Former Evergreen Park official celebrates 99th birthday and active life

  • Written by By Sharon L. Filkins

Evergreen Park resident Anthony “Tony” Yukich celebrated his 99th birthday on March 17. How does one celebrate the passage of 99 years? If you do it Tony’s way, you have a week of parties and sometimes two in one day.

“We have had so much cake, we don’t know what to do with it,” his longtime companion, Virginia Wrobel, said with a smile.

Mayor James Sexton started the birthday ball rolling at the March 7 village board meeting where he honored Yukich for his 57 years of service to the Village. “He is a political “Godfather” to me, a mentor and a friend,” he said.

Yukich began his political journey when he joined the United Home Owners in 1959. Early on, he served as president and is currently still a member. In 1964, he was appointed to the Village’s Zoning Board where he served until 1967. He has served under three mayors: Henry Klein, Anthony Vacco and Sexton.

“Klein and I didn’t get along, said Yukich. “In one meeting, he called me a young punk because I questioned one of his decisions. When I questioned him again in another meeting, he addressed me the same way. I told him if he called me that again, he wouldn’t be sitting in the mayor’s chair at the next election.”

True to his word, Yukich worked the campaign to get Vacco elected mayor, a position he held for more than 30 years until he retired due to poor health. During those years, Yukich ran Vacco’s campaigns in each election year.

When Sexton ran for mayor in 2000, Yukich campaigned for him. “I had known Jim’s dad for many, many years and I was happy to help in his campaign. He’s a great mayor and very proactive in bringing economic development to our village.”

Elected a village trustee in 1967, Yukich served three full terms until 1979. In 1995, he responded to a request from Vacco to run for trustee again, and he served a second term of office, from 1995 to 2001.

On his 95th birthday in 2012, the village honored him with a proclamation for his five decades of service throughout the majority of the 20th century, and into the 21st century.

The proclamation reflected a deep affection for Yukich. It read in part, “We refer to our friend Tony lovingly as ‘the Godfather’ and as ‘The Dean Martin of Evergreen Park.’ He has been a friend, colleague, strategist, and mediator and has always done so with a twinkle in his eye, a smile on his face and an outstretched hand to help anyone in need.”

Yukich still attends every board meeting where a specially designed chair is reserved for him on the first row. Prior to each meeting, there is a steady stream of staff, trustees and residents greeting him with hugs, handshakes, and sometimes a kiss.

In the year 2001, the village honored Yukich by naming one of the largest parks in the community in honor of him and his wife, Fran, who died in 2000. The 20-acre property, now known as Yukich Field, is located at 8900 S. Kedzie Ave. It includes two ball fields, three soccer/football fields, a walking trail, ponds, two concession stands and the Daniel A. Capuano ice rink.

On the day of the dedication, Yukich, who was not told ahead of time about the naming of the field, said he got a call from the mayor (Sexton) who told him to get over to the field that day. “He told me to hurry, there is something going on.

“The mayor made it sound urgent, so I just grabbed an old jacket and ran over there,” recalls Yukich. “When I got there, I saw there were a lot of people and I wondered what was happening. One of the trustees saw my old jacket and said, ‘Tony, why are you wearing that old rag. Here take my jacket.’ So I put it on. The trustee wasn’t satisfied and went home and got a newer jacket, came back and gave me that one instead. I didn’t know what he was so worried about.”

Then Yukich said he saw all his family there and the mayor called out to him to come and see something. “When I got up to him, he unveiled the Yukich Field sign and I was just bowled over. I had no idea they were going to do that.”

Naming the park after Yukich was significant because in 1996, as a trustee, he was instrumental in guiding the village to purchase the land where the park now exists.

The property was owned by the cemetery, just north of 87th Street. When they put 33 acres up for sale, at a cost of $3.3 million, Yukich told then Mayor Vacco that the village should buy the property.

“The mayor thought I had lost my mind,” said Yukich, laughing. He said “Where do you think we will get that kind of money. We can’t do that.”

But Yukich convinced him it would be valuable to the village and that it could be done. “So we purchased the property and later we were able to sell part of it for commercial development and then were able to build the park on the remaining acreage. It was a good deal, and it did benefit the village,” he said.

Attending all the birthday celebrations with Yukich was his beloved companion, Wrobel. They have been together for 14 years. “She is a great lady. I don’t know what I would do without her,” said Yukich. “Let me tell you how I won her, he said, with a twinkle in his eye.

A few years after his wife had died, Yukich decided to attend a Senior’s New Year’s Eve party at the Martinique Club in Evergreen Park. “As I pulled into the parking lot, the Lord told me who I should look for,” he said.

He entered the party and began looking around all the tables. As he searched, a friend stopped him and tried to introduce him to a lady, but Yukich kept moving. “I knew who I was looking for.”

He finally spotted Virginia across the room and walked over to her table. Not wanting to appear too anxious, he first asked the woman sitting next to her to dance. “Fortunately, the lady said she couldn’t dance as she had an injured foot. So I turned to Virginia and asked her to dance. She said yes, and that was the beginning. Before the evening was over, I asked her if I could see her again, and to my surprise she said yes again.”

At this point, Virginia said “I was as surprised as he was. I went home thinking, oh my, what have I done? She had been widowed for a number of years and had had no thought of dating again.

Their first date was at the former House of Hughes restaurant. “We sat and talked for so long, the staff kicked us out because they were trying to close,” Virginia said. “It was the first time I had ever been thrown out of a place.”

Yukich asked to see her again and she responded with “Only if I can drive.” She laughed and said “he is a terrible driver.”

Wrobel and Yukich had known each other for years before they both lost their spouses. She had worked at the Village Hall as director of services and was instrumental in starting the Senior Council. “I would see him there often as he was in and out all the time as a trustee, but we never really socialized.”

While they maintain separate homes, they go everywhere together.

Yukich said that when they first started dating they didn’t go public with their relationship. “But one day, a village event was coming up and I went into the mayor’s office and told Jim that I was planning on bringing a date to the event. He said he was glad that I was moving on and that I should enjoy life. I didn’t tell him who I was seeing, so when Virginia and I walked in together, it was a big surprise. But everyone was really happy for us.”

They lead an active social life, attending all the senior activities and the board meetings. And, every Friday morning, Yukich meets a group of his fellow Croation buddies at the Jedi’s Garden Restaurant in Oak Lawn.

Yukich raised three sons: Bill, who lives in Mokena; Jim, who lives in California; and Bob, who died at a young age in an industrial accident. He has five grandsons, one granddaughter and 11 great-grandchildren. One of his great grandsons came in from California to surprise him at the family birthday celebration.

Wrobel said the reference to Dean Martin originated years ago because Tony looked a lot like Dean Martin when he was young, and he also had many connections in Hollywood and Las Vegas.

At 99 years of age, Yukich is in good health, does not even need glasses, and is very mobile. Asked to what he attributes his longevity, he laughed and said “Wine, lots of good wine.”

But then he turned to Wrobel and said “it is because of this wonderful lady who makes me eat right and makes sure I exercise,” he said with a smile.