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When Lane Niemann attended Morton College, a career in law enforcement wasn’t on his radar. Nor was 16-inch softball. But Niemann’s adult life took him on a journey that put him on top in both of his professional and personal lives.
He’s now of one of four known police chiefs in Cook County with an educational connection to Morton College, joining Jim Ritz (Berwyn), Jerry Chlada Jr. (Cicero) and Ed Sailer (Carol Stream). Niemann has been with the North Riverside police department for 31 years and was promoted to chief of police in May of 2013.
On a personal front, Niemann was inducted in 2009 into the Forest Park-based Chicago 16” Softball Hall of Fame. The Rizza Rockers, the team he organized and ran from 1986 to 1999, went in the previous year.
First, Niemann’s story of how he ended up in law enforcement. The softball connection, however, is a just as good or better story.
“At the time, I was thinking about going to law school,” admitted Niemann, who was in Morton College’s pre-legal program. “I remember taking a couple of electives with Len Rutka and Bob Angone in law enforcement at Morton College. It sparked my interest in criminal justice. But I had no idea I’d be a policeman.”
In a time where police are under the microscope, Niemann considers himself fortunate to be North Riverside’s top cop.
“North Riverside is a great community,” Niemann said. “They support the Police Department 100 percent. Personally, I think the North Riverside Police Department is one of the tops in the state. We have a great collection of officers with a lot of experience. Once someone gets on, they don’t leave.”
Niemann says the North Riverside Police Department is a “customer-service based organization. It’s really important to get out in the community and hear their needs. You also want to show them you’re just a regular guy, too.”
He grew up in Burbank and attended Reavis High School. He spent his freshman year at Lincoln College before transferring to Morton College where Niemann played baseball for the late Stan Pace in 1981.
Like many Morton College students past and present, Niemann juggled school, working and baseball. He worked as a proofreader at Aldens, a giant mail-order company on the Chicago side of Roosevelt Road and Cicero Avenue. Law school was still in the picture, but Niemann became a victim of the 1980s corporate merger craze.
“Aldens was huge,” Niemann recalled. “They had 3,000 employees. I had a great job as a proofreader. Wickes (Companies) bought us and within three months, they closed us down.”
The newly-married Niemann was living in an apartment on Park Avenue in Cicero with their first child on the way. The North Riverside Park Mall, which opened in 1975, interestingly in a location what was once considered as a site for Morton College, hired Niemann as a mall security guard.
“Brian Lewis (a retired Joliet police officer) was working mall security and he had me fill out an application,” Niemann said. “They were a lot of guys who worked there and went on to become police officers.”
Niemann, who has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Lewis University, was later hired in Indian Head Park. He stayed there 18 months before going to North Riverside, where Niemann worked his way up the ranks.
North Riverside also is where Niemann was introduced to 16-inch softball.
“It’s a funny story,” Niemann said. “I never played softball when I came to North Riverside. Some of the older officers formed a team called the Untouchables. We played in North Riverside and I think we were 0-22. I’m not a big fan of getting my butt kicked and I thought I could do a better job.”
Niemann started scouring the various department in North Riverside to uncover talented players for his softball team. He found guys who shared his competitive nature, picking up Scott Kopach, Tim Kutt and Pete Tollios in Public Works. Jim “Chops” Chiappetta was a fellow North Riverside police officer. Magnum Force was born and they finished second the next year.
He was all in as a team organizer and started the Rockers in 1986. Thanks to sponsorship by Joe Rizza Ford, the Rockers, along with the likes of the Titans, Blues, Stooges, Ice and Longshots, became one of the area’s premier 16-inch teams.
Niemann rode the wave when interest ran high for 16-inch softball in the area. In the suburbs, the sport’s epicenters were Berwyn’s Janura Park and Cicero’s Clyde and Hawthorne park districts. The Chicago Sun-Times’ Dan Cahill covered the 16-inch softball beat. Noted restaurateur Rich Melman backed a pro league whose games were televised on Sportschannel. Larry Randa and Ron Kubicki headed up The LIFE Newspapers Area Classic. Teams from the western suburbs craved the gobs of attention heaped upon by the Randa-family owned publication.
The Rockers won the last LIFE Newspapers Area Classic in 1993 and captured the fabled Forest Park “No-Gloves” National title in 1998 by defeating Melman’s Lettuce, considered to be the Yankees of 16-inch softball.
“Lookig back at it, we were pretty good in the 1990s,” Niemann recalled. “The Titans and the Blues – what a tremendous rivalry. The Suburban LIFE had a great tournament. We won Forest Park in ’98 by beating Lettuce – they had everybody. We finished in the top four at (the ASA) Majors Nationals four times.”
Niemann truly was a convert from baseball to 16-inch softball.
“I played semi-pro baseball in summer leagues around Chicago,” Niemann said. “The games took so long. What I like about 16-inch softball is that you can play a game in an hour. There’s a lot of excitement in that hour. I loved the excitement of the 16-inch game and all the nuances that went along with it.
“You could play three games in a night by jumping around from park to park. It takes a tremendous amount of skill to play at a high level. It’s not just a bunch of fat guys playing the game.”
After Niemann’s association as a player-manager with the Rockers ended in 1999, he was briefly was part of two other teams before being inducted into the Chicago 16” Softball Hall of Fame in 2009 for his contributions as a manager.
“One of my greatest memories was introducing so many young players to the game of softball,” Niemann said.
Niemann and his wife, Laura, live in Willowbrook and will be celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary this year. Their family of one in Cicero grew to five. His four daughters – April, Carissa, Lanette and Olivia – all are teachers. His youngest, Lane Jr., entered his freshman year in college at Baldwin-Wallace in Ohio. He’ll play baseball and study business.
April and Carissa were state champions in badminton at Hinsdale South, while Lanette was a state placer.
“I owe a lot to Morton College,” Niemann said. “Everything started for me at Morton College. It guided my entire life and led me to where I am today. It gives me great pleasure to have come back and taught me at Morton College. I know that the college has opened doors for many students.”