In coming up with a fundraising project to benefit the Forest Park Historical Society last year, Augie Aleksy did not have to look far for inspiration: just about 6 feet under.
Forest Park is home to four major cemeteries, and was once described by the Guinness Book of World Records as having "more dead than alive," with a ratio of 30:1. Among the entombed are the famous, the infamous, and the "ordinary," whose lives (and deaths) represent an intriguing cross section of Forest Park and Chicago history.
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As the then-president of the historical society (his term ended last year) and as owner of Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore (in its 25th year), Aleksy was in a position to realize an ambitious project that would take a page from Edgar Lee Masters' "Spoon River Anthology" and give voice to those buried in the village.
"The Des Plaines River Anthology," a collection of free verse, first-person narratives published in October, was written by a distinguished roster of local authors, journalists, historians and playwrights recruited by Aleksy to donate their services, a testament to the esteem in which Aleksy is held in the literary community and Forest Park at large.
Emily Victorson, publisher of Forest Park-based Allium, which specializes in fiction with a Chicago connection, produced the book and wrote the introduction: "Where are Clarence, Belle, Mike, Justin and Mary,/The physician, the temptress, the celebrity, the young lovers?/All, all are sleeping by the river."
"I live a half a block from one of the cemeteries, and I'm reminded on a daily basis of our relationship" to them, Victorson said. But that was not the only reason she agreed to participate. "Augie has been incredibly supportive of our books and authors," she said. "He is very supportive of the author community in general. He has lots of author events at the store."
Richard Lindberg, author of "Heartland Serial Killers: Belle Gunness, Johann Hoch and Murder for Profit in Gaslight Era America," contributed a piece about Gunness. He participated, he said, to support two cultural endangered species: the independent bookstore and community historical societies.
"Augie is one of a dwindling number of bookstore owners to actively promote the work of Chicago area authors who happen to write about Chicago subject matter," he said in an email. "And in this day and age, when the study of history is being cut from (the) grammar school and high school curriculum, it is critical that we educate not only young people, but the community as a whole about the importance of the past."
Jay Bonansinga, author of "The Sinking of the Eastland: America's Forgotten Tragedy," wrote a piece about James Justin and Mary Manthey, an engaged couple who were aboard the ill-fated ship. "Since many Eastland victims are buried in local graveyards, I could not resist paying tribute to the doomed romantic love between Mary and Jim," he said in an email. "The loss and the melancholy woven through the couple's story captures something very powerful for me about the entire Eastland mythology."
Other contributors and their subjects include Robert K. Elder (producer Michael Todd), Frances McNamara (Haymarket Riot martyrs Oscar Neebe and Louis Lingg), Sheila Reynolds Trainor (area historian Philander Barclay) and Amy Binns-Calvey (Clara "Where's the Beef" Peller).
"The Des Plaines River Anthology" project has raised $1,500 thus far, according to Diane Grah, executive director of the historical society. "Our mission is to collect and preserve and share the history of Forest Park," she said. "All those buried here have a story to share."
In addition to the book (available in print and e-book formats), Aleksy mounted a dramatic reading of excerpts from the book read by the authors last fall. He would like to see dramatic readings mounted semi-annually and presented at schools. His passion for the project is undimmed, and one jokes about it at his peril.
"I was kidding, but I casually said to him, 'How about a "Des Plaines River Anthology" theme park?'" Victorson said, laughing. "His eyes lit up."
Donald Liebenson is a frequent Tribune contributor who writes extensively about culture, community and entertainment. He lives in Highland Park.
"The Des Plaines River Anthology"
By Historical Society of Forest Park and Emily Victorson, 116 pages, $10