by Jeff McSweeney
Photos by Jeff and Quincy McSweeney
I am one of those sappy guys who gets teary when I listen to Superman songs. I love the idea of heroes and lament that there are not as many as there once were. I grew up in Washington, Illinois and was in high school when the vision and building of Peoria’s twin towers came into being. From far away I cheered Ray on to success. I admire the vision and fortitude in people that I wish I had and Ray was that guy. Later, through my association with Eureka College, I got to know Ray better and my admiration grew.
2013 witnessed a couple of standard bearers of Peoria vision pass away – Pete Vonachen and Jim Maloof. I reflected on my Superman songs and thought about who was left and my memories of Ray returned. I had seen him attending noon Mass at Sacred Heart recently and was encouraged by friends to just call him, which I did and he agreed to see me.
He still had that twinkle in his eye.
Ray attended St. Bernards elementary school and was in the Woodruff class of ’49. He attended Catholic Mass daily as a kid and returned to that tradition 20 years ago, “It has kept me alive,” he said. One of the first people Ray admired was W.G. Best, a contractor in the 1940’s. When Ray was a senior at Woodruff W.G. was getting out of the concrete business and was looking for someone to set and pour 200 homes at two per day. Ray arranged to get out of school at 11:30, he would form up two homes in the evening then the next morning his brother and father would pour the footings – 200 homes, 100 days. The first home he poured, near Manual High School, still stands. He started his Becker Bros. Construction with a $500 loan from Bob Gorman at the Commerce Bank which turned into a lifelong friendship.
In 1952 Becker Bros. built their first home and in 1955 his first commercial project was Holy Family School. Eventually he expanded to Phoenix, Arizona and Sarasota, Florida. Highlights of his construction include 68 nursing homes, Landmark Recreation Center, the iconic Twin Towers, and Pine Lakes Country Club. His most notable regret was never being able to bring dog racing to Peoria.
Ray proudly served Easter Seals for 25 years and the Eureka College Board for 14 years. The most notable people he met include Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush who he served in their campaigns and even hosted them in the Twin Towers penthouse.
When asked who he admires today he said Mayor Ardis is doing a good job, Diane Cullinan Oberhelman has great vision, and one of his former employees, Gary Matthews of EM Properties is remarkable with his accomplishments regarding the Pere Marquette Hotel.
Every novel needs a Superman, a hero, and Ray is that man who sets a vision for Peoria that will be carried out by his contemporaries – the future of Peoria.
Sheridan Road Artists
Being an artist I have an unapologetic passion for the vision building energy the arts can bring to a community. Sometimes it tries too hard, with too much money and too little vision. Other times it is a great idea that doesn’t gel and eventually falls apart. Studios on Sheradan at The Sunbeam Building is the symbol of a great idea hitting right in the sweet spot.
The former Sunbeam Building is located at 929 North Sheridan just 1 block south of Main Street in Peoria. It boasts 22,000 square feet that has been subdivided into a variety of stores and artist galleries. While the hours vary from space to space over any given week the building as a whole hosts a first Friday Open House every month from 5 – 9 pm. Live music is featured in the common space along with wine and h’orderves. It took me two hours to casually go through the whole space, a great celebration to the end of a week.
The arts are the beginning, middle and end of any community’s success, especially Peoria’s. The Sheridan Road Artists are not aiming too high nor too low in their vision for the space and opportunities available in Central Illinois. They have hit the sweet spot and in so doing set an example for others. Like them on Facebook.
Weather in Central Illinois. What can be written that hasn’t been. Within two hours of that horrible event my wife and I visited the northeast corner of Washington where the tornado left town, we didn’t even know the extent of the damage. Sunday evening my daughter and I returned for an hour to photograph what we could. We returned the next day and spent four hours walking the worst destruction and photographing. Select images may be viewed at: http://jeffmcsweeney.smugmug.com/Journalism/Washington-Tornado/
A significant weather event will add a plot twist to the novel whether it be a tornado, snowstorm, drought or flood.