Al Markus was feeling restless standing in a crowd of people near a stage erected in Volunteer Park in Sugar Grove, awaiting the kickoff of the village’s annual Corn Boil last July.
“He wasn’t the kind of guy that liked standing still for too long,” said his son, Allan.
It was the 50th year of Sugar Grove’s most popular festival aimed at promoting a sense of community and providing support to various causes in that far western suburb of about 9,000 residents in southern Kane County. This year it raised money to help those affected by autism
Markus, a former Chicago resident, had lived in Sugar Grove since 2001 and was a big part of making the Corn Boil a success. For years, he was in charge of all the facilities at the event — installing signs, ordering equipment, setting up and tearing down tents and fencing, and getting generators up and running.
“I don’t think we could have done it without him,” said Pat Graceffa, a longtime member of the Corn Boil planning committee. “He did about everything.”
So when it was announced on stage that Markus had been selected as Sugar Grove’s 2017 Citizen of the Year, it came as no surprise, except to the award winner himself — described as a shy man known for his smirk and funny take on things — who’d been kept in the dark until that very moment.
“Al had no idea he was getting the award and that’s what made it so great,” said Joe Didier, a retired Illinois State trooper, who was next to Markus as he learned about the award. “He had turned to me just seconds before and said, ‘I wonder what old fart will be getting it this year?’ ”
Markus, 67, who was battling a heart condition in recent years, died Oct. 15, after collapsing in his home, his son said.
“Al was a kind and gentle giant,” Graceffa said. “Losing him was like losing family.”
Markus’ wife of 37 years, Donna, died in 2012. She served on the planning committee for the Corn Boil, and a scholarship for local students was established in her name.
Friends say they will never forget how Markus cared for his wife during her struggle with cancer.
“It touched everybody’s heart,” Graceffa said.
For years, Markus was also responsible for putting up and taking down the more than 2,000 lights that adorned the Sugar Grove Christmas tree in the village center.
“He’d moan and groan climbing that cherry picker with all those lights, but he’d never let anyone else to do it,” Graceffa said. “When it was lit, he loved seeing the smiles on kids’ faces, especially his own grandchildren.”
The son of a machinist, Markus was born and raised on the Northwest Side and graduated from Gordon Technical High School. He loved cars, was good with his hands and quickly found work in several auto shops.
In the mid-1970s, he was hired by a company that installed fiberglass used in the construction of roller coasters during the construction of Six Flags Great America in Gurnee.
“He was there when the gates first opened and had signs from opening day,” his son said.
Markus was the manager of Bump City Auto Body in Oak Park for more than three decades, before retiring at age 64. For many years, he lived with his family on the Northwest Side in the Galewood neighborhood, before moving to Sugar Grove. He signed on as a volunteer with the Corn Boil soon after.
“Year after year, I’d see him out in the park putting up tents, installing port-a-potties and testing equipment, and I’d wonder to myself if people had any idea how much work he put into this,” Graceffa said.
Didier, who met Markus soon after he moved to Sugar Grove, says he’ll miss his old friend, whom he visited nearly every day for the past five years.
“After Donna died, I thought he might be a little lonely, so I’d swing by his house,” Didier said. “He’d say he was fine, but as I was leaving he’d always call out, ‘So I’ll see you tomorrow, right?’ ”
Other survivors include a son, James; a daughter, Melissa Fayfar; two brothers, Bill and Daniel; a sister, Patricia Bailey; and five grandchildren.
Services were held.
Joan Giangrasse Kates is a freelance reporter.