Ottawa’s long-lost son searches for his past

This Wisch List column originally appeared in the The Daily Times (Ottawa, Ill.) in 2003, and is included in my published book, “Northern IlliNOISE: Tales of a Territory.”

Ottawa’s long-lost son searches for his past


Jan. 14, 2003

Almost seven decades ago, deep in the heart of the Great Depression, a healthy eight-pound baby boy was brought into this world at a household somewhere in Ottawa.

Today, thoughts of this long-lost son have returned home, laden with a lifelong mystery and searching for answers.

“I was born in Ottawa on Jan. 26, 1933, and given up for adoption immediately,” said Don Smith of Madison, Wis., who knows little, but wonders much, about his family background in The River City.

“I would like to know my family name, really,” Smith explained. “Nothing else.”

In a dozen days, Don Smith will turn 70 years old. But, with your help, today could be a real birthday.

“(My background) is something that’s been bugging me for the past several years, ever since my adoptive parents died about 20 years ago,” said Smith, who is hoping that his story might ring a bell with one of Ottawa’s older residents. “I don’t want to intrude on the lives of people who have spent years not knowing about me …

“Heck, one of my siblings might have ended up as a bank robber or something, and be someone I wouldn’t want to know.”

And with that laugh, his story begins.

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Hungry Illini Fan Base Deserves To Be Fed

Wisconsin v IllinoisToday’s column from CBS Chicago

(CBS) Right now among Illini Nation, losses are on the mind.

From those of the football blowout variety against Nebraska to the basketball program’s near-misses involving star point guard recruits Jalen Brunson and Jawun Evans, the University of Illinois seems to be scarfing down setbacks these days.

But the reason why all of that aches so much in the bellies of Illini supporters is because there are few, if any, college fan bases in America that are hungrier for success.

Skeptical? Well, then consider this. Last week, unveiled a bracket-style poll in which it seeded 16 college basketball teams from throughout history and asked fans to vote on which is “The Greatest Team to Never Win a Title.”

The 2005 Fighting Illini, who fell 75-70 to North Carolina in the national championship game, were only a No. 8 seed in’s bracket, but thanks to the rabid online nature of Illini fans, that hardly mattered. In the Sweet 16, Illinois hypothetically dumped a 1997 Kanas team that went 34-2, then was easily voted past No. 1 overall seed 1991 UNLV in the Elite Eight and the Fab Five-fueled 1993 Michigan squad in the semifinals.

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Great Chicago Fire Festival preparing to stoke the city

FireFrom the Saturday, Sept. 27, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

By Dave Wischnowsky


In many ways, the Great Chicago Fire has come to define the very city that it destroyed by spawning an enduring bovine legend, providing a clean slate upon which to build even grander metropolis, and more recently even providing the nickname for a Major League Soccer team.

Never in the 143 years since it was first sparked on Oct. 8, 1871, has the Great Chicago Fire gotten full-blown star treatment, however. But come next weekend it will with the inaugural Great Chicago Fire Festival.

Billed by the city as “celebrating Chicago’s epic resurgence and strength after the Great Fire of 1871, and the true grit of its people that propelled us forward to build anew,” this intriguing event is scheduled for 8 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 4, along the Chicago River between State and Columbus.

Free and open to the public, the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District are hoping that the fest staged by Chicago’s Redmoon Theater and grand marshaled by Jesse Spencer and Taylor Kinney, stars of NBC’s hit TV show “Chicago Fire,” will become an annual tourist draw – and revenue generator. And if you’re now getting fired up about the idea of checking out the festival for yourself, here’s what you need to know.

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In Big Ten, Beckman Should Be Held To Higher Standard

TimToday’s column from CBS Chicago

By Dave Wischnowsky –

(CBS) For the Illinois football team, the good news is that its record is 3-1. The bad news is that getting there hasn’t exactly been easy, while the worst news is that the actual easy part of the season is now officially over.

Welcome back to the Big Ten, Tim Beckman.

I’m guessing that the conference has missed you, although I’m also guessing that you may not share similar feelings.

Come Saturday night in Lincoln, Neb., the Illini will kick off their Big Ten slate against the 21st-ranked and undefeated Cornhuskers (4-0), a team that pounded them 39-19 in last season’s conference opener.

With an eventual 1-7 Big Ten record, 2013 didn’t go so well for Beckman’s Illini, just like 2012 (0-8) didn’t either. In fact, dating back to Ron Zook’s final season in 2011, Illinois has one won only once in its past 22 conference games.

Even the Cubs think that’s bad.

Of those losses in that sorry string, the last 15 belong to Beckman, which should be particularly troubling for the coach because it was Big Ten failures that put his predecessor on the chopping block.

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Beating Washington would send Illini to the moon

FergusonFrom the Saturday, Sept. 13, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

By Dave Wischnowsky


It’s 2,099 miles from Memorial Stadium in Champaign to Husky Stadium in Seattle, but for the Illinois football program that plays there this afternoon, the destination might as well be the moon.

And not just because of its proximity to the Space Needle.
After all, a rocket ship is only slightly more of a longshot than what Illini football has been on the West Coast over the past quarter century.

In fact, the last time that Illinois won a true road game against a Pac-12 foe was way back during the season opener in 1989 when the Illini, led by coach John Mackovic and quarterback Jeff George, upended fifth-ranked USC 14-13 at The Coliseum in Los Angeles.

Since then, Illinois has gone 0-8 in regular-season games held in Pac-12 venues. The Illini did beat UCLA out on the Left Coast in 2011, but that came during the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco.

At 3 p.m., however, they get another shot when facing 2-0 Washington. I’ll be in attendance, and as for how the game will turn out, I don’t know. But here’s what I do.

Huskies’ D is vulnerable

In Week 1, Washington eked out a 17-16 win over a Hawaii team that went 1-11 last season. But the Huskies were without starting quarterback Cyler Miles, who was suspended for the season opener.

In Week 2, UW had Miles back, but appeared to have suspended its defense. At least that’s the way it looked when diminutive Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. – who some think has NFL potential – torched the Husky defense for 475 yards on 31-of-46 passing and a whopping seven touchdowns, the most ever yielded by Washington.

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Illini Lose Brunson, But All Is Not Lost

Thursday’s column from CBS Chicago

Groce(CBS) It’s estimated that approximately 2.5 million brides walk down the aisle in America each year. The University of Illinois is never one of them, but it sure can rock that bridesmaid dress.

On Wednesday afternoon, senior point guard Jalen Brunson of Lincolnshire Stevenson became the latest five-star prospect to give his home-state school the cold shoulder, following in the recent footsteps of fellow Land of Lincoln phenoms Cliff Alexander, Jahlil Okafor, Jabari Parker, Anthony Davis and Derrick Rose.

And this time, the out-of-state school wearing the gown and tossing rice was Villanova after Brunson made the announcement that he’ll be wedding himself to coach Jay Wright’s program in Philadelphia next year.

Just like last Novemeber when Chicago Curie’s Alexander notoriously snubbed Illinois in favor of Kansas during a televised press conference just hours after point guard Quentin Snider surprised everyone by flipping his commitment to Louisville, Illini coach John Groce’s program was again left as the runner-up with Brunson.

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Lunt’s Slow Starts Can’t Follow Illini To Seattle

Today’s column from CBS Chicago

UI fbo mediaday(CBS) Is it possible to get off to a fast start while also being plagued by maddeningly slow ones?

Based on Wes Lunt’s successful two-game debut as the new quarterback of the Fighting Illini, the answer would be a resounding yes.

But it can’t be for much longer, not if Illinois wants to keep winning.

This weekend, Illinois (2-0) will trek 2,100 miles northwest to Seattle, where it will tangle with 2-0 Washington inside what’s sure to be a raucous Husky Stadium at 3 p.m. Saturday.

If the Illini are to pull off the upset against their Pac-12 foe, the team is going to need points — and likely a lot of them after the Huskies posted a boatload this past weekend in a 59-52 victory over Eastern Washington. But what Illinois can’t afford to do against Washington is wait until the fourth quarter to score most of them, like it has in each of its first two games.

“It makes it a little sweeter coming back,” the sophomore Lunt said this past Saturday after Illinois scored three touchdowns in the fourth to top Western Kentucky, 42-34, one week after it scored three touchdowns in the fourth to beat Youngstown State, 28-17. “But I’d rather win by not having to come back.”

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Summertime surf’s still up in Chicago this September

lionsFrom the Saturday, Sept. 6, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

By Dave Wischnowsky


In Chicago, summer days are precious.

Even more so when so many of them feel like fall.

This summer, much like last, has been an abnormally brisk one. But as August has turned over to September, the city’s temperatures have actually turned things up a notch – and that rise in the mercury appears to have left one Chicagoan mistaking the city’s North Shore for Hawaii’s.

Or wishing that it was.

This past week, K.C. Hoos launched a Kickstarter campaign to bring surfing to the Windy City lakefront. Yes, that’s right. His desire is to raise $101,000 to purchase a SurfStream machine capable of generating 1-foot to 6-foot waves in a pool that would be part of a surf park near Montrose Beach.

With just over $6,000 pledged as this week’s end, I don’t think Hoos is likely to reach his goal. But there are better ways to extend Chicago’s summer through the end of September anyway. And here are a few of them:

Family events

Beginning this weekend in Ogden Park (6500 S. Racine Ave.) and later at other parks across Chicago up through Oct. 19, daring performers and acrobats will be dazzling big top fans both young and old during the Midnight Circus in the Park series.

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With Attendance, Illini Losing The Numbers Game

Ohio State v IllinoisToday’s column from CBS Chicago

(CBS) On Wednesday night, University of Illinois football offensive coordinator Bill Cubit made a play online when he tweeted out to his followers: “Saturday will be here before we know it. Look forward to seeing Memorial Stadium packed full of the ILLINI faithful.”

To see that, however, Cubit may have to wait until another Saturday – one that won’t be here before we know it. Or might not come at all.

Because as coach Tim Beckman’s third-year Fighting Illini squad heads into Week 2 of the season against Western Kentucky with a 1-0 record, it’s becoming apparent that wins and losses won’t be the only numbers that he and his staff will be judged on this year.
Attendance figures into the equation, too. And it should.

Last Saturday, with an announced crowd of only 36,234 at 60,670-seat Memorial Stadium for the Illini’s shaky 28-17 victory over Youngstown State, Illinois had the fourth-smallest turnout for a home opener among the nation’s power-five conferences.

Only academic elites Duke (31,213), Vanderbilt (31,731) and Northwestern (34,228) had crowds that were smaller, while Purdue drew a bit better than Illinois with 37,031 at Ross-Ade Stadium to round out the bottom five. However, if those numbers were based on percentage of capacity, Illinois would find itself second-worst in the nation behind only Purdue, according to the Champaign News-Gazette.

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MLB needs to take JRW’s ball and run with it

JRWFrom the Saturday, Aug. 30, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

By Dave Wischnowsky


I love Little League Baseball, and always have.

My dad, Joe, was the winning pitcher on the 1958 Kankakee Jaycees All-Star team that was the first from Illinois to win the United States Championship at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

His stories of that squad sparked my lifelong love affair with the game, and over the past couple of weeks it’s been wonderful to see so many people from all over fall in love with Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West – the latest Illinois team to win the U.S. Championship in Williamsport.

With soul-sucking news about shootings and violence pouring out from Chicago’s South Side on a daily basis, JRW has emerged as the feel-good story that the city needed to pump it up this summer. But the all-black Little League team from Chicago’s Washington Heights neighborhood may also be the feel-good story that Major League Baseball has needed too.

At least, that’s my hope. Because, I’d like to see MLB take the ball that JRW hit and run with it by using their run as a launching pad to better promote baseball among black youths throughout the country.

In 1981, the share of African-American players on Major League rosters reached a peak of 18.7 percent, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. Today, however, blacks accounted for only 8.3 percent of players on opening day rosters, the least since 1958.

For the sport of Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, that statistic is a sad one, and last year Aaron told USA Today, “I think Jackie certainly would be disappointed in the way things are today, especially for African-Americans. Let’s face it, baseball was down, and when he came along, he put a big spike into baseball with the way he played, and along came other great black ballplayers.”

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