Maywood Just Lost Her First Love


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

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20 thoughts on “Maywood Just Lost Her First Love

  1. Michael, that was beautiful. Lennel was so very, very proud of you and your accomplishments, and he felt honored to be all those people (cub reporter, mentor, brother) to you. You embodied his light and hope for Maywood. His loss will be felt on so many levels, some that we have not yet understood. And you are right, despite the hole he has left, and the tears we will shed, the best way to honor him will be to get back to work. Thank you, Michael.

  2. Michael, that was beautiful. Lennel was so very, very proud of you and your accomplishments, and he felt honored to be all those people (cub reporter, mentor, brother) to you. You embodied his light and hope for Maywood. His loss will be felt on so many levels, some that we have not yet understood. And you are right, despite the hole he has left, and the tears we will shed, the best way to honor him will be to get back to work. Thank you, Michael.
    -Sarah Lira

  3. What a great piece for our dear friend, Lennel. May he rest in peace. We will miss him dearly. His pride and hope for Maywood remains in us. I am thankful for the stories and memories he shared with us of our community, which we will cherish. There will always be an empty chair on our front porch in his honor. We will always remember him in our hearts and amongst all of us whom he brought together as a community. We will celebrate him every time we get together, remembering the joy he felt when he introduced one neighbor or non-neighbor to another. He was our beacon of what Maywood was, the good that it is and what can be in our Village. Most of all, I am thankful for his kindness to our son and his friendship with us. We will miss him dearly and forever remember him. And now, let’s get back to work.

  4. Will remember Lennel from NOMCO and how he so convincingly talked us into being on the Maywood house walk again. He loved Maywood.
    The community has lost a one of a kind good guy.

    our deepest sympathy to all

    Marge and Matt

  5. Mr. Romain, as a friend, Pirate,and Maywoodian…your words were very eloquent and heartfelt. Lennel was intelligent,witty ,wise and had a good sense of humor. He had a true passion and drive to navigate through the mudraking politics to get everyone to do what was best for our community. Lennel was a true renaissance man. After reading your article I was flooded with memories of the man and his mission. I shed tears for a loss to a community, that is struggling for survival during difficult times.
    In Service For Maywood,
    Village of Eternal Light
    David Flowers Sr.

  6. I have felt honored to know Lennel for the short 5 years that he and I were colleagues as directors and volunteers for Earth Day trail cleanup in connection with the Illinois Prairie Path. I will miss him. RIP, Lennel

  7. Michael Romain, cousin you couldn’t have written this any better or explained the Kennel that I knew and grew up with. He was a year behind me but his older sister Lorraine was in my class. They were like 2 peas in a pod but his love for Maywood was much much more than hers. Good Article

  8. Beautiful tribute. My deepest condolences for those of you blessed to have known Lennel. I wished I knew him longer as his insight, wisdom & energy was refreshing. A true gentleman with a natural gift to teach as he engaged in vibrant storytelling. I’ll always remember his kindness, welcoming smile & open heart. May Heaven be all that he imagined & more.
    ~Alice Nally

  9. This is a powerfully written, evocative piece. I agree with everything well said here by his friends and admirers. Lennel’s bold intellect, his resounding, articulate speech are aspects of his personality I enjoyed most, in that, frankly, they are so damned rare these days. My family and I will always miss him, he was a friend. Mr. Romain, your article brought me to tears–keep up the good work!

  10. A very eloquent write up, Michael. Several of us got togfether last night to share simliar stories and fond memories, we are all going to miss him. RIP Lennel.

  11. Your piece was wonderful Michael! It is hard to sum up someone who has left such an indelible mark. Chief Talley

  12. I am saddened to learn of the sudden death of a good friend and neighbor, Lennel Grace. May the grace of God be with you and your family, and may you rest in peace.

    I met Lennel over 23 years ago, back in 1992, at a community organized meeting that he and the late David Cooper coordinated. I recall the two of them, along with a few other residents, arranging a meeting at Proviso East High School where more than one hundred plus residents attended and expressed outrage over various issues and the impact it had on their lives. I had just recently moved here and was rather impressed by the fact that so many residents would come out and exhibit concern for how things were being handled.

    As our relationship grew, Lennel shared with me his passion for Maywood and a desire to see Maywood be its best. This meant promoting Maywood in a way it was not use to being promoted, helping build communities, block by block, and inviting old friends from the north side, Oak Park, River Forest and the likes to see the other side of what has only been portrayed negatively about our community, for many years. Yes, we’ve had some negative things happen here, but for the most part, the majority of our residents are decent, law abiding citizens. And there are those of you whom have written and shared how he convinced you to move to Maywood over many other communities you could have chosen to live in. That was Lennel.

    I’ll never forget the flood of 2010. Our basement, along with hundreds of others in the community were flooded and everything in it destroyed. Lennel showed up at my door with more than 15 medical students from Loyola, not concerned with how we lived or what we had, but a willingness to help us and other residents on the block, rid our basements of all the soiled and damaged goods. This is the Lennel I remember, always looking to help someone in the community.

    Lennel was about inclusion, bringing blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians and any other nationality or ethic group together as one. He tracked all over this town, often by foot, promoting the goodness of a community lacking true and honest representation. Lennel was resourceful in many, many ways. He used his local contacts as well as ventured outside of Maywood to learn from other prospering communities in order to bring back information we could use to help make us better.

    His passion also centered on making Maywood, one Maywood, not two. His role as President of NoMco was one he hoped to accomplish this in, bringing the north Maywoodians and south Maywoodians to the same table, dispelling a myth that one was better than the other. No one was a better ambassador for Maywood than Lennel.

    God bless you my friend, you will surely be missed, but not forgotten.

    Cheryl A. Ealey-Cross

  13. A wonderful tribute for a wonderful man. We will miss his spirited and frank caring for people and community. May we all carry his spirit forward. – Stacy and Joe

  14. A wonderful peace about very blessed man. God Bless you Lennel thank you for all you taught me. – Matt

    Does anyone have the service information for Lennel

  15. What a great article about wonderful Man. Lennel was a great teacher who taught me more than he will ever know. How very sad, I will miss you my friend. Matt D.

    please post any info on the services for Lennel Grace.

  16. This is a beautiful tribute to Lennel Grace. Someone who I knew for 25 years. May his spirit rest in peace with God.

  17. I am late to learn of this devastating news, but I want to thank you for the touching tribute. Mr. Grace was indeed a force of nature, and I have no doubt that Maywood and Illinois are better places for all of his enduring efforts.

    Surely anyone who knew Lennel, even in passing, shall never forget him.

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