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Osipoff: Family of John Willems getting outpouring of support

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Updated: September 16, 2012 6:21AM



The outpouring of support provides ample insight into the type of person John Willems had been, his impact on the community.

Town officials in Cedar Lake. The police and fire departments. The Hanover Central athletics department, including AD Jeff Brooks. Wrestlers, former wrestlers and their parents. The Rick Larsen Wrestling Club. Volunteers to help plan the event, to aid with registration or simply to hand out water during the races. Assorted family members and friends.

Numerous people have rallied as Doug Willems, John’s younger brother by 16 months; Suzanne Willems, Doug’s wife; Elsa Willems, John’s widow; and Nick Petrov, Hanover Central’s wrestling coach, have established the John Willems Memorial Run.

At the altogether-too-young age of 42, John Willems, an assistant coach at Hanover for eight seasons, suffered a fatal heart attack on Dec. 29 in a hotel room during the Wildcats’ trip to the Broncho Holiday Duals hosted by Lafayette Jefferson High School. To honor his memory, a 5K race and a seven-mile race around Cedar Lake will be held on Sept. 15 — exactly a month from Wednesday.

“We were trying to think of a way to have an annual memorial, and we thought this would be an appropriate way,” Doug Willems said. “He loved wrestling and he loved running.”

John Willems wrestled and ran for Hanover Central. He attended Northern Illinois — where he met Elsa when they were freshmen — going from walk-on to four-year letterman and two-year captain on the wrestling team, underscoring his will and work ethic. He completed seven Chicago Marathons.

“Not many people get a chance to dive in and do something that they love,” Doug said. “He was all in.”

The depth of John’s passion was abundantly evident in his efforts with the Wildcats wrestling program. Doug talked about how John would just show up at a junior varsity tournament just to see a Hanover freshman win his first match. He recalled how John drove non-stop from Cedar Lake to Omaha, Neb., to see Andrew Howe win the NCAA title at 165 pounds in 2010, running into the arena just as Howe stepped onto the mat.

From novices to world-class athletes such as 2008 graduate Howe — who, under his gear at the Olympic Trials in April in Iowa City, wore one of the T-shirts that had been made to memorialize Willems as Hanover hosted the Lake County meet — John positively affected so many people.

When Paul Petrov (120 pounds) and Stevan Micic (106) won undefeated state championships in February in Indianapolis, John Willems figured prominently in their hearts and minds.

“He cared about his wrestling boys, that’s for sure,” Doug Willems said. “We want everyone to always remember what a selfless, caring and devoted man he was to the Hanover Central wrestling program over the last eight years.

“He simply turned boys into men better prepared for life’s future trials and tribulations. The lessons of hard, smart work he instilled into his high school wrestlers will carry on through them. There are so many stories about him going the extra mile or extra hour behind the scenes that would amaze people. He was too humble to ever seek any special attention.”

Understandably, especially for those who knew John best, the times have been “dark,” Doug said, since his passing. Six months to the day, Joey Willems, John’s younger son, turned 8 years old. Johnny, his older son, is 10. Seth, Doug’s son, is 8.

Perhaps the John Willems Memorial Run will serve as the start of brighter days ahead, to the extent it’s possible.

“Putting this together, it’s hard to do it,” Doug Willems said. “We never thought this could happen, but it could happen to any of us. Everything is fresh. We’re still grieving pretty hard; it’s hard for Elsa, it’s hard for everyone. But it’s something we have to do.

“A lot of people have come together. I never realized the reach John had. He touched so many lives.”

For more information, visit johnwillemsrun.com.



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