DeKalb County Life for September 12, 2016: Determination overcomes a disability; Jessi remembers 9/11; Doug meets a music star; The real Steve Bigolin; New library opens; A Civil War photo mystery

His disability no match for determination

By Barry Schrader, DeKalb County Life Online Editor


John J. Wett shown in his Sycamore office where he works as a counselor.

“Oh my God, is he ever handicapped,” I thought to myself, the first time I laid eyes on John J. Wett in his wheelchair. I could see he had a tube connected to his chest and a ventilator attached to the back of his motorized chair.
  John had called Eileen Dubin and me late last year offering his help in seeking better mental health care in the county, adding that he was running for a county board seat.
We didn’t know who he was or what he looked like as we agreed to meet at McDonalds. But walking in and looking around, I soon realized he was the person who wanted to talk with us. He greeted us, without the usual handshake, and we soon learned a lot about him and his interest in helping people with mental health issues as well as other disabilities. He is a professional counselor with a Master’s degree from NIU in Marriage and Family Therapy and lives outside Genoa on Ash Road.
   In subsequent meetings at different restaurants I have come to know and respect him a great deal. He was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) which affects the voluntary muscles, thus the need for a ventilator. He has been in a wheelchair all his life, the first one built by his father, who was an engineer and designed an electric model for him when John was 2.
Technological advances and computer aids have helped him overcome some of the physical obstacles. He can guide his motorized chair with his hands and can use a voice-activated cell phone. He said the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was a major milestone for him and thousands of others with disabilities. Asked what he prefers to call his affliction and he responded “just a physical disability.”
Because of his condition, someone is needed to be with him 24/7 so he has attendants he employs on a contractural arrangement through the Illinois Department of Rehabilitative Services.
After graduation he was able to find a home outside Genoa for sale that had all the accommodations he needed and moved there in 2010. He had gone through Crystal Lake schools, mainstreamed, and then on to Northern. Asked how he studied and took tests, he explained that he has an exceptionally good memory, can read and absorb lectures with no problem, and had proctors provided by the school to help him take tests.  But his attendants also helped with note taking and assisting him with the books he needed.
  His decision to major in counseling was the result of his empathy for others and he found a calling in dealing with other people’s problems, helping them to work through their issues. He works in Sycamore at the NOVO counseling center, along with several other therapists and specializes in counseling people with short-term or lifetime disabilities. You can see him arriving and departing work from his specially equipped van driven by one of his attendants.
He mentioned that he enjoys doing volunteer work, helping out at the Genoa Chamber, as well as serving as assistant Scoutmaster for Kingston Troop 47 from 2008 to 2014. He was also a merit badge counselor, working with the Scouts who wanted to earn their badge in Disability Awareness.
While in college he started an organization to help other students with disabilities integrate into college life and also spread disability awareness. Then he was selected to serve on the NIU Commission on Disabilities and the Student Advisory Council for the Student Disability Services office. He was later awarded a Student Leadership Excellence medal by the NIU President.
And now he would like to represent the people of the Genoa-Kingston area as an elected supervisor, focusing on the needs of the local community as well as those disabled. He attends Genoa City Council meetings regularly as well as county board meets. He said the connection between city and county officials is important and is making that a cornerstone of his campaign.  He is an advocate for the Jail Expansion Project and wants to see it competed satisfactorily  and is a strong supporter of small businesses and startups.
Being a Democrat in a Republican-leaning district makes it hard for anyone to win over voters, but he makes regular trips into the neighborhoods with a campaign team member knocking on doors to deliver his fliers, then inviting people to come out to the sidewalk and meet him, discussing any issues on their minds. If elected, he pledges to meet with constituents once a month at the Genoa VFW so he can hear their concerns.
Fortune smiled on him about 18 months ago when he met an intern from NIU while working for the DeKalb County Youth Services Bureau where he counseled first-time juvenile offenders. Her name is Elisa Woodruff and she is working on her PhD in counseling education, hoping to become a teacher. They hit it off, developed a close friendship, and when they were at their favorite Mexican restaurant one evening he asked her to be more than just a friend, his significant other, and she agreed. On her Facebook page Elisa describes it this way: “This amazing man quietly snuck his way into my life; I was scared, but didn’t let that stop me because he was a guy who far exceeded my impossibly high standards. So I took a deep breath and took the leap… I love the home we are making together and he makes me a better person….”
So that brings us up-to-date on the amazing 31-year journey of a young man who has faced overwhelming odds, accomplished so much and has a bright future ahead of him, both personally and professionally—and maybe even serving in elected office.


Recent selfie taken with him and Elisa Woodruff

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Remembering 9/11: From a 5th grader at Sycamore West

By Jessi Haish LaRue (


I’ve seen many news stories recently that say this year’s class of high school freshmen was not yet born on Sept. 11, 2001. To them, the attacks are another history lesson, much like World War II or Westward Expansion. They can read about it, but they’ve never felt the immediate impact.

I learned about the news just hours after it happened, in my fifth grade classroom at West Elementary School in Sycamore.

My teacher was Ed Johnson, one of my favorite instructors to this day. The way he chose to handle the event made us sit up straight in our seats.

He was quiet, he was stern, and he was very serious. But he talked to us like we were adults. He clearly explained what had happened earlier that day, on the other side of the country. For many of us, we had never heard of the Twin Towers prior to that day. To many of us, New York and the East Coast seemed light-years away. But as he explained the events, before rolling in a big, blocky television on wheels, it all became very real.

And although I have no specific tie to the day’s events, it has stuck with me ever since. I remember three years later when my class was preparing to take the trip to Washington, D.C. I remember some of my friends’ parents being hesitant to allow them on a plane. I remember the fear still being very real.

I think some of that fear, that apprehension, still carries with us to this day. Maybe it’s because we don’t really remember a time before the attacks. We were so young before a time of increased security, of extra precaution. It has changed our lives, but I believe that day made us stronger, more compassionate humans. And on the day of the anniversary, we will always mourn, and we will never forget.

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From the Doug-out

By Doug Oleson (


Kellie Pickler is much prettier in person than she appears on TV. I know that’s an old cliche, but in this case it’s true. She’s also as nice and cordial as you would think from her public image.

I discovered this all first-hand when I covered her recent concert in Rochelle for the local newspaper. Pickler, who came to fame on the sixth season of the American Idol TV show, was the headline performer for the annual County Jam fund-raiser for the Rochelle Chamber of Commerce. How the chamber got a star of her caliber is still beyond me, but they did. Apparently, they just asked and she was available.

Not a big country music fan, it’s ironic that I was asked to cover her concert since I can’t tell one of her songs from something by Katie Perry or Miranda Lambert or whoever else is popular these days. Either no one else on the paper was available or they simply didn’t want to do it.

That’s a funny thing about small town newspapers. Some reporters jump at the chance to intermingle with a visiting celebrity while many more – more than you might think – shy away from it for whatever reason.

Except for my first year in the business, when Walter Payton came to town for a Chicago Bears’ basketball benefit and I was too shy to approach him, celebrities don’t intimidate me at all. In fact, I’ve interviewed my fair share of celebrities over the years, mainly retired sports figures or performers who are coasting on past glories.Whoever they are, you never quite know what to expect when a big star passes through Rube City. Some can be rather challenging – such as former Bears quarterback Bob Avellini who flat out told me to write whatever I want “because no one will read it anyway” – to absolutely charming, like hockey great Bobby Hall and former football legend Joe Namath.

In any event, I went to the Pickler concert, which was held outdoors on the runway of the Rochelle Airport.

Thanks to another pretty blonde in a very bright, orange dress and a staff member of the radio station that was co-sponsoring the event, I was able to slip backstage into what is called a “Meet and Greet.” Since I wasn’t sure how my concert pictures were going to turn out, and since her management team wasn’t allowing interviews, I just asked if I could come in and maybe get a close-up of her greeting one of her many fans..You never know what’ll happen unless you ask; the worse they would do, I figured, was put a spotlight on me and throw rocks at me.

As it turned out, a meet and greet is simply a chance for fans who pay enough money to pose with the star for a quick hello and a picture before politely being escorted outside.The pictures are then put on Facebook, which I know almost as much about as I do about Nashville.

In person, Kellie looks more like a barbie doll or a beauty queen than a road hardened country music singer. Long gone is that naive, misplaced little girl from North Carolina who charmed TV audiences with her “gee whiz” innocence, replaced by a polished dignity and grace, gleaned as much by experience as instruction. Clay Aiken, another American Idol contestant, displayed many of the same traits during a Christmas show he gave in St. Charles a couple of years earlier. (Him, I didn’t get a chance to meet.)

When my turn came, I took off my Huck Finn-like straw hat, which apparently mussed up my hair, to stand next to her. Without hesitating, Kellie – who still has that Southern hospitality and charm about her – immediately reached up and brushed my hair back, making me more presentable..

“That should do it,” she pronounced in a kindly voice, before brushing up against me for the picture.

In the end, I may not have gotten the picture I was hoping for – you seldom do with celebrities – but that was all right. I got something else instead: a nice memory. And even though Bob Avelini may not read it, I also got a column out of it.

As I was leaving, I sheepishly thanked Kellie for coming to Rochelle.

“Thank you for having me,” she replied, sweetly.

A nice lady.

(But I still don’t know any of her songs.)

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Who is the historian Steve Bigolin

By Barry Schrader, editor of DeKalb County Life Online


Steve Bigolin giving a talk in the new Local History Room at DeKalb Public Library.

Hundreds, probably thousands of DeKalb County residents have experienced a lecture or tour by DeKalb historian Steve Bigolin over the years, but how many know how he acquired all this knowledge he is willing to share with everyone who is interested?

Steve is taking break from his blog column this time, spending extra hours at work where he will be introducing patrons to the new Local History Room at the greatly expanded DeKalb Public Library, along with Teresa Iversen. The two of them will be the curators and interpreters for the collection in that room, helping people do research and locate the pertinent materials for personal and business inquiries. This will include online resources.

So I asked Steve to share some biographical data on himself and his career as The Historian for this area. Even though he has no official title and is not employed by the city or county, he spends countless hours giving tours, lectures, and doing research for people who seek him out.

He first arrived on the scene as a college student, enrolling in NIU the fall of 1967, moving here from McHenry County. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in history and a Masters degree by 1975. He said he first experienced the lure of local history when he toured the Ellwood House Museum in 1972. Since then his passion for studying local history has dominated his life and made him the pre-eminent authority on city and county history.

His list of major roles in much of the county’s heritage work goes on for pages. He was a active on the board of many groups, including Ellwood House Association,  DeKalb County Historical-Genealogical Society, cofounder of the DeKalb Landmarks Commission, Main Street/DeKalb board, Land of Lincoln Barbed Wire Collections Association, ALPHA, Friends of Antiquity at NIU, cofounder of the Annie Glidden Agrarian Society (AGAS), and the list goes on.
He has shared his historical knowledge of the area and its people through bus tours of major landmarks and historical attractions throughout the county. One bus tour he led during the county’s sesquicentennial lasted nine hours. He remarked that required several pit stops. He has written three books on “Landmarks of DeKalb County” covering the same topics as his columns in the Daily Chronicle in the early 2000s. Then-managing editor of the paper John Kelleher said in the introductions that Steve “is the one person who could put it all together.” He added, “Steve knows the history of every significant person and building in the county. And he loves to share the local lore… He is the consummate storyteller. You can sit for hours listening to Steve talk about historic events of major or minor import.”

I have come to know Steve as a good friend over the years since returning to our roots in DeKalb County and he has been of tremendous help in fulfilling my ravenous appetite for local history and people’s heritage. I can drive him to almost any cemetery or historical site in the county and he can rattle off dates, names and personal recollections he has gained from researching or interviewing pioneers and their progeny. That’s why he is an invaluable addition to the new Local History Room at the library. People can continue to pick his brain about everything historical from these parts.

For example, he gave a talk Saturday at the library titled “Who’s Been Sleeping in My House,” detailing resources where people can find the names of previous owners and the original builders of many places around the city and county. He even took time to share his own research on some of the more notable or unusual homes, businesses and families.  If the library wants, it could well become an ongoing series of talks that people could attend year-round.

His next project this fall is helping organize the Sycamore Historic Homes Tour during Pumpkin Fest in Sycamore. A committee from the Sycamore History Museum selects five or six historical homes for a guided tour where people can purchase a ticket and spend the better part of a day going through each residence with docents in several rooms explaining its history. This year, four of the homes have never been opened to the public for tours before.

At home, his bachelor apartment is jam-packed with historical memorabilia and artifacts. Just one example: He has an original Jacob Haish cane  of braided barbed wire that Haish had designed as a promotional item for his barbed wire business. There are scant few left in the U.S, and highly prized by collectors. His collection includes some 600 to 700 books; he has lost count and shelf space, so some are stacked in corners of the rooms. Maybe someday he will decide to donate them to that new history room!

So if you or your children and grandchildren want to meet a walking-talking historian of some renown, visit him at the new local history room at the library. But the hours are limited due to budget constraints, so he and Theresa Iverson are only there part of the time the regular library is open, then it is locked to protect the collection. So check with the library to find out times you can visit.

And we expect his feature column back on this blog next time when we publish on Oct. 3.

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DeKalb Library expansion completed


It was a proud day for DeKalb and its library staff/patrons Saturday as they held the re-opening ceremony for the DeKalb Public Library’s Haish Memorial building, which had served the community’s readers since 1930. It was her crowning achievement in the career of library director of Dee Coover (dressed in white in center of photo), as she accepted the accolades from numerous speakers and a standing ovation from the roughly 200 citizens in attendance.This will be her final hurrah as she retires the end of December. There should have been a Dee Coover Room named for her after the herculean effort she put forth to complete this phenomenal expansion. To her left is John Castle, a major benefactor of the library, and to her right  with the ceremonial scissors is board president Virginia Cassidy. (DeKalb County Life Online photo)

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Open letter from Renowned American Author Richard Powers

NOTE: Richard Powers, American Book Award winner, MacArthur grant winner, and DeKalb High School graduate, wrote this letter about the impact  of the DeKalb Public Library on his professional career.

“I moved to DeKalb the summer that I turned 16, after living for years in Bangkok, Thailand.  I had no real public library access in Bangkok, and when I discovered the DeKalb Public Library, just a couple of blocks from my new house, I felt I’d lucked into something so good it had to be illegal.  It’s hard to convey the candy-shop feel of walking into that library for the first time, and it’s impossible to overemphasize the effect of that treasure trove on the developing brain of a 16-year-old hungry for discovery.  Oak Street between Third and Fourth rapidly became my second home, and the amazing finds I made there over the next few years without exaggeration changed my life.
“Where to start?  There was the music: Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier played by Glenn Gould, the final Debussy sonatas, the symphonies of Charles Ives, the Beethoven string quartets, and on and on: 1000 years of music that we would never have been able to afford at home and that I might have gone years or decades before coming across elsewhere, new sounds exploding in my head, making me think that all kinds of songs might be possible in this life.  Then there were the science books and the histories and the biographies, the travel books that took me around the world again several times over, waiting for me just down the street, free for the asking.  I could never quite get used to being able to walk away with these things for weeks, no questions asked.
“I can still remember the reading that I did in the summer between my junior and senior years: the novels of Hardy and Bellow and Salinger and Dostoevsky, the philosophy of Nietzsche, the poetry of Yeats, an introduction to cryptography and another on game theory, a fantastic book of creative puzzles, a collection of Celtic fairy tales and ghost stories: who were the people who had put together this amazing collection, a comprehensive snip of the world’s DNA?  Where would I have found all this stuff, without them?
“I relied on the library heavily throughout high school, in part for my schooling, but in part for that larger process of self-formation, a process that was vastly expanded by this cozy neighborhood temple to human freedom and possibility that seemed to belong entirely to me.  I continued to use it whenever I came back to town from university, and again for that year when I returned to town to write my first book.  Its intimacy and personal scale, the quality of its collection, and the ease of its use made DKPL an essential resource that I simply took for granted.
“I assumed that all cities the size of DeKalb had such a prize at their disposal, but it didn’t take long in my travels after Illinois to discover how far from the truth that is.  The fact is, I got lucky—sheer blind luck to have landed in a community that knew there is no better investment, dollar for dollar, than pooling together and making available for the next unsuspecting kid down the block everything that is best in human thought and feeling.
“I don’t know what I would have become if it weren’t for access to the public library, but I do know that what I did become depended heavily on the luck of having landed a short walk away from a first rate collection that opened to me at the very first knock.  I’m simply amazed now to look through the novels I have written and to discover how much of the worlds they depict derive from the foundational discoveries I made on Oak Street, when I was first figuring out how big the world was and how interesting people could be.  The individual books I can remember checking out and reading almost four decades ago are still present in my own work, like a permanent fossil record.
“The word has changed beyond all imagining in the years since I was 16.  Some might argue that all of public knowledge is now already available to anyone, right in their own homes.  But they would be very wrong.  For starters, a considerable portion of American households can’t afford broadband, and if we are to survive as a democratic and egalitarian society, we need to provide every citizen with the incalculable resources that a high-speed network connection supplies.  But no one can thrive on an Internet connection alone.  Only through access to a combination of computing, print, recorded media, and a diverse community of fellow seekers—the kind of community that a library constantly creates and renews—will the next generation come to see just how big a place our planet is, and just how large they might grow their minds.  Simply demonstrating the public will to pool its resources and share civilization’s best assets may itself be the most valuable gift any town can give to the future authors of the world.
“Like Borges, I have always imagined that Paradise must be a kind of library.  Whether the truth of that, I will always be grateful to have landed, at just the right time in just the right place, five minutes away from a little branch of Paradise, just down the street.”
—Richard Powers

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NIU Department of Communication journalism instructor Jason Akst took his PR class “Principles of Public Relations” of some 45 students to the opening day at Book World in the Junction Shopping Center. His intention was to have them observe, take notes, visit with people, ask some questions, and think about a store’s grand opening – a well-established public relations tactic – in the context of what PR principles were at work. (More NIU faculty could make field trips a part of their curriculum and give the students better insight into the real world and all its foibles. I took the photo—Barry Schrader for DCL Online)

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Craig Rice seeks help researching Civil War photo


DeKalb County Life  columnist Craig Rice is taking a break this issue, but asking for help in collecting some historical information on local Civil War veterans. He came across photographs from an album owned by Hiram Greeley that show Civil War veterans. He would like to find out what was the occasion that brought together these veterans and why would their photographs be included in an album owned by descendants of Hiram Greeley of Waterman?
The photo reproduced here shows J. E. Moss, age 80, of Company E 36th Illinois, Francis Phelps, Co. D, age 87, and Andrew Scofield, Co. D, age 83. If you know anything about them or can suggest others that may be of help to Craig in his research, contact him at



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