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It was a gorgeous, perfect-10 Saturday night in August — and my friends had picked the worst possible time to host a program indoors.
A few veterans came home from Iraq sick with Gulf War syndrome and wanted residents to know about their plight. Unfortunately, they borrowed an IVCC lecture hall on a weekend night when nobody was going to venture inside.
Almost nobody, that is.
I stood outside IVCC counting the few heads walking in and spotted a familiar figure. It was Al Piecha, a member of the La Salle County Board and a Korean War veteran.
“Aloysius,” I called out as he drew close. “What are you doing here?”
“Well, this is important,” he replied, shrugging off the implicit suggestion he had more pressing things to do.
I was stunned. Why wasn’t he grilling outside like everybody else in the Illinois Valley?
And I, of all people, should have known better: There never was a more selfless or generous man than Al Piecha.
Al had certainly bent over backward for me. My first Christmas at the NewsTribune would have ended in catastrophe were it not for him.
I had awakened on Christmas Eve 1996 — my first yuletide away from home — with a bad cold and worse news waiting for me at the office. I’d filed a story titled, “War letters at Christmas,” printing excerpts from letters veterans mailed from the front. My editor looked up and asked, “Where’s the art?”
Art? I had forgotten to order a photo. I had two scant hours to find a veteran willing to let a photographer in his door on a major holiday.
Santa Claus was about to bring me a spot on the unemployment line.
In a minor Christmas miracle, someone suggested dialing Al, whom I did not then know. He breezily agreed to a phone interview (I didn’t want him catching my cold) and then graciously received the photographer into his home.
When I finally collapsed into my sick bed — coughing and hacking, but mercifully still employed — I gave thanks for this stranger who’d just saved my pale Irish hide.
What a wonderful man, I thought.
I didn’t know the half of it.
Over my next 18 years covering La Salle County government, Al revealed himself a prince among princes. He always kept his peace and wore a smile on his face — always — even in the face of hostility or withering criticism.
It’s a pity there aren’t more like him in Illinois politics. I glumly came to grips with that realization at a ‘90s event in Oglesby.
Al, beaming as usual, was at the Oglesby library waiting for Illinois’ then-secretary of state to present the check for a new library. At the appointed time, in walked a grouchy, sullen George Ryan, looking as if he’d rather have a tooth pulled than be at the library.
I remember casting long looks back and forth between Ryan and Al, stunned by the contrasts between these two men who’d spent their adult lives in public service.
The ambitious Ryan would go on to be governor — and we all remember how THAT turned out — while Al labored in obscurity, perfectly content to serve the good folks back home. It was a hard lesson in how the self-serving, and not true public servants, get ahead in Illinois.
Over the years, Al became a good friend and a man I looked up to, making it wrenching to learn he’d been stricken with cancer. I soon caught up with him at a speech in Ottawa. We wordlessly clasped hands and arms in a makeshift, but heartfelt, half-embrace. If this was to be it, I wanted him to know how much he’d meant to me.
It was not yet the end, however. He pushed on for two more years and far exceeded his prognosis — until Saturday, March 22. That day, I lost a good friend and lost my hero.
And though it’s too late to tell him face-to-face, I want to say now: Thank you, Al.
Thanks for bailing me out of a tight spot as a cub reporter. Thanks for serving your country with honor. Thanks for raising a beautiful family and cheerfully serving your constituents. Thanks for treating everyone with respect. Thanks for showing me what it means to be a gentleman.
Above all, thank you for being such a wonderful friend.
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