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FOOTBALL: Herscher's Wetzel preparing for final season of hall-of-fame career

When Dan Wetzel was a young child, he and his older brother, Gary, spent tons of weekend hours watching their oldest brother, Tom, play football at Herscher High School.

That’s what got a young Wetzel into football, a game he quickly fell in love with and a game that reciprocated that love.

After it took him down to Southern Illinois University, football brought Wetzel back to town. He eventually found himself back at his alma mater since the turn of the century as a PE teacher and coach. Since then he has raised a family, made nine playoff appearances and became an Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Famer, all as a Herscher Tiger.

“I’ve really been blessed,” Wetzel said. “I feel like a lucky man to be where I wanted to be; a lot of people don’t get that chance and to also do what they’re passionate about.”

By the time he got to high school and began playing for fellow IHSFCA Hall-of-Famer Dean Cappell, Wetzel’s passion for football wasn’t matched in the classroom. After struggling in school as an underclassman, Wetzel became motivated to hit the books after Cappell told him he had the potential to play college football.

It paid off, as the all-state football player and discus thrower was also an honor roll as a junior and senior, helping him get into Southern Illinois after he graduated from Herscher in 1981.

“It turns out I needed football more than it needed me, and it got me to where I am today,” Wetzel said. “I’m thankful to those coaches that kept me on the straight and narrow.”

He stuck around for a brief time in the area as an assistant coach at Carbondale High after his graduation from SIU, but quickly came back to Kankakee and worked as an assistant coach at Bradley-Bourbonnais while he taught at Shapiro Developmental Center in Kankakee.

Wetzel eventually got the PE teacher’s job at Kankakee, where he got his first head football coaching experience in 1998. After a two-win season in his first year, Wetzel guided the Kays to back-to-back playoff appearances in 1999 and 2000, going a combined 16-5 over those two seasons.

“We were very talented and their families were great,” Wetzel said. “We only had like 23 kids but they were warriors and it was a great experience at Kankakee, so I was glad I went there and had that experience.”

Despite the success he was having at Kankakee, the opportunity to return home to Herscher after the 2000-01 school year was too much to pass up. He began teaching there at the turn of the century and was co-head coach with fellow hall-of-famer John Wakey for a year before taking over the reins himself.

“I really felt like this was the place I wanted to be ...,” Wetzel said. “I knew Herscher was a football community and there would be a ton of support, I knew a lot of people here, growing up in Limestone and Herscher, so the support system was great. It was just a matter of keeping it going.”

During Wetzel’s Tigers tenure, Herscher has had two runs of at least four-straight playoff appearances. The first came from 2007-2010, a span that saw the Tigers go 25-16, with three of those wins coming in the postseason. It was also a stretch in which both of his daughters, Kayla and Abigail, became students at Herscher High.

“It was neat with my daughters here because it was all their friends playing, the community was behind them and Fridays before the game at school, all you could talk about was football,” Wetzel said. “And meeting Friday night at Seebach Stadium, it doesn’t get much better than that.”

A five-year playoff span stretched from 2014-18 and concluded with a run through the Class 3A field in 2018 that began as a 5-4 bubble team and ended in a semifinal trip.

“That was a really enjoyable season, to go 5-4 and have that run with those kids,” Wetzel said. “For them to open their eyes and see how good they could be, they noticed that at the right time.”

The Tigers finished 2-3 during the shortened spring season last fall and will enter this fall in a deeply crowded Illinois Central Eight Conference field.

His players have said they want to send Wetzel out on as high a note as they can, but the wins and losses were never what mattered to a man who credits the game of football with making him who he is today.

“Football led me to the path of being able to be a teacher and see the difference you can make in kids’ lives ...,” Wetzel said. “I was able to give back as a coach and help others who were once in a situation I found myself in.”

Schools call heat days as temperatures, humidity rise

Several local schools have been calling heat days due to excessive heat forecasted to last through the end of the week.

High temperatures reaching into the 90s combined with the state mask mandate and lack of air conditioning in parts of some schools has meant the only option is to give kids a break by sending them home early.

Though heat days are not uncommon while school is in session during the summer, this could be the last year they are necessary for some schools, as many have earmarked federal COVID-19 funding for HVAC improvements.

While at least 20 percent of ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funding must directly go toward addressing learning loss, improving air quality is one of the acceptable uses for the rest of the funding.

Bradley Elementary District 61 called an early dismissal for all schools last Friday and has continued them through the end of this week.

Superintendent Scott Goselin said the district calls heat days almost on a yearly basis, but usually only one or two days are necessary.

“I think this is probably the longest stretch we’ve had that I can remember like this,” he said.

When temperatures reach the high 80s and mix with high humidity, heat days are a likely outcome, he said.

“If it’s like one or two days, we can withstand it, but when it gets to three, four, five or six days, the rooms just can’t get cooled down,” Goselin said.

District 61 recently sought bids to begin a multi-year project to expand air-conditioning in its schools, which will include the cafeterias at Bradley East and West as well as the gym at Central.

The goal is to have window units installed in the classrooms that are currently without air-conditioning by around the holidays, and next year will come HVAC system upgrades and additional air units, Goselin said

Without the ESSER funding, these upgrades would not be possible right now, he noted.

In April 2019, voters turned down a $10 million referendum to add air-conditioning to District 61’s three schools.

About six to eight classrooms presently do not have air-conditioning at West and Central; the other rooms are used as cooling locations while kids are in school.

“I’m hoping that we can put air units/window units in all of the classrooms, and this will be the last year [for heat days],” he said.

Early dismissal has also been called for Herscher High School, with students dismissed at 2 p.m. Wednesday as well as today and Friday due to consecutive high heat index values.

Superintendent Rich Decman said that almost every classroom in the pre-K through eighth-grade buildings is air-conditioned; however, Herscher High School is about 40 percent air-conditioned.

Decman said the majority (upwards of 60 percent) of the $1.3 million the district is set to receive in ESSER funding will be used for HVAC upgrades. The ESSER funds will be used to pay for the air-conditioning units, while district maintenance staff will install them to keep costs down, Decman said.

“Hopefully, this is the last year we are going to have to worry about heat days,” he said.

While the newer wing of the high school that was built in the early 2000s has central air-conditioning, there are still about 15 classrooms that are not air-conditioned.

“The second floor of the high school is the hottest, and our priority is going to be to get air in those rooms [for] next fall,” he said.

Decman noted that the district has already started ordering equipment. Due to pandemic-related shipping delays — and the fact that many schools are looking to do the same projects at the same time — some of it might not arrive for six to eight months.

The goal is to install the new air-conditioning units by around spring break, or at the latest by next summer, he said.

Kids are rotating classrooms and spending parts of the day in air-conditioning, but even 45 minutes in a 90-degree classroom with 20 to 25 other students is hard to bear, he noted.

“We have all kinds of fans and airflow going, but it gets hot,” Decman said. “So any relief that we can give to kids, we try ... We’re trying to give them some respite by dismissing early.”

Other local schools have made calls for heat days as well.

Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School, which is also roughly 40 percent air-conditioned, has called heat days last Friday and into this week, with early dismissal time at 1:10 p.m. The school communicates heat-day plans to families via email and automated phone calls, according to its website.

Bishop McNamara Catholic Schools are dismissing early at 12:15 p.m. through this Friday. No lunch will be provided at school.

In Kankakee School District 111, K-6 and all students at Kankakee Junior High School, Avis Huff and Preschool are on Learning Anywhere, Anytime (work from home) Thursday.

The buildings are still open and staffed for those still wanting to attend in person, according to the district. Transportation and food service are still available during heat days.

Thursday will be a normal day for students attending Lincoln Cultural Center and Kankakee High School, as these schools have more air-conditioned spaces.

On Friday, due to cumulative excessive heat and mandated masks, the Learning Anywhere, Anytime Day/heat day will be in effect district-wide.

1985 Kankakee cold case becomes a homicide investigation

KANKAKEE — A missing person case dating back to August 1985 has now become a homicide investigation, according to the Kankakee Police Department.

In a news release issued Wednesday, police said remains of a woman found in eastern Kankakee County many years ago were identified using DNA from family members in November 2020 as being those of Jannette Johnson.

Johnson, a 29-year-old mother of two and Kankakee resident, was reported missing on Aug. 3, 1985, by her family.

On the evening of Aug. 2, Johnson’s family members saw her pull in and park in the rear of her residence, according to the news release. The following morning her vehicle was located in front of the residence on the street, witnesses said.

A window was partially rolled down, her purse and other personal items were inside, but Johnson was missing, police and witnesses reported. There have been no suspects identified in her disappearance, according to police.

Kankakee police are now seeking any information from anyone in the community who over the years may have heard rumors or have firsthand knowledge of Johnson’s disappearance and death.

“It is our hope that someone in the community will come forward after all these years with information that allows us to close this tragic case,” the release said.

A phone call

Johnson’s daughter, Joretha (Wills) Hampton said Kankakee Police Detective Logan Andersen contacted her last November regarding her mother’s case. It was then that she learned the remains found in late 1985 in eastern Kankakee County were indeed those of her mother.

“Detective Anderson called and said he wanted to talk to my grandmother [Mary Moore] and me,” Hampton said Wednesday during an interview. “He said he wanted to sit down and talk.”

Hampton said it took a few days to collect herself and start contacting family members, including Moore and Hampton’s brother Jerry Wills Jr.

Johnson was back in the area again recently to meet with Kankakee Police Sgt. Logan Andersen.

As part of the re-opening of the investigation, KPD will be coordinating with the Missing Persons Awareness Network and Johnson’s family and friends to conduct a thorough search of the area where Johnson’s remains were recovered. The search is planned to take place in late September.

According to Wednesday’s press release from police, family members, friends and witnesses have been located and re-interviewed over the past nine months.

Investigators have had many leads over the years as to a possible reason for Johnson’s disappearance but none have provided enough information to make an arrest, according to the release. Kankakee Police Chief Robin Passwater said he would not comment further on the case at this time.

Not giving up

Moore died in February. Three days before she passed, Hampton talked with her regarding the continued search for answers in Johnson’s death.

“She said she was at peace and that God chose me to take this to the end,” Hampton said.

County wades through approval process of ARPA funds

The Kankakee County Board’s Finance Committee went through an arduous process of vetting requests from business and governmental agencies to receive stimulus funds through the American Rescue Plan Act.

The Finance Committee met for more than three hours on Wednesday at the county administration building to make some preliminary decisions. The committee approved several of the fund requests, but the final approval must go through the full county board. Its next meeting is Sept. 14.

“We have to call out a specific COVID reason for these projects,” Board Chairman Andy Wheeler said. “We submit our backup to the U.S. Department of Treasury. We’re going to have to know exactly which part of the allowed uses for our final resolutions.

“... We make these choices, and then we will send it to finance for them to go through and make sure that our assertions are correct with the reasons that the Department of Treasury provides them. There will be another check and balance before it gets to the full board to make sure the right allocation is made from the right fund.”

The $21.3 million is being disbursed over the next two fiscal years — $10.67 million for FY2021 and FY2022. It’s broken into two accounts for each year as well, with $4.19 million for ARPA to deal with COVID issues and $6.48 million for lost revenue due to COVID.

ARPA funds approved included Bright Architecture for work related to the lower-level remodeling of the Kankakee Courthouse. Those services include $46,875 for design phase, $3,125 for bidding and negotiation, and $12,500 for construction administration for a total of $62,500.

Also approved were funds for the county’s planning and GIS departments for laptops, software, desktop scanner, a counter computer and a credit card reader. Total costs and number of items needed are still to be determined.

A Manteno Community Fire Protection District request of $86,681 for lost ambulance income was approved at 50 percent. The county will provide half of the amount and will work with the Village of Manteno to secure the other half from its ARPA funds.

The committee also approved 50 percent of Limestone Township Fire Protection District’s request of $7,830 to pay for several expenses that were not budgeted for due to the pandemic.

“There needs to be more participation by the municipality,” Wheeler said. “... All these different towns have money.”

The Finance Committee did preliminarily approve $175,000 per year in ARPA funds for the Office of the Public Defender for the next three years. Public Defender Ed Pentuic said the money would be used to hire two full-time assistant public defenders as well as additional clerical staff. Salaries for the assistants would range from $52,000 to $75,000 and the clerical position from $22,000 to $27,000.

Those numbers could be adjusted before final approval.

Pentuic said due to the courts being shut down from March to June 2020, there has been a backlog of cases assigned to the public defender’s office. Since court activity has resumed, there has been an increase in new cases.

“After reopening, we had other cases that were continued,” he said. “We have all the cases that were called just before the shutdown that were continued. We had all the cases that were up anyway, they got continued. We’ve got all the cases that were filed during the shutdown, that had to be addressed.”

One request that was denied was $85,000 for the county recorder’s office. Recorder Lori Gadbois requested the funds to complete book scanning, new roller shelves and additional digital index of all books to system.

Wheeler said that money should come from the recorder’s special fund that is budgeted for such needs. The committee voted 9-4 against the request.