James R. Votava, a former North Riverside mayor and a longtime trustee who helped lay the groundwork for what is now the heart of the community, the Village Commons, died Oct. 29, 2020 in Burr Ridge at the age of 92.
Mr. Votava was born Nov. 9, 1927 in Chicago, grew up in Cicero and served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the Pacific Theater during World War II.
He was the owner for many years of a tool-and-die company, Abet Industries, in LaGrange Park. He married Eileen M Geisthardt in 1961 and, according to their son Kevin, the couple first moved to a townhome on Lincoln Avenue before moving to a home in the village and raising a family.
“My dad was always wanting to give everyone the benefit of the doubt,” said Kevin Votava. “He always tried to look at the positive.”
The Votavas were active members of the North Riverside Community Presbyterian Church, where Eileen Votava served as a deacon and Mr. Votava as an elder. Both served on the church council.
In addition to being a successful businessman, Mr. Votava was a fixture for more than three decades in North Riverside village government.
He served as trustee from 1979-81 before running for and winning election as mayor in 1981. Mr. Votava narrowly lost a re-election bid for mayor four year later, but he returned to local government two years later, winning election as a trustee in 1987. He would serve in that capacity until 2011, when he failed in his final bid for office at the age of 83.
“He was the elder trustee when I was elected and he took me under his wing,” said North Riverside Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr., who was first elected to the board in 2009 as a trustee. “There are few people that no one can say any unkind word about. But, he was a very nice, gentle man. He was well-respected by everyone he ever met.”
While serving as a trustee, Mr. Votava served for many years as the village board’s finance chairman.
“He never got upset. He would calm the other trustees,” said Guy Belmonte, who was elected trustee in 1989 and would go on to serve as village administrator. “He was a great guy, very smart.”
Mr. Votava won election as mayor at a critical juncture in North Riverside’s history, when it was transforming from a sleepy suburban outpost into a commercial powerhouse, with a new shopping mall, car dealers and other important retail and wholesale businesses.
To serve that kind of a community, the village was in the midst of reimagining its own municipal infrastructure, acquiring property over a period of years along the east side of Desplaines Avenue south of the then-Illinois Central Railroad tracks, including an enormous parcel of land that once included the Melody Mill Ballroom.
“Around 1983 there were a whole bunch of decisions that needed to be made,” said Al Meyer, who Mr. Votava named to the North Riverside Plan Commission. “The commission created a 10-point plan, which Jim embraced, and all 10 points were achieved over the years, including where to situate the Village Commons. He wasn’t the mayor when it was built, but he’s the guy who put it all in motion.”
Meyer and Mr. Votava were also collaborators in what was then called the North Riverside Recreation Community Theater – now the North Riverside Players. In the early days, Mr. Votava was on the community theater’s board of directors and served for a time as its president.
He was also a keen performer who, according to Meyer, had a “good singing voice and was a lot of fun on stage.”
Meyer recalled a production in the early 1980s of “Bye Bye Birdie” where Mr. Votava played an appropriate role – as the mayor of the fictional town of Sweet Apple, Ohio.
When the theater acquired one and then a second semitrailer to store props and lumber for sets, Mr. Votava let them store the trailers on the property of his business in LaGrange Park.
“He was such a generous man,” Meyer said.
Mr. Votava was the husband of the late Eileen M. (nee Geisthardt); the father of Kevin and the late Keith; the grandfather of Andrew, Lillian and Amanda; the brother of the late Ronald Votava and brother-in-law of Audrey Votava.
Funeral services have been held. Interment was at Eden Memorial Park, Schiller Park.
Memorial donations to your local humane society or charity of your choice would be appreciated.
Kuratko-Nosek Funeral Home, North Riverside, handled arrangements.
Online condolences may be offered at KuratkoNosek.com.