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Manteno native's love for skydiving and photography lead to Hall of Fame induction

Three days after he turned 17 years old in 1963, Mike McGowan left Manteno and followed in the footsteps of his older brother by joining the Navy.

“It seemed like the thing to do. The Navy was great,” McGowan recalled this week in a telephone interview with the Daily Journal.

It was the starting point for him to work in a career involving his life-long passions of skydiving and photography.

“I saw I could sign up for parachute rigging. It was a no-brainer,” McGowan said.

At the age of 18, McGowan made his first parachute jump from the Naval facility located at Lakehurst, N.J., in 1964.

Now more than 15,000 jumps later, the 73-year-old Arizona resident will be inducted into the International Skydiving Hall of Fame. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ceremony originally set for this October was postponed until April 24, 2021.

McGowan is one of 11 individuals from across the world being inducted.

“I have two loves and I’ve lived the life. It can’t get any better when you are able to experience that,” McGowan said.

As a child, McGowan said he wanted to be able to do what Peter Pan did — fly. The wrinkle he added was his passion for photography.

“Photographers were my heroes,” McGowan said. “I found I have an eye for it when it comes to composition, lighting and being in the moment. I’m at ease when I am free falling. It is my form of release.”

Over the course of 54 years of making jumps, McGowan has captured the sport as the artform it is.

According to a release from the International Skydiving Museum and Hall of Fame, McGowan is one of the world’s premier free-fall photographers and videographers. Numerous national magazines have printed McGowan’s photos and countless commercials and videos have featured his work.

The United States Parachutist Association’s (USPA) Parachutist Magazine, alone has run hundreds of his photos, many on the cover.

McGowan was responsible for filming the first air-to-air video used for scoring purposes at a 20-way meet at Skydive City Zephyrhills in Florida in the mid-1980s. USPA adopted the system the following year for its sanctioned competitions.

McGowan was a principal videographer on the world’s first 100-, 120-, 144-, and 300-way formation skydiving world records, as well as numerous women’s world records.

“That 300-way jump took a year to design and prepare,” McGowan said. “It took 15 jumps to learn and accomplish the record. The hardest part was having enough spacing into the landing area with 300 people involved.”

To capture history on film, McGowan used a wide-angle fish-eye lens for the jump.

Videography is another area McGowan has excelled in and helped with training.

McGowan collaborated with fellow skydiving pioneer, Al Gramando, to direct, film and edit the first training video for all seven levels of the Advanced Freefall Program.

When he began using the technique of telling a story with his tandem skydiving videos, camera flyers at drop zones around the world adopted it.

He is also a Federal Aviation Administration Master Rigger and USPA National Director.

The journey to this being a full-time job started after four-year stints in both the Navy and Air Force. McGowan came back and worked at a steel-making facility in Kankakee County.

His love of skydiving took him to the state of Missouri before he landed in Texas in 1981 and made this his full-time job.

The last time he was back in Kankakee County was three years ago. During his career, McGowan has made jumps at the Greater Kankakee Airport and Koerner Aviation. He still has friends in the area.

Manteno is near and dear to McGowan’s heart.

“I miss home,” he said. “You can live anywhere but there is only one place that you truly call home.”

Now, McGowan lives in Eloy, Arizona, the home of Skydive Arizona, known as the world’s largest skydiving center.

Since having an ankle replaced, McGowan said he no longer jumps.

After a great career, McGowan said he is thrilled about his induction into the hall of fame.

“Not many get in,” he said.

McGowan is also appreciative of all he has been able to do.

“I am happy it happened,” he said. “I’m a pretty lucky guy.”

In-depth KRMA audit not needed -- Mayor

KANKAKEE — If Bradley’s representative to the regional wastewater treatment facility board of directors wants an in-depth, “forensic” audit completed on the agency, he is going to need to convince the utility board.

In a response to a public request for the audit by Bradley finance director Rob Romo, who sits on the seven-member Kankakee River Metropolitan Agency board to represent Bradley, Kankakee Mayor Chasity Wells-Armstrong said any information Romo and the village would like is available. In addition to her mayoral position, Wells-Armstrong also serves as KRMA board chairwoman.

“KRMA already undergoes an audit every year that is conducted by an independent accounting firm that is separate from KRMA’s day-to-day accounting firm,” Wells-Armstrong wrote in her Sept. 3 response to Romo’s request made on Aug. 24. “The independent accounting firm used by KRMA has offices across the United States and ranks among the top 20 accounting firms in the nation. The annual audit is made immediately available to KRMA board members and is a document available to the public.”

The Daily Journal published a story on Aug. 25 based off of the report Romo presented to the Bradley administration and trustees at its regular board meeting on Aug. 24.

In that story, Romo said the forensic audit is needed. The Bradley Village Board agreed. At that meeting the board gave Romo the go-ahead to begin interviewing potential accounting firms which could complete the forensic accounting of KRMA. The audit, Romo said, could look at financial records dating back several years.

The cost of an audit of this type was not stated.

The village board plans to consider a resolution at Monday’s village meeting authorizing the hiring of an accounting firm. Village leadership noted they are prepared to take legal steps to have this done if the KRMA board does not agree.

In the Daily Journal story, KRMA was described as a troubled agency because it’s under a cloud of suspicion due to the recent federal indictment of its former executive director Richard Simms.

Simms is currently under federal investigation and accused of defrauding KRMA and the City of Kankakee’s Environmental Services Utility of more than $2 million.

Wells-Armstrong said these characterizations of KRMA as a “troubled agency” and “under a cloud of suspicion” are simply false.

“KRMA is regularly audited and we certainly stand ready to provide Mr. Romo and the Village of Bradley with the additional information they may need concerning the operations of KRMA and the work that the fine employees of KRMA do every day,” she said.

Romo said this week he is not challenging the independent audit. He said the independent audit simply verifies the financial data compiled by the agency’s accounting firm. He said a forensic audit would delve into the purpose of payments.

“This type of audit would ask ‘why were you billed of services or expenses?’ It will look at the underlying transaction to make sure it was proper and true,” he said.

The seven-member KRMA board is made up of four Kankakee representatives and one each from Bradley, Bourbonnais and Aroma Park.

Bourbonnais Mayor Paul Schore, who serves as the KRMA board’s vice president, said the only way he would agree to a forensic audit is if it had a specific target, meaning what is being sought.

“Just to shoot from the hip ... what is the reason for that?” he asked of Romo’s request. “I don’t know if [Romo has] been clear about that. ... I don’t know where this is coming from. This would take further discussions. Before we dive into this, we would need a pretty good reason. Some homework is needed.”

Schore said to date, this matter has not been brought up at the KRMA board meetings.

Schore is adamant that audit specifics be stated, not “broad brush strokes.”

“This is not a troubled agency in the least. This plant runs daily. I believe the board has been doing a pretty phenomenal job. I don’t know what Rob’s end game is.”

Aroma Park Mayor Brian Stump, who has been a KRMA board member for three years, said he hasn’t spoken with Romo about this forensic audit, but he doesn’t view it as a bad idea.

“If it helps bring out information, that’s good. Rob has the right as a board member to question things. There have been too many things going on here that people weren’t paying attention to,” Stump said. “The audit Rob’s talking about goes into greater depth, digs a little deeper, questions a little more. I don’t think those are bad things.”

Former Bradley employee suing village over firing

BRADLEY — A 40-year employee of the Village of Bradley filed a civil lawsuit Wednesday in Kankakee County court against the village under the state of Illinois’ Whistleblower Act.

In the lawsuit, Jeff Hackley argues he was terminated after bringing attention to a supervisor that a person arrested during the weekend of April 10-12 was reportedly COVID-19 positive.

Hackley, a retired police officer, was working as the department’s record clerk at the time.

Bradley Mayor Pro Tem Mike Watson told the Daily Journal Thursday he had not seen nor did he believe the village had been served the lawsuit.

He also said the village would not comment on pending litigation.

According to the lawsuit, Hackley learned of the possible infection while filing reports on April 13. The lawsuit said the individual was not allowed entrance to Kankakee County Jail due to the possibility of COVID-19 infection.

The officers brought the person back to the station’s booking room, where the individual was booked and then released with a notice to appear at a future date.

Bradley employees must go through the booking room to access a restroom.

According to the lawsuit, no notice or warning was given to employees that a possibly COVID-19 positive individual had been brought into Bradley’s booking room.

“Bradley took no action to implement safety precautions in order to avoid potential exposure to COVID-19 by Mr. Hackley or other Bradley employees who worked in close proximity to the booking room in the course of performing their duties or utilizing the employee bathroom area,” according to the lawsuit.

On April, 13, Hackley said he talked to a member of the building’s maintenance staff who said he had not been informed of the potential exposure.

The staff member said he was not directed to follow CDC protocols or the State of Illinois COVID-19 guidelines to ensure a thorough cleaning of the booking room to sanitize and disinfect the area to limit the potential spread of the disease to employees and others who may come into contact with the area.

Hackley sent an email to his supervisor informing him of the following:

“[Jane Doe] ... was brought into our PD for processing after she was refused entry by JCDC for COVID-19. Was the department sanitized after her visit? I am concerned since today I went through the area using the doors and such to get to the restroom.”

The lawsuit said Hackley had reasonable cause for the health and safety of employees regarding possible COVID-19 exposure and the village’s failure to implement recommended state and federal guidelines to protect employees from potential exposure to COVID-19.

“Mr. Hackley experienced increased stress and anxiety regarding the potential risks to his personal health and well-being since he is an individual over the age of 60 considered to be ‘at risk’ of developing complications from COVID-19 and suffers from hypertension, which also places him ‘at risk’ of developing complications from COVID-19.”

The lawsuit goes on to say that on April 14, the village placed Hackley on administrative leave in response to his efforts to inform his supervisor of the village’s failure to notify him and other Bradley employees of the potential exposure to COVID-19 and failure to take precautions to prevent that exposure.

The village retaliated by firing Hackley on April 28, according to the lawsuit, for voicing his concerns that the village had failed “to implement recommended orders, rules, proclamations and/or guidelines issued by State and Federal agencies to protect Mr. Hackley, other Bradley employees and the public from potential exposure to COVID-19.”

When Hackley retired as a lieutenant from the police department, the village gave him and his wife lifetime guaranteed health insurance.

After he was terminated on April 28, that policy was canceled. It has since been reinstated by the village after Hackley filed a grievance.

Since then, the village has threatened to cancel the insurance coverage, “if Hackley continued to challenge his termination of employment through administrative or legal proceedings,” according to the lawsuit.

“Bradley’s actions toward Mr. Hackley are contrary to the Illinois Whistleblower Act which prohibits any act that would be materially adverse to a reasonable employee and is because of the employee disclosing or attempting to disclose public corruption or wrongdoing,” according to the lawsuit.

“Here, Mr. Hackley disclosed public wrongdoing to an agent of government or law enforcement agency and Bradley took various actions, as set forth above, including, but not limited to termination of employment, which are materially adverse to Mr. Hackley.”

Hackley is represented by Chicago attorney Brian C. Hlavin and is asking the court to grant him monetary damages.

Further drop needed to roll back mitigations in Region 7

SPRINGFIELD — Will and Kankakee counties must lower their rolling COVID-19 test positivity rate by about one more percentage point before restrictions on economic activity can be lifted, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Thursday at a COVID-19 update in Chicago.

Those counties, which make up Region 7 of the state’s reopening plan, had a 7.5 percent seven-day average positivity rate as of Monday, but it will need to decrease to 6.5 percent before coronavirus mitigations such as closures of indoor dining and drinking at restaurants and bars can be lifted.

Region 4 of the reopening plan, however, continues to see its positivity rate increase, moving to 10.1 percent as of Monday. The only other region above 7 percent is north-central Illinois, which includes Peoria and several surrounding counties, which sat at 7.2 percent as of Monday.

“Last week I highlighted the trend over the previous two weeks that nine of our 11 regions had seen increases in positivity rates,” Pritzker said Thursday. “I’m pleased to say that over the last seven days, most of our regions have seen a slight decrease in their positivity rates, with only three seeing a statistically significant increase.”

Statewide, the positivity rate was 3.8 percent as of Thursday.

Pritzker cited Dr. Anthony Fauci, an immunologist and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in justifying the 8-percent threshold as one needed to spur further state action in a given region.

“You can either close the bars or close the schools,” Pritzker said, referring to Fauci’s previous comments about rate of increase.

Pritzker said economic restoration cannot happen until the virus is under control.

“Unless we get it under control, either by people following the doctor’s recommended mitigations or with an effective treatment or a vaccine, we will be fighting to save the Titanic with a plastic bucket,” he said. “Because there’s no national strategy, it’s up to us — every individual and every city and every business in Illinois — to slow the rate of infection across the state, wear a mask. Watch your distance, don’t exceed capacity limits.”

The expansion of testing through a University of Illinois saliva-based testing program to other university campuses could take another 6-8 weeks, but will depend on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and manufacturing of equipment, Pritzker added.

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike once again noted the importance of the widespread use of face coverings.

“There is much we still need to learn about this virus,” she said. “We’re still learning if a person can be reinfected, and if so, after what timeframe. We’re still learning how much viral load is present before someone starts showing symptoms. We’re still learning what medicines can be most effective to treat this virus.”

What is known, Ezike said, is that a person with the virus can spread it even if they are not experiencing symptoms. Masks can help prevent the spread of respiratory droplets that a person expels when talking, she said.

“Models do suggest that public mask-wearing is most effective at stopping spread of the virus when compliance is high,” Ezike said. “That means the vast majority of people need to be wearing the face covering.”

Illinoisans should also get their flu shot in the coming days as well, officials noted.

IDPH announced 29 additional virus-related deaths over the previous 24 hours in people whose ages ranged from their 40s to their 90s. There were 1,953 new confirmed cases of the virus among 48,982 test results reported.

That brought the total confirmed cases since the pandemic reached Illinois to 255,643 cases, including 8,242 deaths among more than 4.5 million recorded test results.

At the end of Wednesday, the total number of persons hospitalized for the virus in the state grew to 1,609, including 346 in intensive care unit beds and 141 on ventilators. All numbers remained slightly above their pandemic lows and well off their highs.