illinois University, where he did an internship at the Peoria County State’s Attorney’s Office before seeking a job which would send him toward his law enforcement career. After graduating from WIU, he explained, his job search “picked up steam and a month or so after leaving the State’s Attorney’s Office, I was in the police academy. That would be Champaign-based Police Training Institute where he spent 10 weeks in training.”

“Ninety-five percent of the job is being able to communicate and talk to people,” Bleichner explained. While doing that, officers try to “build some rapport with people because once you build that rapport, and you can establish a little bit of that kind of communication, then the rest of the call goes by a lot smoother.” He said once his supervisors guided him toward that approach, many calls he went on while on patrol “went smoother.”

In Bleichner’s opinion, “the Town has done a pretty good job of setting down what the expectations are” for his job. For himself, “I wanted to be in a place that focused on people because, at times, it’s just as important as how the job gets done itself.”

Among the changes Bleichner said he has noticed in recent years is the public’s seeming mistrust in government and how it operates, which includes how police departments function in the current age. Bleichner said there wasn’t that kind of thinking when he began his career.“There just seems to be more mistrust, or skepticism, if you will, that the public is being told the right things.” Bleichner said such questions show the public now has “an appetite to know and that’s not a bad thing.”

“I think it’s a good thing because, no matter what you’re doing, whether it’s at 7 o’clock in the morning, 7 o’clock at night, or 2 o’clock in the morning, you should be confident in telling the public that if someone was riding along or sitting here having a conversation, that I am OK that we explaining why we did what we did” given any situation.

Bleichner’s boss, City Manager Pam Reece, got a sense of that sort of thinking as she said she feels “grateful” to have him as a member of the Town’s leadership team. “I find him to be very forward thinking because he likes to address issues head-on but always tries to find solutions and better ways to do things. One of Rick’s biggest strengths is he likes to build relationships.” In addition to that sort of personalized effort, she credited Bleichner with helping NPD to help expand the school resource officer program the department has with Normal’s Unit 5 School District where resources officers are at the four junior highs and two high schools.

While with NPD, Bleichner has gone from being a patrol officer to overseeing those officers as a field training officer to working in detective division to being assistant chief, a post he held for seven years.

“We’ve been very, very fortunate to have assistant chiefs who were well prepared to take on the role of Chief of Police,” Reece said. She credits Bleichner with doing “a good job at mentoring leadership in the department for those to take on greater roles and become sergeants and lieutenants and assistant chiefs – that very important. Rick has done a lot of great things with Normal PD and I look forward to continuing that.”

But police departments are people who need to keep pace with the times, which includes technology, Reece added. She mentioned Bleichner’s continuing to have the department invest money in body cameras, radio improvements, and other tools law enforcement that are now standard with modern police departments.

Bleichner said all the experiences he had along the way in those sections of NPD “got him ready” for that next step – “ready to be more involved in the operations of the police department, ready to be more involved in the operations of the police department, and more involved in giving input in the policies and how we do things,” he said.

He grew up in Yates City, Ill., a town of 850 people in a corner of Knox County, halfway between Peoria and Galesburg. He said his initial understanding of law enforcement was shaped living in a town where “we knew the police, the police knew us and there was a level of interaction and there was some level of trust.”

He admits he believed that wearing a uniform and a badge would mean people would automatically trust and respect such authority. What he said he learned though was such trust and respect often had to be earned. He said he credited the officers on the job who trained him with teaching him about ways to talk to and work with people while serving them while wearing a badge. “At the end of the day, it was all about communication – talking to people,” Bleichner explained. He said that became important for him understand because there would be instances where he and other officers would ask people to do things needing to be done that some people just refused to comply with.

Bleichner said the lesson became necessary so that any situation he encountered didn’t result in what Bleichner called an “adverse action – an arrest, or use of force.” He said he learned over time “not every call would be settled in five minutes and you were going to have to deal with a variety of people who are in a varying type of state of sobriety, but other times people are just frustrated.”

Being part of law enforcement has become a family matter for Bleichner and his wife of 28 years, Nichol. She met her husband while working as an NPD dispatcher. She is now Deputy Police Chief for Illinois State University Police Department. The couple have three children.

By Steve Robinson | September 5, 2021 - 10:50 pm
Posted in Category: NCHS, The Normalite

NORMAL – Being able to win a home game and do it in a stadium that had just received a new name helped make Normal Community High School’s first victory at the newly christened Dick Tharp Field all the sweeter after the Ironmen pounded Peoria Manual, 57-22, Friday night in their first Big 12 conference contest at the newly-named field.

Prior to the game, the field which had been known as Ironmen Field from when NCHS began playing here in the mid-1990s was renamed after the man who coached the Ironmen from 1966-1987 and racked up a 158-50-5 record. Now 90-years-old and aided by a walker to get around, Tharp was present for the ceremony as were family members, friends, and many of his former players.

What they and the fans at Dick Tharp Field saw was an Ironmen victory which began quickly courtesy of a 19-yard pass from senior quarterback Chase Mackey to senior wide receiver Kyle Thierry for the opening score, topping a 5 play 75-yard drive, wrapped up by junior kicker Ryan Millmore’s extra point to give the Ironmen a fast 7-0 lead.

The Rams’ first drive ended in Peoria Manual punting the ball back to NCHS (2-0) who promptly marched down field for their next score, a 2-yard touchdown run by senior running back Michael Coleman at the 6:20 mark in the quarter followed by Millmore’s extra point, putting NCHS up, 14-0.

Peoria’s next drive was interrupted by Ironmen senior linebacker Tye Niekamp, who picked off the third pass in the drive and ran into the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown followed by another Millmore extra point, increasing NCHS’ lead, 21-0.

Peoria Manual (0-2) scored on a 15-yard touchdown dash by Rams senior running back Tristen White, but with no extra point kicker, the Rams opted for a 2-point conversion play with White dashing through defenders to cut NCHS’ lead to 21-8 with 1:14 left in the quarter.

But NCHS closed out the quarter by scoring one more time on a 20-yard pass from Mackey to senior tight end Tyler Dwinal followed by another Millmore extra point to put NCHS up, 28-8, as the opening quarter came to an end.

An interception of a Peoria Manual pass by Ironmen senior defensive back Camden Maas put NCHS at its own 32-yard line. Seven plays later, Mackey would connect again with Dwinal, this time on a 28-yard touchdown pass at 7:04 until halftime followed by Millmore’s extra point, pushing the Ironmen lead to 35-8. A turnover by Manual gave NCHS a start at Manual’s 47 from where, four plays later, the Ironmen would end the drive in a 17-yard touchdown by junior running back Christopher Taylor with 3:31 until halftime, followed by Millmore’s extra point, resulting in NCHS’ 42-8 halftime lead.

NCHS got the ball to start the third quarter and scored quickly with Mackey scoring from a yard out to complete a short yardage drive followed by Millmore’s extra point increasing NCHS’ lead, 49-8 at 10:49 in the quarter. Once the scoring difference between the two teams reached 40 points, game officials employed an Illinois High School Association rule allowing for a continuously running clock, stopping it only for timeouts taken by a team or because of an injury.

Peoria Manual scored from four yards out thanks to sophomore quarterback London Toliver whose touchdown was followed by a failed 2-point try. But that touchdown cut NCHS’ lead to 49-15 as the game entered the fourth quarter.

Toliver would score a second time in the final quarter for the Rams from 8 yards out followed by another failed 2-point try. That cut NCHS’ lead to 49-22.

Ironmen sophomore Tommy Davis scored a short yardage touchdown to complete the scoring for NCHS with 2:22 left in the contest followed by a successful 2-point conversion by junior running back Steven Darnell capping the evening’s scoring.

“I felt like our kids made a lot of big plays,” NCHS Head Coach Jason Dregwitz said about the win. “I felt like they played with a lot of effort and energy. I felt

“We played an awfully good team,” was the admission Peoria Manual Head Coach Dan Fauser made after the game ended. “They just make plays and we’re a IHSA Class 3A school playing a 7A school. Our kids played hard, but we just have so many kids playing two ways.” He credited Toliver and White for their accomplishments on the night. They were excited about playing in front of Coach Tharp and the former alumni that were here. It was a special night and I thought our kids did a nice job.

“Give Manual credit because they kept playing and kept playing hard,” Dregwitz added. “A couple times after Peoria scored, we were able to score too.”

Fauser said, “We just have our work cut out for us because it’s just hard to beat kids this big.” Drengwitz was complementary of the effort Peoria Manual did throughout the contest, explaining, “Their kids did a great job staying the course and not hanging their heads and continued to play hard.”

By Steve Robinson | August 31, 2021 - 10:32 am
Posted in Category: The Normalite, Unit 5

NORMAL – When Normal-based Unit 5 School Board members met during their regularly-scheduled meeting Aug. 25, they were informed the current budget includes a deficit which totals $18.5 million. That amount, as it turns out, according to a District official, is not as much as it was anticipated to be.

Marty Hickman, the district’s chief financial officer, explained to Board members the district didn’t spend as much money on transportation because of remote learning during the previous school year. Transportation accounted for $8 million being spent while taking in $11 million.

Informing Board members in the auditorium at Normal Community West High School, Hickman explained the district also transferred $11,750,725 from its working cash fund placing that money into its education fund. That amount, it turns out is lower than was anticipated for the school year, as the district expected that amount to be around $16 million. The district also received a payment of $1.5 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) Grant dollars.

Looking at the eight individual funds the district manages, the coming school year will see half of them with net changes in the red. The largest of those is the district working cash fund with a deficit of $11.3 million. The district Fire Prevention and Safety account has the next highest deficit of $4.4 million, followed by its transportation fund with a deficit of $3.2 million. The district’s educational, operations and maintenance, debt service, and tort funds all currently remain in the black.

With students returning to classrooms this month, Unit 5 officials are working on financial assumptions that, among other things, food service incoming money levels should return to normal with students back in class, Tommy Hoerr, director of financial services for the district, told Board members.

Hoerr added lunches the district dispensed last year during the pandemic were paid with Federal grant dollars. This year, he added, local revenue will pay for that expense. Hoerr said

Among the financial assumptions the district is making concerning the coming school year, Hoerr said, are that income from food service should return to pre-Covid levels at the district’s two high schools and should increase at its four junior high schools. He said that ought to add $1.6 million to district coffers.

In addition to those assumptions, Unit 5 anticipates a 1 percent increase in the levy for earned assessed valuation of real estate for 2021.

Where State-provided funding is concerned, because of remote learning last year, the district lost roughly $1.7 million in transportation revenue. Evidence-based funding, however, saw an increase of around $400,000.

From a labor perspective, Hickman recapped for Board members the district continues to negotiate with employees who are members of Laborers Local 362 to agree on a contract. The district is in the middle of a second year of a three-deal with both members of Unit Five Support Professionals Association, the union representing paraprofessionals and educational office personnel, and Unit Five Education Association (UFEA), the union which represents the district’s teachers.

Board members anticipate adopting a finalized budget at their Sept. 22 meeting.

By Steve Robinson | August 30, 2021 - 8:09 am
Posted in Category: The Normalite

NORMAL – After a first year in 2019 in which the Town of Normal rebranded what was commonly known as “Cornfest,” followed by a year in which the Covid-19 pandemic prevented the event from even taking place last year, the turnout for the rebranded event, now known as “Sweetcorn Circus” looked impressive for anyone who came into Uptown Normal this past weekend.

Independent craft makers came back and lined both sides of both North St. and Beaufort Ave. and local residents, and others from outside the area came as well, to see what was new and to devour at least a couple ears of corn to make the trip complete.

Members of Illinois State University’s Gamma Phi Circus could be found walking on stilts and performing other singular acts as they went up and down Uptown Normal’s main streets enticing patrons to come see their shows.

And if the crowd wasn’t looking at various products from the vendors that lined both sides of both main avenues, they were eating corn – and plenty of it. And they had Lexington resident Bob Clark and a dedicated group of volunteering Boy Scouts to thank for all the shucking of corn the boys did and the help received from volunteers who took in money for and prepared the corn to be enjoyed. The young men who helped were part of Troop 920 which meets at St. Mary’s Church.

Unlike past years, Clark didn’t have an exact figure as to how many pounds of ears of corn were received for the event except to say “four good-sized truckloads came so far.” He was able to say the corn came from the Maddox Sweet Corn Farm, located in Warrensburg Ill. He could also tell you how much time he had to put the volunteers and obtaining the corn together.

To start with, it wasn’t as much time as he usually has had in years past. Unlike the usual preparation getting underway in June, this year’s organizing started after the first week of August had gone by, he explained. And as if trying to even think about getting things organized for this event would already consume one’s thoughts, Clark had something else on his mind at the time: He was undergoing chemotherapy treatments to rid his body of cancer.

A few weeks prior to Normal’s annual event, friends held a fundraiser for Clark, some of those who attended the fundraiser were helping at Normal’s weekend event while donning t-shirt’s with “Bob’s Squad” on the front.

Knowing he would be sidelined for some of the time in which organizing would be needed, “I reached out to a lot of great people,” Clark said about those who helped with the effort to make the event happen.

Clark said he was really surprised by the amount of people who turned out and the support and the financial donations that were able to be put toward the event, Clark explained.

If all of this organizational skill in what could be classified as a near-emergency sounds like it called for someone who is cool under pressure, even when fighting a disease himself, Clark was the man for the job because, when he is not organizing this event, he is employed as the director of emergency management for McLean County.

In talking about how all of the organizing came together under such conditions, Clark said, “It’s just been amazing, the people coming together and helping to make it happen.”

Two Troop 920 Members Among The Volunteer Ranks: Benedict Smith, son of Martin and Jamie Smith, and a junior at Normal Community West High School, belongs to Boy Scout Troop #920, volunteered to help during the day’s activities. He said he would like to be a botanist after continuing his education. The 16-year-old said he was enjoying working alongside the people he got to meet at this event.

Another Troop 920 member, Joshua Hamaker, son of Christopher and Sharon Hamaker, a sophomore at Central Catholic High School, explained he came out for another year when Clark mentioned volunteers were needed for the two days the event was in progress. He said he has been helping “3 or 4 times” when Clark sought Boy Scout volunteers. He said he enjoyed talking with others he was with while shucking corn. He said taking part in the event “was a great experience because you’re supporting the event, you’re supporting the Town, and it’s great.”

By Steve Robinson | August 28, 2021 - 10:15 pm
Posted in Category: Bloomington HS, NCHS, News, The Normalite

BLOOMINGTON – After Friday night’s season opening loss to Normal Community High Fred Carlton Field, one can only imagine Bloomington High School players and coaches still couldn’t get the sight of NCHS senior quarterback Chase Mackey from their dreams considering the performance he gave in the Ironmen’s season opening 35-0 Big 12 Conference shutout victory over the Purple Raiders.

Mackey, the 6 foot-3, 200 pound quarterback, completed passes totaling 195 yards which included three touchdown passes and running for a fourth directing his team to its first victory of the season, its first road victory.

After receiving the opening kickoff, the Purple Raiders were deep in their own territory and forced to punt but the return put NCHS (1-0 Big 12 and overall) on BHS’ 5-yard line. Even with a penalty against them, four plays later, the Ironmen scored courtesy of Mackey rushing five yards into the end zone at the 5:59 mark in the first quarter, followed by junior kicker Ryan Millmore successful extra point, putting NCHS up, 7-0, closing out the quarter.

Short yardage and penalty flags doomed Bloomington (0-1 Big 12 and overall) in the second quarter allowing NCHS to begin what turned into its next score from BHS’ 14-yard line. One play later, senior running back Michael Coleman rushed past defenders for NCHS’ next score, followed by Millmore’s extra point, putting NCHS up, 14-0 with 2:11 left in the quarter.

NCHS would score again in the quarter’s closing seconds as Mackey would connect with senior wide receiver Kyle Thierry on a one play 45-yard scoring pass followed by another Millmore extra point, giving NCHS a 21-0 halftime lead.

NCHS received the ball to open the second half and immediately added to their lead courtesy of an 18-yard touchdown pass from Mackey to senior wide receiver Terance Washington capping a 4 play 65-yard drive topped off with Millmore’s extra point, increasing NCHS’ lead to 28-0 as the game entered the fourth quarter.

Mackey and Washington would connect one more time on the night with 6:10 left in the contest on a 55-yard touchdown pass followed by Millmore’s last extra point of the night. Washington’s opening night stats included four receptions tallying 116 yards.

The victory avenged a 12-6 loss NCHS suffered against BHS in the spring, which Ironmen head coach Jason Drengwitz noted after the game, adding he didn’t really look upon this victory as revenge for that loss, but added, “it was probably sweeter for our players, but I don’t think I looked at it as a revenge game. I have a lot of respect for Bloomington, their players, and their coaching staff. More than anything, it’s not really revenge. You just want to beat your crosstown rival for the bragging rights. BHS was a team who handled us physically last year. I know our kids feel good about this win. They were excited to get out here and play against this team.”

Drengwitz added that from here, he and his players need to look at what went well for the Ironmen and build on those things. “I know our kids feel good about this win. I know they were excited.”

BHS head coach Scott Godfrey characterized the week leading up to the game as being “just a tough week.” “We had a lot of adversity thrown at us this week,” Godfrey said in describing how his week leading up to the game played out. He explained the heat added to injured players, and having to play without some key players made the week leading up to the game frustrating for the coaching staff and players.

“Give credit to Normal Community, they hit us in the mouth from the very start,” Godfrey said. “They controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and they won the turnover battle. So, first and foremost, they did what it takes to win a football game.”

Ironmen Field To Be Renamed “Dick Tharp Field” Before Friday’s Home Game: Prior to Friday’s first NCHS home game, the field they play on, currently known as Ironmen Field, will be renamed in honor of a former head coach, Dick Tharp, thus becoming known as Dick Tharp Field. Tharp, now 90, coached NCHS for 22 seasons, from 1966-1988, helping guide the Ironmen to a 158-50-5 mark. Big 12 Conference foe Peoria Manual will be the opponents for the 7p.m. contest. The Rams will be seeking a first win having lost a week 1 non-conference game at Peotone, 24-20.