One of Palos Hills' original aldermen died in May in Fla.

Joseph Straka elected in 1958; lost mayoral bid three years later

By William Jones

Joseph J. Straka, one of the original members of the Palos Hills City Council when the city was incorporated 50 years ago, died earlier this year after battling emphysema and heart problems.

Straka died May 16 in West Palm Beach, Fla., after complications of pneumonia, emphysema and heart problems. He was 91.

Straka's wife of 67 years, Elaine Marie Straka, died last October from complications of pneumonia and bladder cancer in Okeechobee, Fla.

Mr. Straka was born in Chicago, but moved with his wife when he was 23 to Wisconsin, where they had a farm. The couple had two sons, Joseph and Jim, and one daughter, Judith.

Mr. Straka was drafted into the Army in 1941, but his unit never left the country. After he was discharged in 1945, he continued to live in Wisconsin until he moved his family to Palos Hills in 1950. In 1958, the year Palos Hills was incorporated as a city, Straka became part of the first City Council when he was elected alderman.

His daughter, Judy Mittler, a lifelong resident of Palos Hills, recalled that in 1958 the city did not yet have a police department, so each alderman carried a gun and served as both an elected official and police officer. As an alderman, Straka fought for a truck terminal along 103rd Street, but the City Council ultimately voted against it, Mittler said. He served as alderman until 1961, when he ran for mayor and lost.

Mittler said growing up during the early years of Palos Hills was interesting because there was no running water until 1958. Until then, all water was pumped from wells, Mittler said.

The Strakas were from the Great Depression era, so most chores around the house were done with old-fashioned manual labor, Mittler said. The lawn was cut with a reel mower; laundry was washed, wrung and hung by hand; and the bathroom was outside the home. The family even dug out a basement and a half worth of earth while building their house, Mittler said.

Elaine Straka was a happy person, and both parents were always willing to help people - something that likely led to her father's interest in the city's government, Mittler said.

"He saw that the city could become something good," she said.

Mr. Straka co-owned D&S Construction while living in Palos Hills. He later worked for Nalco Company briefly while living in Chicago, before he and his wife moved to Florida, where he worked as a carpenter. Elaine was a payroll clerk.

Between all the work, the family enjoyed "a little traveling," and Joseph taught all three children how to swim, fish and hunt, Mittler explained. Their mother taught them how to sew.

"We were taught to be very self-sufficient," Mittler said.

The idea was that if any of the children never got married, Mittler would still be able to fend for herself while the boys would be able to mend their own clothes and look respectable, Mittler explained. She said her father taught her how to use a gun to hunt, but also how to respect the weapon.

Mr. Straka retired from Nalco in 1968 and moved back to Chicago for one year before he and his wife moved to Cape Coral, Fla., and eventually Okeechobee, Fla. Mrs. Straka turned her experience in sewing clothes into a crocheting and crafts hobby, while her husband carved wood figures that he sold to shops in Florida after he retired.