She Knits: Holly Meeks
Holly Meeks knows how to knit more than scarves and blankets. She seems to have the innate ability to unite people, places, and things to form a greater whole—whether it is family, work, or life. And she has a lot of fun in the process.
Holly and her husband, Tom, moved to Lake Forest 19 years ago, and they put family and community first. When her three children were young, Holly left her fast-paced job in the fashion industry to stay at home. She embraced philanthropic work with organizations including the Infant Welfare Society, Lake Forest Hospital Women’s Health Advisory Council, and Lake Forest Open Lands Association.
“I love living, enjoying, and interacting in our community, ”says Holly. So when she decided to return to work part-time eight years ago, “I looked where my heart lived. I believe in our community, our families, and our Open Lands.”
Her job as Director of Marketing and Outreach for Lake Forest Open Lands fits perfectly. What started as 15 hours per week morphed into 30 hours, and it’s clear that Holly is integral to the fabric of Open Lands’ continual growth and success.
If you’ve ever attended the annual Bagpipes & Bonfire outdoor fall festival, you probably noticed Holly. She is the one with the walkie-talkie attached to her hip, or to her ear and mouth, striding purposefully around Middlefork Savannah making sure the event ticks along like clockwork for the 1,600 attendees. Families picnic on plenty of fried chicken, children learn Scottish Highland dance steps, and kilt-clad skydivers arrive precisely at their appointed moment. While Holly insists that it takes a lot of committees to make all of this happen, it’s clear that she is the “go-to” person that day.
“My job brings me in contact with people—wonderful people in our community—that have so much history and giving in them. It’s a joy to work with so many community members who care so much.”
And it’s obvious that Holly’s siblings care so much about her. She is the oldest of five in a family that grew up in New Jersey and Wisconsin. It’s probably not a coincidence that three of her siblings and 12 nieces and nephews now live here in Lake Forest or Lake Bluff. Holly draws people together.
While she says she is trying to “slow things down” in her life, she practices yoga, plays paddle tennis, and skis both downhill and cross-country. She reads voraciously and recently went skydiving with her son, Forster. “But I find knitting therapeutic and calming!” she laughs. As to the future, she says, “I just take it one day at a time.”
For more information, visit lfola.org. –EDS
It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Nini Lustig
“It may seem silly to have that plaque hanging up all year,” says Lake Bluff’s Nini Lustig, Executive Director of Lake County Cares, pointing to the holiday decoration on the wall, “but we really believe that it’s Christmas all the time here. We’re the recipients of gifts all year long.”
Nini has been a part of Lake County Cares, formerly the Volunteer Center of Lake Forest/Lake Bluff, for the better part of 12 years—in the director’s chair for the last seven. The purpose of Lake Country Cares is to connect volunteers with organizations where their strengths, talents, and interests are best aligned. “We’re overwhelmed by the number of people who want to share their precious hours,” says Nini. “We seem to live in a place where there’s an intrinsic need to serve.” In 2010, Lake County Cares placed more than 10,000 volunteers.
Lake County Cares is one of the few volunteer centers in the country that offers counseling for those looking to give of their time, but don’t know how or where to begin. “We have a team that has been trained to help volunteers identify where they want to work,” explains Nini, validating the founders’ vision of the center that people may need direction when they decide to volunteer. “We start by asking what your interests are and what you’re passionate about. But then we may start to explore the things that make you happy or make you sad. What were the character-building moments in your life?”
Nini and her staff will meet with a volunteer multiple times, if necessary, to find the right fit. “Sometimes it’s not an agency, but a creative, self-run project, benefiting a specific cause that strikes a chord. We love tossing ideas around until something clicks,” she adds.
One of the greatest challenges Lake County Cares faces is funding its organization. “The good and the bad of doing our job well is that our volunteers fall in love with the agency they’re working with and they tend to support that agency. Of course, we want this to happen, but we need to raise funds for Lake County Cares, too, to cover our operating expenses. It’s a tricky balance,” Nini says. “Coming up with our own earned income strategies and doing mission-based fund-raising our strong priorities. Volunteering with one of our eight outreach programs has also become a great way for people to get to know us,” she says.
It’s hard for Nini to talk about Lake County Cares without becoming overwhelmed with emotion. “There is so much love and light shining in this place. I encourage all those who don’t know what to do with their time, to come and see us. And if you’re waiting to be asked to volunteer, I’m asking you to come join us. You’re the people we want to meet.”
To learn more about Lake County Cares, visit lakecountycares.org. –AMS
Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover: Sandy Deromedi
Sandy Deromedi is a contradiction in the best sense. Even though she is the fourth of five children and the youngest girl, she is the self-proclaimed matriarch of her family. She calls herself Sandarella because she’s a jeans and T-shirt girl who loves to clean, but also delights in getting dressed up. And she is a well-respected philanthropist reluctant to take the spotlight.
Sandy lives with her husband, Roger, their three children, and her niece in a 1911 Charles Allerton Coolidge English manor home in Lake Forest. They purchased the estate in 2004 when they returned to Lake Forest after living abroad for a number of years while Roger was CEO of Kraft Foods. Since then, they’ve completely restored the original Rumsey estate house and the Jens Jensen gardens, which won the 2010 Lake Forest Preservation Foundation Award.
But the grandeur of the home and gardens are inconsequential once inside the bustling, homey, family atmosphere. Sandy’s daughter Lauren and niece Marissa chat at the table in the kitchen’s sunny breakfast nook, while dogs of varying breeds, sizes, and ages bark and greet guests.
In the sunroom, a relaxed Sandy is just as happy to talk about a new bird she’s been hearing but hasn’t yet seen that sounds like it’s singing, “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger!” as she is about her philanthropic contributions.
Sandy started volunteering shortly after returning to Lake Forest, joining the board of the Field Museum in 2005. “The museum is anything and everything but stuffed animals,” says Sandy. “They do research in 65 countries, have their own DNA lab, and they are living, breathing research partners with the University of Chicago.”
In 2006, she was asked to join the Women’s Board of The Joffrey Ballet. “I jumped for joy,” she says. Sandy’s late mother was a ballet and tap teacher. “It’s somewhat in my legacy to be involved with a ballet company,” says Sandy. Among her many contributions to both organizations, she has co-chaired each of their galas.
When Sandy started looking for a “local” philanthropy to support, she and Roger attended Ragdale’s Novel Affair cocktail party. “There were 200 people there, and I was so excited to be in a room of friendly, welcoming people passionate about reading.” Soon after, she was asked to join the Ragdale Foundation’s Board of Trustees. Sandy is chairing this year’s Novel Affair event, changing the format a bit in the hopes of attracting a broader and larger audience.
After being “a corporate widow and a single parent for 30 years,” Sandy is now the busy “executive” in the family. While many wives groan when their husbands retire, Sandy says, “Roger is three-quarters retired now and home a lot, and I love it. I get to flirt with my husband all day!”
For more information about Ragdale’s Novel Affair, visit ragdale.org. –EDS
The Life of the Party: Steven Valenti
“My passion in life has always been to have a good time,” says Steven (Steve) Valenti, owner of All Things Party, a boutique event design, production, and management company based in Lake Forest.
“I guess looking back, our house was the party house,” explains Steve with a laugh. “I was always the ring leader.” But until the fall semester of his senior year in college, even though he spent his summers working exclusive parties with event planner Bruce Southworth, Steve saw himself as a “finance guy.”
“It wasn’t until my senior year in college when I was helping Bruce with an anniversary party that things changed for me,” Steve says. “This party began in Athens and finished in Venice. I was studying in Prague at the time when a private plane picked me up to go to work and I remember thinking that this was pretty cool—that this could be a career for me.” It was at this time that Bruce gave Steve some valuable advice. “He said there will only be a few times in your life when someone in a position of power will ask you what it is you want to do, and you better have your answer ready.” Steve worked with Bruce, who was a terrific mentor for the next 18 years.
In early 2009, it was time for Steve to hang his own shingle and “All Things Party” was born. “I meet interesting people and I become part of their lives when there’s cause for celebration,” explains Steve, who plans everything from the opening night party at Hermes’ new flagship store in Chicago, to intimate dinner parties in a client’s backyard . “The biggest challenge in this business is that there are no second chances,” adds Steve.
Steve’s straightforward, mild-mannered approach is at the cornerstone of his successful business. “I was lucky to cut my teeth at a pretty high level,” Steve says, having honed his event planning and management skills producing parties for some of the world’s most powerful, wealthy, and philanthropic individuals. His body of work spans 18 different states and 24 countries.
When asked what his favorite party has been to plan, one big one came to mind. “In May 2010, All Things Party produced the retirement party for the CEO of Harpo Studios. The former CEO was a 30-year colleague of Ms. Winfrey’s and everyone at Harpo wanted to ensure a proper send-off. I won’t share specifics of the event, but I will say that receiving a call from Ms. Winfrey’s office was a terrific confidence boost for me personally and my newly formed business. Fortunately, the phone has been ringing ever since!”
For more information, visit allthingsparty.us. –AMS
Defining Hometown: Ed Wehmer
Ed Wehmer is not your typical highly successful CEO of a multibillion dollar publicly traded company. In fact, he’s really a softy. Case in point: One of his fondest memories is of setting up a card table in an empty storefront on Western Avenue that would become Lake Forest Bank & Trust Company (LFBT).
The table and Ed’s very large mobile phone was the bank’s only office furniture in 1991. That table signifies the day that Ed decided to put family and community first. With a wife and six children, he was tired of traveling and working 14 hours a day.
“It was a quality of life decision,” says Ed. “Starting LFBT allowed me to have a five-minute commute, coach my six kids’ sports teams, and attend all of their school and church activities.”
A Lake Forest resident for 23 years, Ed was born in Kenilworth, attended parochial schools in Wilmette and Winnetka, and graduated from Georgetown University. He began his career in accounting and swiftly moved on and up in the financial services and banking world. Since 1998, Ed has been President and CEO of Wintrust Financial Corporation, LFBT’s holding company.
“All of the community banks had been bought by big banks,” says Ed. “So, Randy Hibben, Dave Dykstra, and I sat down with a case of beer and a box of cigars and wrote a business plan for a local alternative to the bigger banks.” They solicited financial and board support from community members that included John Lillard, Frank Farwell, Moose Dunne, Ellen Stirling, Chris Reyes, and Howard Adams. That was Labor Day weekend 1991.
“We opened on December 27, 1991,” recalls Ed. “I just hoped some people would show up! I got there at 7 a.m., and there were five people waiting outside. We had lines out the doors for the next six weeks. People liked the idea of a hometown bank.”
LFBT went on to open 15 community banks in Illinois, became the fastest growing de novo (Latin for “beginning anew”) bank in the history of Illinois, and grew to be the second largest bank headquartered in Illinois—all the while maintaining its community-based hometown presence.
“We had no idea where we’d be right now,” sums up Ed. “I’m a pretty lucky guy. I built a business in the town I live in, the way I wanted to build it, and I got to be a part of my kids’ lives and see them grow up.”
For more information, visit lakeforestbank.com. –EDS
The Triple Lutz: Fred Lutz
There are three big reasons you want to meet Fred Lutz. He’s a hopeless romantic still deeply in love with his late wife, Virginia. At 85, he’s the oldest graduate of Lake Forest College (LFC) ever. And he’s got a few pearls of wisdom to share.
“Virgy and I were married 58 years, two months, and three days,” he says. “She was the love of my life, and I was hers.” But when Fred lost Virginia three years ago, he says, “It was a tremendous loss in my life, and I needed something to do.”
He decided to go back to college. Sixty-plus years after he’d last sat in a classroom, Fred met with LFC Dean Carol Gayle and asked her if the college had anything he’d be interested in. She replied, “Would you be interested in getting a master’s?” And it began. “I speculate that she had to push the admissions committee to get me in,” laughs Fred. “I took my first course on probation. I got a B, and it’s the only B I ever got.” Fred completed his Master of Liberal Studies degree with a 3.5 GPA.
“By the second semester, I was hooked,” says Fred, “It took away my grief and gave me a reason to get up in the morning—my loneliness was going away. And I began to make friends.”
“It took some learning,” Fred says, referring to the adjustment to 21st century higher education. “You cannot go to college without a computer!” At first, he used the college’s library computers, but now rattles off all of the technology he uses—iShare, Wikipedia, Google, Web Mail. Fred also carries a yellow legal pad with him wherever he goes, taking notes longhand. “I transcribe my notes to my computer in ‘My Documents’ later, and I type 65–75 words per minute,” he beams.
And Fred can’t speak highly enough about LFC. “You don’t have to go for a degree. Take a course. I counted them—there are no less than 450 courses in the catalog. You can’t tell me you can’t find something that would interest you!”
“If I have a message at all, it’s that if I can do it, you can do it. Life isn’t over when you retire. As you get older, it’s tougher and tougher to make friends, but I have a lot—most of my contemporaries are under 60.” –EDS
Staying One Step Ahead: Karen Scott
If you’ve had a baby in the last two decades, it’s likely that you’ve ordered some baby gear from One Step Ahead. But did you ever notice the company’s return address?
Nestled in an industrial park just south of Route 176 in Lake Bluff, One Step Ahead and its sister company, Leaps and Bounds, are a flurry of activity meeting the needs of today’s busy parents.
The brains behind One Step Ahead is Lake Forest’s Karen Scott. Home on maternity leave from her high profile marketing position at Kraft Foods, Karen had an idea. “I’d just had my second baby and I was sorting through our baby stuff,” Karen says. “I was making a pile of things to keep and another to toss. The pile to toss was much bigger.”
So that got Karen thinking. What if there was a company that helped reduce the risk of buying things that didn’t work? “I knew I wasn’t alone. Being a working mom, I’d blitz the baby stores and make what I thought were fairly intelligent choices, only to find that these items didn’t live up to my expectations,” Karen remembers.
Among such items, a hand-crank swing and a playpen. “I had a colicky baby that was calmed by the swaying of the swing. But if the swing stopped, he’d start to cry. The only way to keep the swing going was to crank it by hand, waking up the baby anyway,” says Karen with a shrug. “Another thing that used to drive me crazy was this oversized playpen we bought. I thought it was great because it gave the baby so much room to move around, but once it was put together—you couldn’t move it. It was supposed to be portable!”
While Karen’s husband Ian originally thought she was “postpartum crazy” to think she could start such a company with a newborn underfoot, he quickly jumped on board as Karen’s market research validated the need for a third-party company to vet children’s products. In 1989, the Scotts launched One Step Ahead in a 5,000-square-foot warehouse in Deerfield. Today, the company’s products fill almost 300,000-square-feet in Lake Bluff. Their mission: to save parents time, money, and frustration by bringing you the best of the vast children’s market. They do the “pre-shopping” for you, researching, comparing, and pre-testing thousands of products—selecting only the top performers. Additionally, the company is building its own line of signature products, composing 30 percent of the products they offer. Not surprisingly, the Scotts turned a profit within two years of the company’s launch.
While Karen admits today’s parents are different than those in the late ’80s, their needs are not. “Parents today want safe, effective products today just as they did 20 years ago. That’s why they shop with us. That’s exactly what we offer.”
For more information, visit onestepahead.com. –AMS
Bin There, Done That: Judson Kinnucan
Even though Lake Forest’s Judson Kinnucan is only in his 30’s, he often thinks about a conversation he might have in his 70’s while playing a round of golf with a friend.
“I really started to be bothered by the idea that a friend would ask me what I had done with my life and I’d have nothing meaningful to say,” says Judson, who left a promising career in the financial world in 2009. “I realized I needed to make a change in my life and begin making a difference.”
So Judson set off on a journey to determine what his contribution might be. “It was really important for me to start something that wasn’t already being done,” explains Judson. “I didn’t want to take away from an organization that was already doing good. I was finding that there were a number of not-for-profits competing with one another to help people,” he says. “It’s pretty crazy to think that happens and I didn’t want to be a part of that.”
Judson came up with the concept to collect items of need—canned goods, hygiene items, books, etc.—and then donate them to an organization that could use them on a monthly basis. “I never collect anything unless I know where it’s going,” explains Judson. Judson calls his not-for-profit, Bin Donated.
Essentially, Bin Donated takes all the work away from a compnay or a group of people that wants to host a drive. They provide the barrel (repurposed candy syrup barrels that were donated to Judson and are stored at his father’s landscaping yard), pick up the donations once they’re collected, and deliver to a local area partner charity. These services are provided at no charge to the charity. “It’s really important to me that the donations we collect here are redistributed to those in need in our community,” explains Judson. “There’s so much need here at home that I’d like us to tackle first.”
Amazingly, Judson does almost all of the collection and drop off on his own, having had his car stolen once in the process. Over the last year, he has collected and distributed more than 30,000 pounds of food, products, and books. “We’re a pretty lean operation, but I know there’s so much potential for us. This is definitely a model that could work in any other city with the right staffing,” he explains.
For more information, visit bindonated.org. –AMS
Where in the World Is Todd?: Todd Nahigian
On virtually every Wednesday evening for the past 16 years, Todd Nahigian has been at CROYA (Committee Representing Our Young Adults) weekly youth meetings with our community teenagers. He started as a youth worker at CROYA in 1995 when the organization operated from a one-room facility.
“It’s an honor that I get to be the one charged with giving the kids a voice,” says Todd of his new role as CROYA Manager. “For many years, I wondered if I could really make a difference, and now I am the kids’ number-one spokesperson on the adult side.”
And our community couldn’t have asked for a more dedicated, compassionate, and capable man for the job. Todd started working with kids as a youth himself, as a camp counselor and recreation center coach throughout high school and college. He was working as a clinical psychologist after graduate school when he heard about the CROYA position.
“I found the counseling rewarding, but I knew that it was not utilizing my strengths,” he says. “I thrive on bringing kids in for all the fun and meaningful social activities, service events, and leadership training, and building relationships with them. And then if they need help, they can come to me.”
This brought up a particularly poignant and defining moment in Todd’s CROYA career. While alone in his office after hours one day, “A student came in to say good-bye to me,” remembers Todd. “He was planning on killing himself.”
Thankfully, Todd had the training and the experience, and had cultivated a relationship of trust with this student, to deal with the situation appropriately. “He was reaching out to me,” says Todd. “We talked it out, I called the police, and we got the proper help for him immediately.” That troubled teen went on to graduate from college and develop into a fine young man.
A funny memory for Todd is when he was the first youth worker to be interviewed and hired (yes, voted on) by the CROYA youth. He held up under questions such as, “What do you feel you have to offer a teenager?” and “Do you use hair gel?” Since then, every new youth worker has had to pass muster with the youth in order to get the job.
It speaks to the core philosophy of CROYA—everything starts with the youth. Todd’s been at CROYA through a lot of ups and really only a few downs, but remains more committed than ever to continuing the CROYA legacy of “representing our young adults.”
“My cause is an easy one to have, because when you love kids and appreciate what they have to offer, you want them to succeed and to know that they’ve made a difference. If you give them the roles and opportunities, we see time and time again that they follow through, make great decisions, and rise to the occasion.”
For more information on CROYA, visit croya.com. –EDS
Singing in the Rain: Dena Dodd Perry
There’s only one person in Lake Forest who’s actually happy about all the summer rain we’ve been having—Dena Dodd Perry.
One afternoon last year, Dena and some friends were downtown having their hair done at a salon for a special cocktail party they were attending later in the evening. As their stylists worked their magic, the ladies watched as the rain began to fall. “Hmm,” thought Dena, watching as the salon’s star stylist finished with his client. “Let’s see how he sends her into the rain.” To her disappointment, she left with a plastic rain scarf on her head.
The problem-solving side of Dena kicked into gear. “It occurred to me that day that there’s no such thing as a fashionable rain scarf,” Dena says. So the industrial engineer/marketing maven rolled up her sleeves and designed the Pop.N.Go rain scarf. “I surveyed my friends and realized there was an actual need for this piece,” she adds. Dena also learned that the scarf industry is about a $729 million business that grows 3-4 percent each year. She even identified that the amount of precipitation in the United States is the highest that it’s been in 100 years.
Pop.N.Go’s value proposition is based on providing functional fashion in a first-of-its-kind 2-in-1 rain scarf—America’s first stylish rain scarf. It covers “frizz-free to fashion conscious” buyers who prefer soft-to-the-touch chiffon and silk-like fabrics. The Pop.N.Go scarf promises to be highly water-resistant, packable and purse ready, reversible, and washable when need be. While Dena’s primary customers are women ages 35 to 50, she’s also very interested in their mothers and daughters. The scarf retails between $24 and $50.
Dena’s energy for her invention is contagious as she talks about it. “The Pop.N.Go scarf crosses both the fashion and the beauty industries,” she explains. “It’s a natural fit in salons, but it could easily work in an accessories department at a large store. It’s been exciting to solve an everyday problem through fashion…and it’s so much easier than lugging around a bulky umbrella. I always have one in my car or my purse.”
Today, the Pop.N.Go scarf is being sold at Forest Bootery in Lake Forest and in various hair salons in Illinois, Michigan, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia. “We had our first international order placed from Ireland. And we just received an online order from Brazil and Russia. Thank God for Google,” laughs Dena. “People are looking for stylish rain scarfs and we’re ‘popping up’ in their searches.”
Dena’s husband and three children are behind her completely as she forges ahead as an entrepreneur. “We’re in this for the long haul. If this idea explodes and gets huge, I’ll need to bring on some more people to help with the day-to-day,” she says. “But if it grows more slowly, it will give me more time to spend with my family and work on some other ideas I have.”
For more information, visit buypopngo.com. –AMS
—Elaine Doremus Slayton & Ann Marie Scheidler