Three Named HHS Distinguished Alumni

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Three graduates of Hillsboro High School–an engineer, a journalist, and public health leader–have earned 2019 Distinguished Alumni awards from the Hillsboro Education Foundation.

The foundation will present its highest honor to Dr. Jerry Parola, class of 1957, an engineer from Grayslake, to Nancy Bliss Slepicka, class of 1965, a retired editor and publisher who remains a tireless community volunteer in Hillsboro, and to Amy Cobetto Stewart, class of 1973, who remains active with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in retirement in Magnolia, TX, and as a public health leader in Hillsboro, organized the first local recycling drives.

The awards will be presented during a reception in the winners' honor on Old Settlers Thursday, Aug. 8, from 2-4 p.m. at Mulligan's at Hillsboro Country Club, according to foundation President Gene White.

Dr. Jerry Parola

Civil, structural and geotechnical engineer Dr. Jerry Parola retired last year–mostly–after a 48-year career with Case Foundation and Hayward Baker, both divisions of the Keller Group.

He grew up in Taylor Springs and graduated from Hillsboro High School with the class of 1957.  He played football on a full scholarship at the University of Illinois in Champaign while earning a degree in civil engineering in 1962.  He earned his masters in civil and structural engineering  a year later, and his Ph.D. in civil and geotechnical engineering in 1970.

In 1979, he started a piling division with Case Foundation in Roselle, assuming the role of vice president.  Keller switched his division to Hayward Baker in Chicago in 2005 where he worked as vice president of Case and chief engineer for Hayward Baker until retirement.

He retired in July 2018, but "I'm still on retainer," the veteran engineer said.  "I go in occasionally and trouble shoot."

Dr. Parola has lead many high-profile Chicago projects over the years, from remodeling the infamous Chicago S-curve on Lake Shore Drive in 1982 to negotiating directly with Donald Trump to design and install earth retention at Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago in 2005.  None, though, thrust him under the spotlight like "the great Chicago flood of 1992."

In April of that year, a contractor who was installing piles at a bridge in the city accidentally penetrated a service tunnel beneath.  

The tunnel was part of an 80-mile network below the city built in 1909 for coal and ash delivery, but subsequently used for power and communications.  The breach caused the entire tunnel network to fill up with water from the Chicago River, knocking out power and telephone service throughout the city and flooding basements.

"It shut down the city because in knocked out communications and electrical," Dr. Parola said.

Engineers from throughout the city were called to a meeting downtown to pitch ideas to solve the catastrophe, and Parola's plan to install five-foot-diameter drilled shafts, send down divers and seal off both sides of the river was selected as the best.

"We did it on a handshake," Dr. Parola said.  "It was crisis engineering and management all at the same time.  I got pretty close with Mayor Daley at the time–he was down there every day."

With about 80 crewmen including divers, the breach was sealed in six days and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took over to de-water.  Vice president Dan Quayle visited the site, and Mayor Daley held a private appreciation dinner for Case the following week.

That work earned him the Outstanding Service Award from the Association of Drill Shaft Contractors in 1992, and the work he has done in the city earned him induction as a Chicago Geo-Legend by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2018.  He has also earned the Harry Schnabel Award, a national award for career excellence in earth retaining structures in 2015, and earned the Distinguished Alumni Award from the civil engineering school at the University of Illinois in 2000.  While at the U of I, he also earned the Phi Eta Sigma Honorary Award, induction into the Chi Epsilon Civil Engineering Honor Society, and the Society of Sigma Xi.

He and his wife, the former Sharon Drum and his high school sweetheart, will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary in September.

Nancy Bliss Slepicka

A woman who devoted her career to her community as an award-winning journalist, Nancy Bliss Slepicka has continued her commitment to community in retirement.

The daughter of the late Bob and Pat Bliss, Slepicka grew up in Hillsboro, the fourth generation of the Bliss newspaper family that operated the Montgomery County News for over 112 years, from Feb. 15, 1892, until it combined with The Hillsboro Journal in August 2004.

She graduated from Hillsboro High School in 1965 and earned a degree from the prestigious Northwestern University in Evanston, and married Stanford University graduate Richard Slepicka on March 23, 1970, in California before the two moved to Hillsboro in 1971 to join the family newspaper business.

Working in the family business in every aspect, from ad sales to reporter, editor, columnist and publisher, her work was regularly singled out for awards by the Illinois Press Association (IPA), the Southern Illinois Editorial Association (SIEA), and the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors (ISWNE).  She served on the board of directors for the IPA, and served terms as president of the SIEA and ISWNE boards.  She was name as one of the ISWNE's Golden Dozen, and earned the Master Editor award from SIEA in 2001, joining her father and uncle in that prestigious journalism hall of fame.

Throughout her newspaper career, she and her late husband Richard carried on the Bliss family tradition of covering the community with integrity, and supporting community development initiatives through insightful commentary.  After the two Hillsboro newspapers were combined in 2004 to form The Journal-News, she and Richard continued on as senior editors until their retirement on Dec. 31, 2007.

While in the newspaper business, the Slepickas were active in community organizations such as the Hillsboro 2000 And Beyond Committee, whose efforts provided the white Christmas lights outlining the buildings of downtown Hillsboro.

 In retirement, she has volunteered for Habitat for Humanity, worked part-time as a successful grant writer for the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation, and as a remote director of marketing and communications for Dominican Sisters Vision of Hope, a non-profit that raises funds for tuition assistance and program support for eight Catholic inner-city elementary schools in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles.

Most recently, she has taken on volunteer fundraising roles for Pawsboro 620-K9, a planned dog park, and for renovations at the Hillsboro Public Library District's new downtown building.

Amy Cobetto Stewart

A woman whose 30-year public health career began in Hillsboro, Amy Cobetto Stewart of the Hillsboro High School class of 1973 finished her career working to make sure the country was prepared to respond to a public health threat.

Now retired in Magnolia, TX, Stewart works part-time contractually with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) immunization program on pandemic influenza preparedness.

After graduating from Hillsboro High School, she earned a degree in environmental biology from Eastern Illinois University in 1977 and her masters degree in public health from the University of Illinois in Springfield in 1996.

She began her career as sanitarian and health educator at the Montgomery County Health Department, where she advanced to top job as administrator in 1995.

She began working on public health response to a wide-spread emergency when she accepted a position as regional emergency response coordinator and Strategic National Stockpile coordinator with the Illinois Department of Public Health.

In 2009, she began doing that work on a national level when she became a CDC field assignee for the Strategic National Stockpile at the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals in Baton Rouge, LA.  In 2011, she transferred to Atlanta as a Division of Strategic National Stockpile program services consultant, and in 2012 became a team lead for that program in two regions.  She retired on Dec. 31, 2017, as Senior Public Health Advisor for the CDC's Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response Division of State and Local Readiness.

In a career that has included working on the difficult task of making sure the country is ready for a national health emergency, Stewart is still most proud of volunteer work she did locally.

"I still look back on the recycling program as one of the most fulfilling moments," she said.

As a Montgomery County Health Department employee in 1990, Stewart organized a volunteer effort to recycle newspapers in Hillsboro in celebration of Earth Day.

The event was so successful that the project soon grew to included the collection of other recyclable materials such as magazines, cardboard, plastics, and even glass that was used in the production of new bottles by Hillsboro Glass in Schram City.

The volunteers first worked out of trailers, but as response to the effort began to boom, buildings were needed and other towns in Montgomery County wanted to participate.  So in 1994, the Montgomery County Board took on the recycling effort in what was then a pioneer program that has grown over the years to include drop off locations in Hillsboro, Litchfield, Raymond, Nokomis, Farmersville, Irving, Witt, Donnellson and Waggoner, and operates on an annual budget of over $220,000.

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Ramona Linda Von Berg

Congratulations to these three graduates of Hillsboro High School! It's great to learn that Dr. Jerry Parola grew up in Taylor Springs.

Thursday, August 1, 2019