Vickroy: Oak Lawn’s Len Pearson an inspiration to all
BY DONNA VICKROY email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy February 5, 2014 9:46PM
Members of the Richards High School Leo Club make get-well cards for Len Pearson, the longtime Oak Lawn resident who started the organization at the high school in 1969. | Donna Vickroy/Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 6, 2014 2:10AM
You can’t talk about community service in these parts without tipping your hat to George “Len” Pearson Jr.
Not only was the longtime Oak Lawn resident a member of the Navy, Merchant Marines and Navy Reserve, serving in both World War II and the Vietnam War, Pearson helped convince teenagers throughout the Southland and across the state that it was hip to be helpful.
Pearson was a dedicated member of the Oak Lawn Lions Club for some 50 years, serving as president and district governor. He also started the first Leo Club, the high school affiliate of the Lions Club, in Illinois at Richards High School in 1969.
“He was always in a hurry because he was always on his way to help someone,” recalled his granddaughter Jane Turner, a social worker at Delta School in Community High School District 218. “Helping was just his nature.”
At 92, Pearson is in the twilight of his life. His health is failing, but his legacy lives on in the memories of the thousands he helped and the thousands he inspired to become helpers.
“He was very dedicated to his causes,” Frank Kirar, past president of the Oak Lawn Lions, said. “He was very interested in getting young people involved in helping others.”
The Lions Club is an international service organization devoted to helping the blind, the deaf — and just about anybody who needs help, Kirar said.
“It is not politically oriented. We don’t take care of ourselves; we take care of others,” he said.
The Lions began in the Chicago area in 1917. Oak Lawn’s district is District 1A, the founding chapter.
Although the Lions began as an all-male group focused on helping the blind, it has evolved into an organization of 1.35 million members, men and women, who actively are assisting senior citizens, protecting the environment and feeding the hungry in their communities.
Admission to the Lions Club is by invitation only. Pearson’s invitation came from former Oak Lawn Mayor Fred Dumke.
Bringing adolescents into the fold was a new idea in the late 1960s when Pearson offered to help start a Leo Club at newly opened Richards High in Oak Lawn. His son, Bob, a student at the school, became the first Leo Club president in Illinois.
Kirar said Pearson served first as a liaison for the club and then as adviser. He also worked closely with exchange students visiting Richards from around the world.
“They loved him in District 218,” Kirar said. “He became a part of the staff.”
Pearson believed so strongly in the importance of getting young people involved in bettering their communities that he worked to establish Leo Clubs across the state.
“He probably singlehandedly started 50 Leo Clubs in Illinois,” Kirar said.
Katherine Narbone, an optometrist in Oak Lawn, is among the Richards alumni who were inspired by Pearson.
“There are just certain people who touch your life growing up, and he was one of them,” she said. “Even at a young age, I realized how dedicated he was to service. I have very fond memories of the club.”
Pearson somehow made community service cool, she said.
“It became the popular thing to do, to become a Leo,” she said. “I now think back, how great it was that all these kids thought it was so cool and so important to help others.”
Pearson was born in 1921. He grew up in Chicago, attended Lindblom High School and joined the Navy in 1939. He graduated from the Merchant Marine Academy in 1945, served in World War II and then joined the Navy Reserve.
When the war ended, he came home, married the love of his life, Cecile Pearson, and raised two sons, Bob and George III, the latter of whom is nicknamed Skip. Pearson opened a business, American Food Equipment, that repaired meat slicers, with locations in Oak Lawn and Chicago.
When the Vietnam War started, Pearson again shipped out to serve his country, working on an aircraft carrier that delivered helicopters to Vietnam in 1966.
“My mom, my brother and I just handled it for six to eight months,” Skip said. “My dad lived a lifetime of service — the military, the Lions, church and the Young Republicans.”
That dedication wore off on his children, his grandchildren and the legions of students he worked with over the years through the Leo Club. Pearson not only had the kids participate in fundraisers, he drove them to hospitals and institutions where they could visit sick children and spend time with disabled people.
Both Bob and Skip as well as Skip’s son, Chip, also served in the Navy.
“My brother and I started volunteering at a very young age,” Skip said, working the popular Lions Club candy days and other fundraisers, as well as the Thanksgiving dinners for the poor.
“My dad is just an amazing person,” Skip said.
Bob McParland, spokesman for District 218, called Pearson his hero. The feeling is mutual, Turner said.
“When (my grandfather) talks about his many years at Richards High School, he always mentions Bob McParland and always gets choked up,” she said.
Recently, McParland posted a note about Pearson on District 218’s Facebook page. Among the respondents, alumnus Caroline Sweis Rieckmann, who has lived in Germany for 20 years, wrote: “Candy Day on the corner of Cicero and 95th Street was always amazing and also our trips to the city to the children’s hospitals and centers for the blind and hearing impaired at Christmas really opened my eyes.”
She recalled one time in particular.
“Mr. Pearson drove into the city with us one day and it was just pouring outside. We were dressed as elves and at the end of the day we even stopped at Christ Hospital’s Children’s Ward to say hello and read some books. The amazing thing is, it was pouring cats and dogs all day long and Mr. Pearson just said, ‘We will take our time to get there, but the kids are waiting for us and we don’t want to disappoint them. He was right. The looks on their faces were enough for all of us to appreciate the real meaning of Christmas.”
Sue Murphy, mom of a current Richards student and a couple of graduates, wrote that Pearson lives on her street and described him as a “proud, but humble man. He and his wife have aged and are frail. He was very happy when I mentioned he was still thought of. It would make his day if the students in Leo Club could send him letters or cards wishing him well.”
Under the direction of speech pathologist Beth Rockey, the current Leo Club members recently did just that.
“Len is a special person,” Kirar said. “He could have been a rich guy if he’d put all that energy into making money. But he cared more about helping people.”