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Manteno teachers, sisters retire after more than 40 years

MANTENO — When sisters Pam and Becky Phillips started teaching in Manteno, 48 and 44 years ago, respectively, girls sports teams in schools were brand new.

Pam Phillips began as an art teacher for the Manteno School District in 1974, just two years after Title IX was signed into law prohibiting gender discrimination in federally funded schools.

Pam and another teacher hired at the time were put in charge of about six teams.

“I coached just about everything at the very beginning,” she recalled.

When the other teacher left, Pam took over volleyball and coached it for the next 25 years. She coached softball for 15 years after that.

Becky Phillips had been teaching special education in Kankakee and came to Manteno when an elementary teacher position became available.

Becky was also asked if she would get involved in coaching girls sports, and she agreed.

More than four decades later, Becky is wrapping up her final week of teaching third grade at Manteno Elementary, while Pam wraps up her final week of teaching art, having spent the past 14 years at Manteno Middle School and the prior 34 years at Manteno High School.

The Phillips sisters, the top two names on the district’s seniority list, are both retiring as of the end of the 2021-22 school year.

The official last day of school is Tuesday.

The sisters, who are two and a half years apart in age, both attended Southern Illinois University on teaching scholarships.

After spending nearly their entire careers together in the same school district, Pam and Becky are both hanging up their teaching hats.

Becky noted that she and Pam developed a habit of saying “just one more year” at the end of each school year.

One day, they looked at each other and agreed to finally retire in four more years.

“We had to say a time, or you know, they’d roll us out of here,” Becky said, laughing. “It just was the time.”

When talking about retirement, Becky reaches for a tissue to catch the tears, as she can’t help but get emotional at the thought of not teaching third grade after doing so for 44 years.

“I just love everyday getting up and going to school,” Becky said. “For me I thought, ‘What’s gonna happen if I don’t get up and teach third graders?’ It will be OK, but that to me is what I’m gonna miss, getting up and being with third grade.”

Becky said she has always felt third graders were the perfect age to teach, as they still have positive attitudes about school and their teachers.

“They’ve got senses of humor,” she said. “They’re fun.”

“And I like the older kids,” Pam added. “I like to watch them grow up. That’s always been fun for me.”

Pam admitted she also has shed tears at the prospect of retirement and noted that the subject is hard to talk about.

“Once I was here, I was very happy,” Pam said. “The people in Manteno are awesome. The administration has been awesome to us.”

“Once we came up here [to Manteno], there was nowhere else we ever wanted to go,” Becky added.

The sisters currently live together in Bourbonnais.

They both noted they have gotten along so well over the years because their opposite personalities complement each other, with Becky being more easy-going and Pam being more competitive.

“It is nice when things happen that I know she’s here, and she knows I’m here,” Becky said. “We’re here for each other.”


As for their retirement plans, they have somewhat different ideas there as well.

“First and foremost, I’m not gonna do anything,” Pam said. “I’m just gonna take some time off, because I can’t remember a time when I didn’t work… I’m just gonna enjoy doing whatever I want.”

Both Phillips teachers are known for rarely, if ever, taking sick days.

“We’re both so school oriented,” Becky added. “Our parents are very work oriented. You just got up and you went to work everyday. That’s what we did.”

Becky said she will take some time to relax but also has plans to get involved in children’s reading library programs.

As for what Pam will miss most — aside from the kids — it will most likely be coaching, although she was basically a novice when she started.

“We didn’t know anything about coaching or girls sports or anything else, but we found out,” she recalled. “We went to several conferences all over the state, and we found out about how to coach, what to coach, what the sports were all about, the rules, and the rest is history.”

Since girls teams were new, it was an exciting time, and the students did well, she recalled.

Pam went on to take her high school and middle school teams to several state championships over the years.

Little did Pam know in the beginning, coaching — and celebrating — would bring some of the most memorable moments of her career.

“We were at the state tournament, and I swear everybody in town was down there,” she said. “Every single time we won a regional or sectional or anything, they made a parade all over town. They support the kids so much here.”

The sisters both agreed that the Manteno community is like a family, one where the best interests of the children are always placed first.

“Over the years, we’ve seen so many different things in education change, but the basic principles of Manteno have always been the same,” Becky said. “I think that’s what’s kept us here for so long.”

When considering the biggest difference in teaching when they first started in the 1970s compared to now, both Pam and Becky gave the same response in unison — “Technology.”

“One day the electricity went down here and everything was off, and nobody knew what to do because everything is so technology-based,” Becky recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, you send notes to the office. It can be done.’”

Pam noted that when she first became a teacher, she didn’t know how to type and eventually had to teach herself the skill.

Unlike technology, the students, as well as the people of Manteno, haven’t changed, Pam agreed.

“The people are just wonderful,” Pam said.

Ricky Rockets in Kankakee set to begin

KANKAKEE — Following years of missed ground-breakings, the Ricky Rockets Fuel Center near Kankakee’s eastern edge appears set to begin within the next 30 days.

Owner Rick Heidner confirmed this week the planned $20 million-plus development immediately east of the city’s East Court Street and Interstate 57 intersection will begin in the late-June to early-July time frame.

“We are going to build it as quickly as we can,” he said. He said a realistic construction timeline would be 10-12 months, meaning the development would not likely be ready for customers until mid- to late-spring 2023.

Heidner has had a long, bumpy ride in terms of getting this development — at the site of the former 104,000-square-foot Kmart property — out of the planning phase and into construction.

The project dates back to 2016. It was announced in the then-mayoral administration of Nina Epstein. It was then rebooted during the Mayor Chasity Wells-Armstrong administration, but again, failed to start.

Mayor Chris Curtis then put together another incentive package in November 2021.

Fuel centers have sprouted up along highways throughout the region in the past several years. Fuel centers have been developed at the recently-constructed I-57 interchange 318 in Bourbonnais, as well as the 308 interchange in Kankakee.

A fuel center was developed in Grant Park at Illinois 1, and Peotone recently announced development plans for a fueling complex within the village, again near I-57.

“I’m elated. I’m excited,” Curtis said.

He said he met with Heidner this week to go over final plans regarding foundation and grading work. He anticipated construction permits to be issued shortly.

He also anticipates earth-moving site preparation work to begin June 15 or just after that date.

“It’s full steam ahead,” the mayor said.

In the development agreement unanimously approved by the Kankakee City Council in November 2021, the city agreed to commit $1.25 million toward the project upon Heidner securing his financing.

The city also agreed to contribute another $250,000 once the development gains an occupancy permit.

Once opened, the administration said the business could pump $400,000 to $450,000 annually into the city’s budget through real estate, sales and gaming taxes.

This East Court location has largely been vacant since Kmart closed in 1994.


The fuel center project comes at an interesting time. The Illinois Department of Transportation has been targeting the redevelopment of the I-57 312 interchange.

IDOT officials have stated the interchange redevelopment could begin as soon as 2024. No construction contracts have been awarded for the redevelopment project, but early estimates have noted such a project could cost upward of $50 million.

City officials have been lobbying for upgrades to the interchange for many years.

The planned interchange would be built in a much different fashion than what currently exists. It would be what is called a single-point urban interchange.

Basically, this design is used in areas where there is limited space. The interchange works on the concept of traffic largely merging into the center point of the interchange.

In this case, the center point would be at East Court Street underneath the 1-57 overpass. A single traffic signal would then disperse traffic running in a number of points.

Memorial Day 2022 events throughout community

Several events have been planned in and around Kankakee County to honor Memorial Day. The day is observed on May 30.

Kankakee County Veterans Council

At 8 a.m. on Friday, the group will meet at Memorial Gardens, east on Route 17 at Lowe Road, in order to complete the placement of flags on the graves of veterans.

To volunteer or for any questions, contact Edward Peters at 815-953-4572. Social distancing and uses of masks will be in place.

Kankakee Courthouse services

Memorial Day services will take place on the lawn of the Kankakee County Courthouse at 10:30 a.m. Monday.

Kelly Frey will be the keynote speaker. She is a nurse leader at Riverside Medical Center.

The Kankakee Veterans Council will post the colors, accompanied by the Kankakee High School JROTC cadets. Kourtney Hopkins, senior program manager for the Women Veterans Program at the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, will have a message to open the ceremonies.

Musician Tim Rehmer will perform the national anthem and other vocals throughout the event. Chaplain Peg Myers, a Marine veteran, will give the invocation. Karen Smietanski, of the Kankakee County Veterans Assistance Commission, will supervise the laying of the wreaths, with assistance from the JROTC cadets.

Mike Spade, commander of the St. George American Legion, will lead the rifle squad from that legion in firing a salute, which will honor women veterans. Marine Corps League bugler Emma Caise will play taps.

Kankakee Memorial Gardens

Services for Memorial Day will be held at 9 a.m. Monday at Kankakee Memorial Gardens on Route 17 east of Kankakee. This year’s services are dedicated to women veterans.

Military rites will be performed by organizations of the Kankakee Veterans’ Council: St. George American Legion Post 1164, Kankakee American Legion Post 85, Kankakee County Disabled American Veterans Post Chapter 34, Kankakee VFW Post 2857 and the Veterans Assistance Commission of Kankakee County.

Colors will be posted by the Kankakee High JROTC cadets.

Kourtney Hopkins, senior program manager for the Women Veterans Program at the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, will have a Memorial Day message. She is a 12-year Army veteran, who served a tour with Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Kelly Frey, an Army veteran who served eight years and was deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, will be the keynote speaker.

Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery

The Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery at Elwood will have Memorial Day services Monday.

A musical prelude will start at 11 a.m. The service will begin at 11:30 a.m. Terry Prince, the director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, will be the keynote speaker. The ceremony will be held at the Avenue of Flags. Parking on or near the avenue will be limited, so plan to arrive early or plan accordingly.

Volunteers are needed to gather up American flags that have been placed on veterans’ graves. Pick up will begin at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Memorial Day at the Illinois Veterans Home

Memorial Day activities at the Illinois Veterans Home will follow COVID restrictions.

This year’s services are set for Monday at Veterans Hall. No outside guests will be allowed. There will be a reading of the names of those residents who have passed during the last year. Residents will be treated to pie and coffee.

Again, the service will closed to the public.

Lady veterans from the home will participate in the Beverly/Morgan Park Memorial Day parade at 10 a.m. Monday in those communities.

Manteno American Legion

The Manteno Legion Color Guard, veterans and the public will celebrate Memorial Day on Monday by honoring fallen warriors at five local cemeteries and performing a remembrance for the deceased, which includes a rifle salute followed by Taps played on the bugle.

The Manteno Legion Commander and the Manteno Legion Chaplain also will give a short speech. Upon return to the Manteno Legion, the Color Guard, along with veterans and supporters, will march to the Legion Park, where a final remembrance will be performed.

The schedule is as follows: 8 a.m. at Deselm Cemetery; 8:30 a.m. at Blooms Grove Cemetery; 9 a.m. at Veterans Cemetery; 9:30 a.m. at Saint Joseph Cemetery; 9:50 a.m. at Elmwood Cemetery; 10:40 a.m. at March from American Legion to Legion Park; 11 a.m. at Legion Park remembrance.

The public is invited and encouraged to attend any or all of these events. A small lunch will be served at the Manteno Legion afterward.

The Manteno American Legion is located at 117 N. Walnut St., Manteno.

Kay Battalion: Alive and well

For the past two years, Kankakee High School has had an enthusiastic and active unit of the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program.

Army Lt. Col. Maria Emery said the Kankakee JROTC program is the only one in Kankakee County. The nearest one is in Joliet.

This Memorial Day, cadets from the high school program will participate in the traditional services on the lawn of the Kankakee County Courthouse.

Emery has taught the program since it began at the school. Though it is based on a military hierarchy, with ranks and uniforms, the students have no obligation to serve once they graduate.

What they gain over time, Emery shared, is experience in leadership, career awareness, financial readiness and community service.

“Our mission is to motivate students to become better citizens,” Emery said.

Emery is a 28-year veteran of the Army, who had overseas deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the options open to Army retirees like Emery is teaching a JROTC program.

The one at KHS is thriving, with 97 students participating. It is the Kay Battalion, named for Kankakee High symbol Chief Kay.

JROTC programs are requested by the participating schools. There is a long waiting list, she said, where schools want a program and are awaiting an officer to teach it.

They start as branches of the National Defense Corps of Cadets, then move up to full JROTC status. The fact that Kankakee is already a JROTC school is a sign of success.

The typical JROTC student often gets a sense of belonging from the program, Emery explained. It gives a connection to the school to students who might not fit in elsewhere. They might not be in sports. They might not be in band. But they can have a place and build leadership skills in JROTC.

The cadets often participate in service activities.

They went to Steuben School to mentor younger students. They have helped at food banks. They assisted at the downtown Kankakee Halloween event, the Merchant Street Music Fest, the Turkey Trot, the Jingle Bell Run and placed flags on veterans’ graves. The students learn and practice flag etiquette.

Anyone in need of an assist at an appropriate community event, Emery suggested they call KHS and ask for the JROTC program.

There are many other aspects to the program, including a cadet fitness challenge that includes running a mile, doing as many push ups and sit ups as you can in a minute, flexibility training and a relay race.

The students have toured the Blackhawk helicopter facility in Kankakee. They have also visited the college ROTC program at Olivet.

The unit has a Color Guard that has successfully competed in two events. The group went to Texas during summer 2021 to participate in a drill camp. When they went to Texas, Emery found that half the group had never been on an airplane.

One of the highlights of the year is a military ball, held at the Majestic Theatre banquet hall in downtown Kankakee. Brig. Gen. Daphne Davis was the keynote speaker.

The cadets held a POW/MIA ceremony. They formed a saber arch, holding swords high in the air. The swords join at the tip and couples walk underneath. Each cadet brings a guest.

The men come in uniforms. Young ladies can come in uniforms or a dress. Later, there is the option to change into a dancing dress.

Financially, the program is supported by the school district and the government, but the group does have a fundraiser in the fall to help. People can contribute through Snap! Raise, a program similar in concept to GoFundMe.

“I have to remind myself that they are not soldiers,” said Emery.

Yet becoming a soldier remains an option for graduating seniors. This year’s cadet leader, Lt. Col. Anisha Pore, plans on enlisting in the Navy after graduation, Emery said.

Next year’s student leader of the battalion will be Andrew Shepherd. Nationally, young ladies predominate in JROTC programs across the country, but in Kankakee, the unit is balanced between boys and girls.

Emery, likewise, said she has enjoyed her time in Kankakee.

“I always wanted to live in a small city,” she said. She came here, in part, because her husband, David, also a veteran, was hired as the strength and conditioning coach for KHS.

As a youth, Emery was in a JROTC program, inspired in part by a cousin who was a U.S. Marine. She started in the military life and never left

For Emery, the program and her service is a chance to give back to America. She grew up in California, after her parents emigrated from Mexico.

“They came here for a better life,” she said, sharing she is giving back for an opportunity that was appreciated.