Lennel Grace | File
Friday, March 4, 2016 || By Michael Romain || Updated: 5:26 PM
Lennel Grace, the man for whom many people who care about Maywood considered this town’s living, breathing embodiment and one of its brightest hopes, died suddenly yesterday evening, according to close relatives. He was 66 years old.
While his cause of death is still not known, its reverberations are already apparent. There’s a hole now in the heart of this village so big — and I now echo the words of Rolando Villegas, one his closest friends — a hundred men couldn’t fill it.
In this hole, as visceral and crater-like as the McCook Quarry, an eerie silence permeates and spreads into darkness. You look down in it, try describing its magnitude, and your words, along with your stunned reaction, are immediately eaten by the abyss.
That’s what it’s like writing this about someone who was so critical to what you’re reading today. The Village Free Press, for whatever its worth, would not be much without Lennel — who introduced me, and this publication, to a Maywood that many people, even those who live here, don’t know exist.
This village of marshmallow-chocolate-and-hickory-scented backyard bonfires; of more than century-old brick once touched by the hands of Frank Lloyd Wright protégés; of rooms rehabbed with elbow grease and love; of summer barbecues crowded with pre-med students; of Hollywood-style production sets; of righteous indignation; of politics and politics and politics — all of this and more is the work of Lennel’s brilliant gift for unveiling.
To give you some idea (for the few who may not have experienced this gift firsthand), this is often how it worked. You would be asleep, or distracted, or pleasantly alone, or with friends, or wrapped in work, and the phone would ring. It would be Lennel on the other line with some hilariously obnoxious or self-deprecating introduction, such as, “This is your mentor,” or “This is your leader,” or “This is your cub reporter,” or “This is your brother from another,” or “This is God himself,” or “This is the most important person in your life” (I’m being only halfway facetious).
The call would, not all the time but often enough, be unwelcomed — not because you didn’t want to speak to Lennel, but because you knew that once you were in his orbit, all the easy exits were closed off.
You had to prepare yourself to be with him, because it could be an hour or two or several, or days, and several premature farewells, before he granted you leave. And because he often caught you off-guard, you were often unprepared to be taken.
But invariably, without fail, after having spoken to him, you would have learned something you never knew before, had several epiphanies; your life (if not your mind and if only marginally), having changed for the better.
One day, for instance, I was awoken at 7:00 a.m. by a phone call from Lennel urging me out of bed and before I knew it I was groggily moving down Washington Boulevard in a car with him and one of his many close friends toward the old Baptist Retirement Home, 316 Randolph St., in Maywood. And there, on the roof of the building, was a prop for a TV show — a helicopter — dangling from a ledge. And there was my story and so it went for many stories before and after that one.
To know Lennel was to know life itself. To know that he is no longer alive is also a kind of revelation. That someone so vital and vibrant and very much here, present — even omnipresent — can so suddenly be absent on a permanent basis is its own kind of truth. Lennel is pushing us to confront it, because that’s what he was about.
The last time I spoke with him was a few days before learning that he had passed. He was talking about some of his many big plans he had for this village of his birth. He also recounted a moment of pain during a recent meeting about a proposed expressway project.
He had gotten up to voice his characteristic dissent against the majority opinion about the issue. In a room full of dozens of people, he stood virtually alone. There were a few, Rolando Villegas being one, who were on his side of the argument. He was booed.
His love affair with Maywood and his people (“my people,” he would often say) was a messy one. It was ugly and beautiful and alive with confrontation and debate and disagreement. Maywood cut Lennel deeply and often. Lennel cut back. They fought hard. They loved harder.
In his struggles with the place of his birth, Lennel taught me that love and citizenship are often the same thing. They both require accountability and responsibility; but most of all, they require you to be here, fixed, stuck even, in a place where, or near people with whom, you have no choice but to work things out.
You can’t love if you’re not present to catch the blows, if you don’t open yourself up, if you aren’t vulnerable, if there’s no mutual exposure, no risk. Love is home. Maywood, for Lennel, was home.
Lennel talked loudly about his frustrations with Maywood, but that’s because he could. He was Maywood. And he loved her so much, he loved her so hard, that he spent most of his waking moments trying to make her better.
Yesterday, Rolando, who was once a renter in Melrose Park, mourned the loss of the man who coaxed him into buying a home in Maywood. And there are many, like Rolando, who now mourn the man who gave us so much we’re now stuck in the massive hole created by his death.
If Lennel were here, though, he’d take stock of the hole’s diameter, asses the soil conditions, evaluate the various skill sets of the hole’s denizens, and tell us all to get to work. VFP
‘Like’ Village Free Press on Facebook: