Kadner: How ‘angels’ defeated the demons
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org April 4, 2014 6:28PM
The Neat Repeats resale shops, this one in Worth, raise money for the Crisis Center for South Suburbia. | File photo
Updated: May 8, 2014 9:34AM
Ignorance and fear. These often are the partners that combine to thwart what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”
And yet, sometimes, perhaps more often than not, they falter when confronted by ordinary people of extraordinary goodwill.
On Friday, the Crisis Center for South Suburbia, a shelter for victims of domestic violence, held an event celebrating 35 years of service to the south and southwest suburbs, during which it has touched the lives of more than 55,000 people.
The drive to create the shelter was launched in 1978, in the kitchen of Dianne Masters’ home, where a group of women volunteers created a hotline to assess the needs of domestic violence victims.
One year later, they incorporated as a nonprofit agency and converted an old farmhouse into a shelter. The founders included Masters and educator Carol Zellen, along with Joanne Zerkel and Pat Bouchard, journalists who worked for predecessor publications of the SouthtownStar.
Masters’ life would end tragically in her murder. In a sensational case, her husband, attorney Allan Masters, a former Cook County sheriff’s police intelligence chief and the former police chief of Willow Springs were convicted of engaging in a conspiracy to kill her.
I was invited to participate in the 35th anniversary event because many years ago I wrote a few columns about the efforts of volunteers to expand the original shelter in Palos Hills.
Hundreds of angry people attended public hearings on the proposed expansion, many voicing their opposition in an insulting and abusive manner, directing their venom at the very people who should have been celebrated for their community spirit.
In a story I have repeated many times, one fellow stood up during a hearing to explain why he thought a domestic violence center was unnecessary.
If a woman is being beaten at home, the man said, she was likely “asking for it.” And with that, he tossed a right uppercut through the air at an imaginary chin and said words to the effect that sometimes you just got to straighten them out.
I used to laugh at Jackie Gleason’s shout of, “To the moon, Alice,” as he used the same motion to express dissatisfaction with his wife occasionally on the old “The Honeymooners” TV show.
While audiences laughed at Gleason’s antics, the crowd at that hearing applauded the guy who mimicked him.
That was long before the days when “Law and Order SVU” would become a hit TV series, before dozens of movies about domestic violence and before it was widely recognized that abuse in the home creates future abusers.
In the infancy of the Crisis Center, it was a battle to get police to press charges against husbands accused of beating their wives.
But this is a story about how people of good intentions can overcome massive odds and, in the process, motivate those who would have otherwise sat on the sidelines.
The Crisis Center lost its bid to expand in Palos Hills, but the resulting publicity created an army of new supporters. Hundreds of people who weren’t even aware of its existence offered support and money.
Tinley Park Mayor Ed Zabrocki said his village would be pleased to host a site for the shelter. In 1989, former state Sen. William Mahar, of Homewood, helped secure state property in Tinley Park for a lease of $1 a year.
And in 1991, the Crisis Center for South Suburbia opened at its new home with beds for 35 women, paid for with $1.3 million raised by volunteers.
Having witnessed the tears of frustration shed by many of the original supporters of the Crisis Shelter during those public hearings in Palos Hills, it was a joyous thing to see their jubilation at the eventual public response.
At the time, I did not know Joanne Zerkel well, but years later we become colleagues when the Daily Southtown and Star Newspapers merged.
She was a small person in stature and a kind person by nature, but she was an immovable force when it came to doing what she felt was right for her community. And that community extended well beyond her back yard and hometown.
As with nearly all of the women who created the Crisis Center, Zerkel seemed undaunted by criticism or the innumerable roadblocks placed in their path.
“It was a few women sitting in a tiny kitchen, planning to do something to help other women,” she used to say with a laugh. “We had all of these grand plans, ideas that would cost thousands that none of us had and none of us knew how to get, but we made it happen.”
Today, the Crisis Center has a stafff of 40 and 250 volunteers, offering court advocacy for abused women, a 24-hour hotline, an emergency shelter and transitional housing to help victims re-enter their communities. It also has a resale shop and offers educational programs regarding domestic abuse.
The shelter’s mission, stated simply on its website, is “making a difference in the lives of individuals and families victimized by domestic violence.”
In some ways, I think the firestorm of criticism the shelter received during those public hearings cemented its future.
Among the more outrageous claims were fears that angry husbands, looking to get their wives and children back, would create a crime wave in any town that allowed the shelter within its borders.
Think about the literal meaning of that fear. People were saying, in a public forum, they were afraid to stand in the way of violent men intent on doing harm to women and children.
I believe that sentiment was so repugnant, so vile, that people who had previously done nothing were motivated to act.
We don’t beat women and children here. We don’t stand by and allow it to happen. We help!
And that is how the better angels of our nature destroy the demons of ignorance and fear.