When John Mach, co-founder and longtime president of the Hofmann Dam River Rats, died suddenly in late January 2022, the club’s future was in jeopardy.
Focused for the past 20-plus years on the removal of the Hofmann and Fairbank dams and the ongoing reclamation of the river’s ecosystem, the River Rats and Mach had become more or less interchangeable.
When he died, it created an identity crisis, one the club is just now trying to overcome by increasing its numbers, attracting younger members and, who knows, perhaps finding its next long-term leader.
For the time being, its leader is Riverside resident Steve Marcus, who reached out publicly Aug. 3 at the Riverside Village Board meeting to let people know the club was still active, although with some longtime members stepping back as they get older – Marcus told the Landmark that the youngest of the members is in their 50s — the River Rats were down to six, dues-paying members.
But, he also announced, the club had entered the 21st century launching both Facebook and Instagram (@hd_riverrats) pages and setting up a club email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We’re mostly tech-ignorant,” Marcus told the Landmark, adding the club enlisted a woman to set up the social media pages.
The social media accounts have updated the pages pretty regularly, at least through the middle of June, and the club used them to promote their semiannual cleanup day on April 29, which drew close to 30 volunteers, including some who said they saw the flyer on social media.
Cynthis Colvin, a Berwyn resident who is a newer member, said the club is looking for someone who can manage the social media accounts, respond to inquiries and push out info on meetings and events.
“We could really like to find someone who is more tech savvy, who could be responsive to those who want to be involved,” Colvin said.
Colvin worked for the Metropolitan Water reclamation District of Greater Chicago, whose mission aligns with the River Rats. She’s hoping she’ll be able to spread the word and generate interest about the club internally at the MWRD.
“Part of our mission is to collaborate with groups working for a healthier environment,” Colvin said.
With such a small group right now, it’s hard to make a big impact. Colvin said the River Rats might also want to look at collaborating with other like-minded organizations, such as the Salt Creek Watershed Network.
The Hofmann Dam River Rats meet the second Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. in the third-floor meeting room (the elevator opens right into the space) at the Riverside Township Hall, 27 Riverside Road in Riverside.
“We just keep keeping on, doing the cleanups, trying to keep ourselves alive and visible in this area,” Marcus said.
The Hofmann Dam River Rats, as the name might imply, is a pretty loose confederation of folks, according to Marcus, and meetings are pretty informal.
“They don’t believe very strongly in Robert’s Rule of Order,” said Marcus.
That informality was a staple of Mach’s leadership style, but the club also didn’t need a lot of motions and counter motions, because Mach, who was 75 when he died, was the idea man, the one who set the club agenda and its priorities.
In his absence, the club was adrift.
“For about three months we had meetings, and we just talked about John,” said Marcus, who stepped up to volunteer as Mach’s successor as club president in July 2022. “We were empty. I was shocked and hollow.”
Marcus had joined the club a dozen years ago or so after running into Johnny Simonetta, one of the club’s early members from the 1990s. Simonetta, who’s not an active member these days, sold him on the mission of the club.
Around the same time, Lyons resident Ken Sherrier stumbled upon one of the River Rats’ twice-a-year Des Plaines riverbank cleanup days and joined in. Sherrier now serves as secretary and treasurer.
“It was extremely difficult,” Sherrier said about the months after Mach’s death. “He was the person who used to meet up with the Department of Natural Resources, the guys that stock the fish, the ones that do the fish shocking [to do species counts]. He just had all these phones numbers in his head, and he was an active physical presence.”
With no one else willing to lead, Marcus promised to serve as club president for two years, although he’ll stay on past that date if club members vote to retain him.
But, he’d also hand over the reins to someone new, who can continue revitalizing the club.
“We’ve got gigantic shoes to fill and we’re only partially filling them,” Marcus said. “And for us mere mortals, it’ll take a long time.”