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Mary Hapac Karasek discovered her lifetime calling for community activism at Morton College.
For decades, the 1944 Morton College graduate was a familiar presence at school board and city meetings. When it came time on the agenda for public comment, Mary or her late husband of 65 years, Ed, probably would stand, state their name and address for the record, ask a question or render an opinion.
The longtime Berwyn resident, who died September 25th at the age of 93, was an elected official herself and often one of the first females to break into male-controlled circles. That led to a number of interesting encounters that wouldn’t fly in today’s politically correct environment.
One involves a visit to Springfield as a newly-elected Morton High School board member. She was in the State Capitol halls with James Soper, a state senator from Cicero, best remembered for voting in favor of a state lottery in 1973 and 15 years later in 1988 for winning $39 million in the lottery at the age of 81. At the time, it was one of the highest payouts in Illinois lottery history.
Soper turned to his peers and introduced Karasek with “This is the broad who beat the Cicero Machine on a buck and a quarter.”
Karasek, who always smiled when retelling that story, made that “buck and a quarter” go a long way. She spent a record 25 years on the Morton College Board from 1976 to 2001 and was Berwyn city treasurer for 20 years before being voted out of office in 2005 at the age of 81.
She was involved with countless groups in Berwyn, including Berwyn Summerfaire, the Berwyn Historical Society, Berwyn Homeowners Association and the All Berwyn Committee just to name a few.
The organizations Karasek wasn’t part of in Berwyn probably could fit on a thumbtack compared to the New York City-sized phone directory needed to list the all groups to which she belonged.
“Mary was a real strong supporter of Cicero and Berwyn,” said 90-year-old Bob Luksta of Cicero, a family friend of the Hapacs. “She kept up with everything going on.”
“Mary Karasek was a staunch supporter of the College,” said Dr. John Neuhaus, President at Morton College from 1992 to 2001. “She had an incredible sense of history of the College. As a former student at Morton College, she developed a real understanding of the importance of what a community college could contribute to the development and growth of a person.
“Mary Karasek accepted her role as a trustee with the responsibility to make sure the College stayed true to its mission. She was well-prepared for each meeting and would fight for what was best for the students.”
Karasek had zero tolerance for political shenanigans in education and treated taxpayer money as if it was her own.
“You know, it was a sense of belonging,” Karasek recalled on her life of public service. “Most of the people had the right reasons for wanting to serve. People who ran for the wrong reasons didn’t last long.”
Albert Jedlicka, the board chairman who was the driving force behind finding the home for the current Morton College campus in the 1970s, approached Karasek about running for trustee.
“He had the respect of the people,” said Karasek of Jedlicka. “He wasn’t doing it for Al Jedlicka. He believed in the cause. He was the one who pushed for the new college.”
John Korinek, retired LIFE Newspapers city editor, covered the Morton College Board during Karasek’s early days as a trustee.
“Mary spoke her mind when other women kept their mouths shut,” Korinek recalled. “And she talked the truth, no bull. Because of that, she made many fellow board members cringe, both on the Morton high school and college boards by bringing things to light that they wanted to keep in the dark. She definitely was a community education advocate. She was quite a personality and I admired her greatly.”
Karasek did what she could to “pass it on” to future generations interested in civic life. Joanne Zendol, who spent 24 years on the South Berwyn Grade School District 100 Board, became one of Karasek’s apostles.
Their first encounter came naturally in the community when Karasek was going door-to-door for a voter registration drive. Zendol immediately experience Karasek’s sharp wit, which she wasn’t hesitant in using to carve up those she suspected or knew of not being on the up-and-up.
“We had just bought our home in Berwyn,” Zendol recalled. “Come spring, she rang our doorbell to get us registered to vote. She asked, ‘Where are you from?’ We’re from Chicago. ‘Good, you’re a Democrat – sign here.’”
Karasek then started to engage Zendol into the community.
“Come to the meetings at City Hall,” Zendol said. “Be part of Summerfaire – we need some young blood. Join the Berwyn Historical Society. Join the Berwyn Homeowners Association. She felt these groups were important to Berwyn. I listened to every word she said.”
Zendol took Karasek’s words to heart about being a board member.
“She told me not to take things for granted,” Zendol said. “If you don’t understand, ask again. Questions make for a good board member. When I was on the board at South Berwyn, Mary sat in attendance at every District 100 meeting even with no children in the district.”
Zendol said Karasek told her not to be afraid or intimidated by school administrators.
“You have to keep them honest,” Zendol remembered. “Some people would be put off when she asked questions. She’d always ask the tough questions. If she wanted to know, she did others. Mary really wanted transparency – she wanted things out in the open. She wanted everyone to be held accountable.”
Karasek also was a master organizer. Rick Toman might have been the lone Republican alderman in Berwyn for many years, but he knew he’d never claim victory in Karasek’s precinct of his 3rd Ward.
“She was a strong Democratic precinct captain,” Toman recalled. “I’d hold my own, but she beat me every time. I’d just have to tip my cap to her.”
Karasek also was the driving force behind the yearly Class of 1942 Morton High School reunion. She chaired Morton College’s 50th anniversary gala in 1974, which was attended by 400 at the old Holiday Inn in Hillside. She was a trustee when Morton College marked its 75th anniversary in 1989.
Zendol remembered Karasek mentoring the PTA members at Emerson School in Berwyn on conducting meetings and lobbying elected officials.
“She sat at the meetings and made sure you followed Robert’s Rules of Order, took accurate minutes and voted by Robert’s Rules of Order,” Zendol said. “If there was a piece of legislation that would affect our schools, she’d lead the way in writing letters to legislators. She’d bring the paper, the pens, the envelopes, the stamps, then collect the letters we wrote and mail them herself.”
When the community changed from Eastern European to Hispanic, Karasek was there to help the new wave acclimate.
“Mary would be talking to the young Hispanic moms at the PTA meetings,” Zendol said. “They would say, ‘I don’t know if that’s what I want.’ Mary would ask, ‘Did you ask your child’s teacher that?’ Mary gave the young people the encouragement to be heard. She knew it was their child’s future. She built courage in a lot of young mothers.”
When Mary and Ed Karasek moved to Berwyn in 1956 in a home across the street from Proksa Park, they became involved in the PTA. According to Zendol, Mary was introduced at meetings as “Mrs. Ed Karasek,” another formerly accepted designation of the past. That didn’t stop Mary, who knew she was a product of the era and could move on from slights like that.
“She was an authority on the PTA,” recalled Ron Kiefer, a Morton College Board member with Karasek. “She knew her stuff. She had the interest of the community at heart and wanted to give back.”
Kiefer, the former principal at Goodwin School in Cicero, added, “There was a lot of tradition in Mary’s family. She was very proud of her ties with the high school and the college. She made it a point to be introduced as Mary Hapac Karasek.”
Interestingly, Mary Hapac was born in 1924, the year Morton College opened. She had three older brothers. Her parents operated Hapac’s Tavern at 1533 S. Laramie Avenue in Cicero, and the family lived above the business. According to local historian Doug Deuchler’s “Images of America, Cicero Revisited,” the saloon opened during the middle of Prohibition in 1927. There was an entrance for women toward the rear of the building. Women school teachers would sometimes stop in for lunch.
The Hapac boys, along with Eddie and Otto Kolar, were athletic royalty in the community and their tavern served as a gathering place to rehash games and discuss current events.
Bill, her oldest brother, was a basketball and baseball star at Morton High School and the University of Illinois. He scored a then Western Conference (now Big Ten) record 34 points in a 1940 basketball game against Minnesota. He outscored the entire Golden Gopher team by three points in Illinois’ 60-31 conquest.
By today’s standards, it was like LeBron James or Steph Curry going off for 70. The game in Hapac’s era was much different. Games weren’t very high scoring, and a shot clock or three-point line didn’t exist.
In Hapac’s senior year, Illinois averaged 41 points per game as a team and scored exactly 60 just twice. NCAA champion Indiana’s team average was 45.6 points per game. Rhode Island’s Stan Modzelewski, college’s unofficial leading scorer for 1940, scored 23.1 points per game, a number that has been matched or surpassed in every season since 1950.
Bill was the first player at Illinois named a First Team Helms and Converse All-American in basketball. In 2008, he was selected to Illinois’ All-Century Team. He played four years in the NBL, the forerunner of today’s NBA, but like many athletes of his generation Hapac missed the prime time of his athletic career, ages 23 to 27 for him, due to serving four years in World War II from 1941 to 1945.
Another brother, Joe, wasn’t as lucky. He was with the Philadelphia Phillies’ organization before getting drafted. Joe, according to Luksta, suffered a bullet wound to his right shoulder in combat and lost the “zip on his throwing arm” when he returned home. Joe did star in the Western Electric company basketball league, added Luksta.
World War II served as the backdrop for Mary’s high school and college years.
With most every able-bodied male off at war, Morton College’s enrollment plummeted from 381 to 149 students. During Karasek’s sophomore year, 56 students left to enter the military. The ratio of women to men was 3 to 1 in Morton College’s 20th year.
The cover of the 1944 Pioneer yearbook featured a paper one. The theme was keeping alive one of “MJC’s long-cherished traditions.” Glamour was not to be found because “priorities, rationing and the draft made that impossible,” according to the yearbook.
Everything went toward the war effort. The Collegian featured a regular section with updates from alumni and current students serving. Women moved into leadership positions normally held by men.
Karasek was sophomore class president, Collegian business manager, Women’s Athletic Association treasurer and Pioneer staff member. She delivered a speech at the 1944 Commencement ceremony called, “Hats Off to the American Woman.” The yearbook had her photo under the “Campus Leaders” section. Of the 10 students to receive that designation, eight were women.
“I guess I wasn’t afraid to try anything at all,” Karasek said. “I look back and think how people adjusted to the shortages. But people still got a good education.”
Karasek’s reasons for choosing Morton College has a familiar ring.
“My parents wouldn’t let me leave,” Karasek said. “Morton College was the safe place and close place for me. I was the baby of the family. There were four boys before I was born. I might have done something different if it wasn’t wartime.”
Mary was needed to help in the kitchen of the family business because two of her brothers were in the service and another worked.
About 60 MJC students and alumni died in World War II. The image of seeing uniformed military officers knocking on the door of a soldier’s home to deliver news of a loved one killed in action loomed large in Karasek’s mind.
“There was the first Christmas my brother Bill was in the service and he wasn’t home,” Karasek remembered. “I was listening to the radio in the living room. They were playing, ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas.’ I remember crying a blue streak. I was afraid something might happen to my brother. It was a sad time for me. All my big brothers were subject to being called up.”
The Karaseks were “called up” numerous times in recognition of their lifelong service in the community. Mary received the Illinois Community College Trustee Association’s Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1991 and the ICCTA’s Honorary Member Award in 2004.
Ed, who died two months after Mary in November of 2017 at 96, was on his state-record 51st year as a commissioner with the Berwyn Park District. The 60-year Kiwanis member has a park in Berwyn named after him. He also received the Berwyn Development Corporation’s Charles E. Piper Award in 1993, which celebrates Berwyn's "Business Person of the Year" and their exceptional contribution of time, talent and treasures to the betterment of the city, according to the BDC’s web site.
“I don’t think there will be another Ed and Mary Karasek,” Zendol said. “They were two people with love and compassion for the Berwyn community. They brought so many of us along for the ride and taught us to be the voice for our kids. Every community needs someone like an Ed and Mary Karasek. They made Berwyn a better place to live.”
Korinek seconded that and drew on a reference of a feature hosted by former CBS Channel 2 news personality Harry Porterfield.
“Mary deserves all the tributes she will receive,” Korinek said. “As Harry Porterfield would say, ‘Mary was ‘Someone You Should Know.’’