Lifetime Chamber Award goes to New Lenox’s Whitaker
By Susan DeMar Lafferty Sun-Times Media January 23, 2013 8:20PM
Ron Whitaker, who is being honored by the New Lenox Chamber of Commerce Chamber for a lifetime achievement award, stands in their offices inside the village hall in New Lenox, IL on Tuesday January 15, 2013. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
If you go …
What: New Lenox Chamber annual dinner
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday
Where: American Legion Post 1977, 14414 Ford Drive, New Lenox
Cost: $55 per person/dinner and open bar
Updated: February 25, 2013 12:36PM
As he listed a lifetime of activities, Ron Whitaker commented, “I amaze myself when I think about it.”
There’s the New Lenox Township Library Board, the New Lenox Chamber of Commerce, the Joliet Junior College Board, New Lenox Village Board, board of police and fire commissions, police magistrate, historical society and Rotary Club.
“I guess if you hang around long enough, you can do some things. These are all things I enjoy doing,” said Whitaker, who has lived most of his life in New Lenox.
Even though he retired in 2002 after working 50 years as an independent insurance agent, Whitaker, 77, remains a member of the chamber of commerce, vice president of the New Lenox Area Historical Society, instructor for the fire and police commissioners training institute, and member of the board of directors for the Maplewood Cemetery Association.
But it is his commitment to the chamber of commerce — where he served as its first president in 1959 — that has earned Whitaker the Lifetime Chamber Award and a lifetime membership.
“Quite literally, the chamber of commerce may not exist today without his contributions and leadership 53 years ago,” chamber CEO Debbera Hypke said.
Whitaker will be honored with the chamber’s business of the year, Chicago Dough, at the organization’s annual dinner Tuesday at the American Legion Post.
Whitaker did not just “do some things,” he initiated many of them. He was one of three founding members of the chamber of commerce after taking over the insurance agency at age 17 when his dad suddenly died.
Before the chamber started, there was a New Lenox businessmen’s club that “fell into disarray.” Back then, the business community was divided into downtown businesses, contractors and service people “who never really knew each other,” Whitaker said. “We really felt that business people ought to have a way to communicate with each other and know each other.”
It began with 25 or 30 members and “increased a bit since then,” he said.
Of all his activities, Whitaker said his most significant contributions were with the JJC Board, his 21 years with the police and fire commission, and his work with the historical society.
He served on the college’s first board of trustees and was part of the group that purchased the 360 acres the school sits on today.
“People were outraged that we paid $2,000 per acre for farmland, but we bought all the land Joliet Junior College will ever need. It’s a great location,” he said.
As a member of the village’s board of police and fire commissioners, which hires, promotes and disciplines officers, Whitaker saw the village’s police department grow from five to 30 officers, and hired the village’s first female officers, including April DiSandro, who now serves as deputy chief.
“We were pretty busy,” he said.
Work continues with the historical society, which has landmarked many historic sites, including its museum at the former Schmuhl School. And Whitaker easily can recall much of New Lenox history.
He said he’s still active because he enjoys it. It also may be in his blood. His father owned a grocery store on Cedar Road and his grandfather, George Hacker, was founder of banks in New Lenox and Mokena and mayor of Mokena.
The father of two sons and grandfather of five, Whitaker said he “never could have done any of it” without Mary, his wife of 55 years.
“She was 100 percent behind whatever I was doing,” he said. “I owe a lot to her. She’s No. 1 in my book.”