Frank M. Zuccarelli: A Look at a Legacy
Frank M. Zuccarelli: A Look at a Legacy (South Holland, IL) — In politics, it was almost impossible to run for any Democratic office without having some kind of interaction with Frank M. Zuccarelli. Whether it was an office where you would be serving the Thornton Township area or if you needed to win the voting block within the township, you likely met with him. Politicians from former 44th President Barack Obama while he was running for Illinois State Senate and current Governor J.B. Pritzker dined with Zuccarelli. His own election slate, known as the Z-team, was a powerful force in the south suburbs for decades. However his impact touched more than simply politics. As Thornton Township Supervisor and Democratic Committeeman, he built a disciplined and sophisticated organization that reached down to neighborhoods and block organizers. It enabled Zuccarelli to respond to the problems of individual neighborhoods and families. With his strong leadership, straight forward style and his love for the community, he was a champion of youth, adults and seniors.
“I remember Dec. 31, 1999, Frank and I were standing on the lawn of the South Holland Village Hall to bring in the year 2000. I will never forget us counting down the seconds to the new decade with excitement and anticipation even as a lot of people had concern and fear of Y2K and the new millennium. We had so many great conversations and Frank had a strong desire to help youth and senior citizens and worked diligently to provide a high quality of life for all the residents of Thornton Township, South Suburban College students and the Southland,” said Don A. De Graff, South Holland mayor, who was elected as village trustee in 1993 the same year Zuccarelli was elected township supervisor. “He was a friend and we shared a mutual respect for each other.”
Zuccarelli, 70, Thornton Township Supervisor, passed away at his home January 3 at 1:18 p.m. South Holland paramedics responded and he was pronounced dead. He celebrated his 70th birthday in October.
If you stayed in politics long enough, you could go from someone who campaigned against a Zuccarelli-selected candidate to being a Zuccarelli-selected candidate. Cook County Commissioner Donna Miller understands that sentiment well.
“I am happy that I knew Frank long enough where our relationship grew, evolved and came full circle over time. I remember our last conversation which wasn’t that long ago and it was great with the positive words he said to me,” said Miller.
Robert Polk, village of Burnam mayor, benefited from many of the township programs. He was one of the rare people who became close to him after not having any previous connection.
“I met Frank as an outsider after becoming a Burnham trustee in 2001. We began to work together thereafter and continued. On one occasion, we were on opposite sides with a candidate, but it was worked out and we moved forward. He is gone but won’t be forgotten with his long-winded speeches,” joked Polk.
Thaddeus Jones remembers coming up to the township, and after speaking to various people, would enter Zuccarelli’s office and eat up his snacks.
“I knew we could talk about whatever because we did,” said Jones, Calumet City mayor and 29th District Illinois State Representative. “He poured so much life into so many and he devoted his life to so many. I had the pleasure of learning from him. The memories replay in my head and I hear his voice, feel the hugs and remember the love.”
Although he fought hard for his Democratic candidates to win every election, he also cared about people going to the voting booth as their American right.
“Frank was a champion for elections and the electoral process in Cook County. If the clerk’s office was in need of election judges, he would always answer the call and work to engage his constituents in the process,” said Cook County Clerk Karen A. Yarbrough. “We would be hard pressed to find another elected official more dedicated or more committed to the right to vote for all.”
Early Childhood and Starting his Political Desires
Born on October 29, 1951 in Chicago to James and Marjorie Zuccarelli, he was raised Serbian as the oldest of four children. He attended Mendel Catholic School before the family moved to South Holland when he was 15-years-old. Frank excelled as a student being named a member of Who’s Who Among American High Schools for academics. He graduated from Thornridge High School and enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1969 as a medic in Vietnam through 1972. After his time in the service, he earned an Associate of Science Degree in 1976 and an Associate of Arts Degree in 1978 from Thornton Community College, currently South Suburban College. He also earned a bachelor’s degree from Governor State University located in University Park, Illinois.
In his personal life, Zuccarelli was very close to his mother and enjoyed music and making songs as a hobby. He recorded a few songs that were featured on a Juke Box at Ricobene’s in Calumet City. Both his parents died in his twenties and he lost a brother, James T. Zuccarelli, in 1991. These sudden changes propelled him to always want to be in charge because he was the oldest. In 2002, Zuccarelli was elected the leader of Thornton Township Democratic Organization as Committeeman, defeating the 29-year veteran Frank Giglio. As committeeman, he was responsible for the coordination of election judges for 124 precincts, the largest township in the State of Illinois.
An avid late night eater, he could often be found at Balagio Ristorante in Homewood enjoying the veal, and would also frequent Blueberry Field’s restaurant in South Holland. He also enjoyed the music of Janis Joplin and Tina Turner. While he rarely cooked, he was known for his famous, time consuming potato salad that took him three days to make.
Elected Thornton Township Supervisor in April 1993 and awarded Township Officials of Illinois Supervisor of the Year in 1996, 2007 and 2012, Zuccarelli became a political titan and mainstay in the south suburbs. Thornton Township was selected Township of the Year in 2004, 2008 and 2016. Free after school care, summer enrichment for children, lunch and learn programs and the property tax refund program which returned more than $5 million in property taxes to homeowners, were just a few initiatives he put in place during his tenure.
He instituted Days in the Park held in the summer in almost every township park where young people and their families enjoyed fun activities. Zuccarelli opened a senior center where more than 42,000 lunches are served yearly at 13 different sites throughout the township. The center also provides free blood pressure services. The township offered free senior transportation for medical and grocery store appointments, as well as shopping.
“One of my dearest friends who is in her late eighties credits him for helping her so much when her husband died. There were things that she couldn’t figure out and he was there for her,” said Miller. “A lot of seniors had a direct line to Frank and that is history and rapport that you build over time.”
That senior group relied on him for many aspects that would improve their quality of life.
“Frank was able to build a loyal voter following, especially among senior groups, by providing jobs, housing, food, and medical assistance to those who needed it most. He understood the power of a trusted voice,” said Stanley Moore, 4th District Cook County Commissioner.
He opened up the Youth and Family Services building in Riverdale, which focuses on developing programs for young people in the area. Realizing the importance of early technology education, he approved a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) summer camp at South Suburban College for elementary and middle school students that was entirely free for all those who signed up. He opened the food pantry in Harvey which became an essential lifeline for those suffering throughout the township. More than 3,000 families a month utilized the pantry, which grew to more than 4,000 families a month during the pandemic.
“The Southland lost a tireless advocate and a friend. He served the community for more than 40 years,” said Christopher Clark, City of Harvey mayor.
Ensuring that families were not going to bed hungry during the holidays, the township distributed more than 8,000 Thanksgiving and holiday baskets with community partner in Dolton, Harvey, Calumet City, South Holland, Lansing, Dixmoor, Phoenix, Markham, Hazel Crest, Riverdale, and other communities. Thornton Township routinely gave more than 4,500 wrapped gifts to almost 1,200 children during the holiday season as part of its Christmas Care program.
“Frank’s proven leadership allowed him to care for all of the citizens of Thornton Township. I learned so much from my friend, like take care of your community, and they will take care of you. Be a man of your word and do what you say you are going to do,” added Moore.
He also engineered the Zuccarelli Assistance Program or ZAP, which allowed teens, ages 16 and older, the opportunity to get paid for mowing lawns of seniors. The program trained teens and offered high-paying summer jobs to help empower them. More than 1,000 residents each year benefited from the program.
“Frank spearheaded many innovative programs to help the residents in Thornton Township. His ‘think outside the box’ attitude really served his township well. He was always working with new ideas and innovative programs or services that benefited the residents of his community,” said Jerry B. Crabtree, executive director of the Township Officials of Illinois.
Nyota Figgs, Calumet City Clerk, routinely worked with township officials and was awarded one of four Thornton Township Women of the Year honors in 2017. With politics, you are not always on the same side or page, but that doesn’t mean you can’t work together.
“Personally I would tell Frank thank you for the times he supported me and thank you for the times he didn’t,” said Figgs.
Jill Manning, who served as special projects director for decades with Thornton Township before retiring in 2018, helped with many of the township initiatives.
“No one was more giving than Frank. He did not hesitate to tell you his opinion, whether you wanted it or not. However he would turn around and give you his very last dollar if you needed it more than him,” said Manning. “There will never be a more loyal friend.”
Zuccarelli was more than just a political powerhouse for those who knew him well. Nate Fields, who works within the Thornton Township Community Relations Department, was one of the closest people to him. Eight years ago, when Zuccarelli underwent a kidney transplant in Wisconsin, he was there. He would help Zuccarelli check his blood sugar.
“Close people knew Frank as a good friend that was there in times of need, whether you called or texted him or sent a message through others,” said Fields. “Frank was family, a father and my godfather. Frank was there at the hospital when my first child was born and he always made sure I had what I needed. The world will never see another person like Frank.”
Outside the Township
Illinois State Comptroller Susana A. Mendoza talked about the tireless work that Zuccarelli did for the community. Their friendship grew and she was also one of the recipients of the township 2017 Women of the Year Award.
“I was shocked and saddened to hear Zuccarelli had passed away. He looked so good when I saw him last month,” said Mendoza. “It is hard to think of any elected official who did more for families and seniors than Frank.”
Zuccarelli would often quote Martin Luther King’s words; “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
Understanding that mantra, he looked beyond the township walls to see ways he could help. He led a group of religious leaders and elected officials that worked to nominate Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2015. Earlier that year on June 17, 21-year old Dylann Roof entered the church and opened fire killing nine parishioners during a Bible study group. Instead of reacting with hate and violence, the church members chose to act with love and forgiveness. Even though the church was never nominated for that Peace Prize, he created the Faith, Dignity and Respect Initiative to bring elected officials, law enforcement and community leaders to develop proactive ways to stem the shocking amount of gun violence and community unrest that swept the nation like Ferguson, New York, Baltimore, Chicago and other areas.
Living by the township motto of “People Working With People,” Zuccarelli sent six township employees to Houston in 2017 to deliver supplies to the devastated areas in the 5th ward after a devastating hurricane. Hurricane Harvey caused unprecedented and catastrophic flooding in southeastern Texas. In a four-day period, many areas received more than 40 inches of rain as the system went over eastern Texas and adjacent waters. The resulting floods inundated hundreds of thousands of homes, displaced more than 30,000 people, and prompted more than 13,000 rescues. Once township officials saw the images of people affected, Zuccarelli quickly organized an area-wide donation campaign. Volunteer drivers delivered supplies in trucks donated by Blue Island-based W & W Towing. Along with various other organizations and municipalities such as Lansing, Riverdale, Phoenix and South Holland, they provided supplies such as water, diapers, baby formula, blankets and hygiene care products. The donation was given to Restoration Square Full Gospel Baptist Cathedral in northeast Houston.
“It definitely was appreciated,” said Tracy Glenn, co-pastor of the Restoration Square Full Gospel Baptist Cathedral, at that time. “The donations and love they brought with them, helping us unload, getting items to the people in the community, we were grateful.”
A few years before, Thornton Township also helped during the Flint, Michigan water crisis. At that time Zuccarelli said “with the sheer devastation of the storm, we wanted to do something to help the thousands of people in need.”
South Suburban College
His influence also extended into the local community college from which he graduated.
Zuccarelli served as a member of the South Suburban College Board of Trustees since 1978. Two years earlier, he became the first student trustee of Thornton Community College and advocated for lower, more affordable student tuition. As a student trustee, he led a strike for the teachers for them to get pensions.
During his tenure, Zuccarelli witnessed SSC and the Illinois community college system grow from temporary buildings into the third largest community college system in the United States. He is only the fifth person out of more than 2,200 current and former trustees to reach this level of success in the entire state of Illinois.
“Frank’s tremendous intellect and leadership were instrumental in advancing SSC’s student-centered mission, while creating a collaborative atmosphere among faculty, administration and staff for over four decades,” said Dr. Lynette Stokes, South Suburban College president. “He was a champion for equity and inclusion and breaking down barriers to higher education. His compassion for students and passion for his college were unparalleled.”
Legislators from around the area understood the impact he had on all levels of the region. “A devoted public servant for more than 40 years, Frank’s infectious laugh, smile and commitment to Thornton Township, South Suburban College and the Southland will be deeply missed,” said Elgie R. Sims Jr., 17th District Illinois State Senator.
Many also have said that the next Thornton Township supervisor has a tall order because of the impact that he had in the community and among elected officials.
“Many young people who are in office today can credit Frank who made them part of the political process early on and taught them what it meant to be involved,” added Miller.
One of those elected officials is Marshun Tolbert, 2nd Ward Harvey alderman.
Kari Steele, the president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, also got to know Zuccarelli well. She said the Thornton Township Democratic meetings will never be the same without him.
“I appreciated his honesty and support,” said Steele. “I never had to guess what he was thinking, and in a political game, that’s priceless.”
Marcus C. Evans Jr., 33rd District State Rep., also had a close and honest relationship with Zuccarelli. One year, he even volunteered to referee a township event where police officers and teenagers played on the same team for the pride of their town as part of an initiative to bring the community closer.
“I’m deeply saddened to lose my friend and supporter,” said Evans. “Frank was a servant leader for the Thornton Township community, and personally taught me a lot about true public service.”
Zuccarelli is survived by his longtime girlfriend Carmen Canales of Dyer, IN, his sister Candace Paun (late John Paun) of South Holland, IL, his brother Kenneth Zuccarelli (Jane Walmer) of DeForest, WI, nieces Lorrin Paun of Phoenix, AZ, Marjorie Alexander (Greg) of Cedar Lake, IN, nephews Johnny Paun and Joe Paun (Sarah) of Cedar Lake, IN. Also uncle: Robert Boskovich of Chicago, IL, aunts: Dawn Brown (Bill) of Phoenix, AZ, Sharon Myszak (late Michael) of Munster, Denyse Taylor (Jim) of Mundelein, IL. Beloved uncle to John Paun of Lockport, IL. Beloved great uncle to: Nadia, Junior, Jocelynn, Beau and Dane Paun; Lilly and Zac Alexander; and Johnny Paun. In addition, Frank is survived by many dear cousins, friends, and “son” Nate Fields Jr..
Frank M. Zuccarelli: A Look at a Legacy