Generous owners worked hard to make a go of restaurant

Tribune staff reporters

After a corporate buyout forced Richard Ehlenfeldt from his executive job, he set out to make a new beginning for his family.

"He kept telling me, `I have to go into this business, John,' " a longtime neighbor, John Bruce, recalled. " `It's the only way I can make it.' "

But the Brown's Chicken & Pasta franchise where Ehlenfeldt, 50, had hoped to start over turned into a killing ground this weekend. On Saturday, Ehlenfeldt, his wife, Lynn, 49, and five of their employees were found dead in the Palatine fast-food restaurant.

After Ehlenfeldt lost his job as a vice president with Group W Cable of Chicago, neighbors said, he and his wife poured most of their assets, and most of their time, into the chicken franchise. Friends said the Ehlenfeldts worked long hours in the restaurant, which they bought within the last year, putting in double shifts to learn their new trade.

Co-workers knew them as considerate.

"They really cared," said Casey Sander, a 17-year-old employee of the store.

Before the couple, who had three daughters, bought the franchise, they had earned a reputation as active members of their community. Richard Ehlenfeldt was president of the homeowners association in the affluent Arlington Heights subdivision where the family had lived since 1985. Lynn Ehlenfeldt volunteered for community organizations and was active with school issues.

The Ehlenfeldts always participated in the Ivy Hill subdivision's annual garage sale, selling household items and serving hot dogs in front of their blue and white two-story home.

"It was a like a fair," recalled Barbara Macaluso, a neighbor. "There were flags, family and friends."

But neighbors said all that changed when the family purchased the fast-food franchise. They immersed themselves in the new enterprise, working 12- and 16-hour days, their daughters helping out when they could.

"We never saw them" after they bought the restaurant, neighbor Robert Becker said. "Dick said it was a lot of long hours, but that is what it took to succeed."

According to neighbors, Ehlenfeldt was laid off from Group W Cable after it was purchased by Prime Cable, of Austin, Texas, in 1989. Officials of Prime Cable could not be reached Saturday. Newspaper articles about Group W Cable identify Ehlenfeldt as having held posts as vice president and director of government and public affairs.

"You liked talking with him and working with him," said Cook County Commissioner Danny Davis, a former Chicago alderman who worked with Ehlenfeldt at City Hall when Chicago was dividing up cable franchises. "He was not a hard-sell guy, more a soft-sell person. Rather than bowl you over, he would try and appeal to your better nature. He was the kind of guy that you appreciated, not one of those lobbyists who you didn't like to see coming."

Holly Spence, a public-relations consultant who said she did work for Ehlenfeldt and Group W, said Ehlenfeldt once was an assistant secretary of state in Wisconsin and was a press aide in the presidential campaigns of Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey.

On Saturday morning, Ivy Hill residents expressed shock and outrage upon learning that their friends were likely victims of the killing.

"It's like the city's problems are all out in the suburbs," Becker said. "It really hits home when it happens next to you."

The Beckers and others described the Ehlenfeldts as very family-oriented and upbeat. They were optimistic even when Richard Ehlenfeldt lost his job, neighbors said.

"He never felt things would completely collapse on him," Becker said. "He always had a good attitude."

A next-door neighbor, Colette Urban, said Lynn Ehlenfeldt brought brownies to welcome her to the neighborhood when she moved in three years ago.

"That's the way they were," Urban said. "They were very friendly, outgoing people."

Neighbors said the couple spent a lot of time with their daughters, Jennifer, Joy and Dana. All three graduated from Buffalo Grove High School and were active in soccer, Bruce said. Joy, the youngest, graduated last spring.

Jennifer Ehlenfeldt is a legislative aide to newly elected Wisconsin state Assemblyman Mark Meyer (D-LaCrosse). She is a former member of the LaCrosse County Board and was chairwoman of the LaCrosse Democratic Party in 1992.

"It's a great loss for those girls and for the community," neighbor Marilyn Vasquez said. "We don't have enough people in the world who are like that."

"It's outrageous," said Urban, "why bad things happen to decent people."

Tribune reporters Peter Kendall and Robert Becker also contributed to this article.

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