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Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Avondale

John Stephan, Community Leader Who Dedicated His Life To Helping Troubled Teens, Dies At 69: ‘We Lost A Champion’

Stephan worked for the Boys & Girls Club organization for more than 50 years.

Longtime community advocate John Stephan died this week.
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LOGAN SQUARE — John Stephan, the longtime director of the Logan Square Boys & Girls Club who dedicated his life to helping troubled teens, died this week after a battle with pancreatic and esophageal cancer. He was 69.

Stephan helmed the club for 25 years, working directly with kids struggling with poverty or those considered at-risk for gun and gang violence and building up programming to better serve those kids. In the minds of people who knew him, Stephan was the Logan Square Boys & Girls Club.

“He gave his life to troubled youth. I don’t really know people like that anymore — people that don’t care about their personal finances, their career as much as they do about trying to make a dent in this issue we have with violence and teens,” former 35th Ward alderman Rey Colon said.

Colon was a teenager when he met Stephan. The former alderman joined the Logan Square Boys & Girls Club after his brother was shot and killed. At the time, Stephan was the head of the now-closed Kiwanis Club in Lincoln Park, which was under the Boys & Girls Club umbrella. Colon said he got to know Stephan through broader leadership training programs they were both involved in.

“John and I had a special relationship because we were both involved and specialized in the [teenager] age group,” Colon said, adding they had “mutual missions in life” that included “trying to get guns out of kids’ hands, trying to give alternatives to the street.”

Colon eventually became director of the Logan Square club, a position he held for a few years before taking a Downtown job with the organization. Stephan was tapped to replace Colon as director of the Logan Square club after the Lincoln Park Kiwanis Club outpost closed.

Colon went on to become 35th Ward alderman, a title he held for a dozen years before Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa unseated him in 2015. In all that time, Stephan never left the ornate Logan Square Boys & Girls Club building at 3228 W. Palmer St.

“John was one of those people who would never move to the Downtown office. He was a neighborhood guy. To him, he never wanted to stop working directly with young people,” Colon said.

Stephan’s career with the Boys & Girls Club organization as a whole stretches back much further than 1994, the year he became head of the Logan Square outpost.

Having lost his mother at a young age, Stephan was a “club kid” himself. He started going to the Lakeview outpost near where he grew up when he was about 11 years old, according to lifelong friend Raul Mora. Stephan started working for the Boys & Girls Club organization in 1966 in membership registration and then youth outreach.

Stephan went on to work for the organization for more than 50 years.

“John felt that this was his calling,” said Mora, one of the thousands of “club kids” Stephan worked with.

“His entire life was dedicated to the Boys & Girls club. When I was a kid, and he was a growing young man, we’d have conversations for 25 minutes to an hour on Saturdays and Sundays. He’d say, ‘Let’s get ahold of the guys and let’s go to a movie.’ He would hang out with us and make sure we weren’t getting into bad stuff.”

Stephan did the same for 19-year-old Marcos Matias, a “club kid” who grew leaps and bounds under Stephan’s guidance.

Matias is currently studying engineering at University of Illinois, thanks, in large part, to Stephan.

“Without [Stephan], I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today. I’d probably be out on the streets. I wouldn’t be in school at least. He opened a lot of doors for me,” Matias said.

“He was the father, grandfather that we all lacked. He was probably the best thing to happen to all of us.”

Said Matias’ mother, Maria Vargas: “It’s going to be really, really, really hard” without Stephan.

A single mother, Vargas routinely sought advice from Stephan. When her eldest son, Matias, or her two other children, ages 14 and 12, needed guidance, she always went to him. He would attend many of the kids’ games and events.

“Kids lack confidence. Sometimes they don’t know what they’re capable of. John had this talent of being able to identify every kid’s talent. It was just a matter of guidance or being able to push them beyond their limits. John saw that quality in every kid,” Vargas said.

Mora has countless memories of Stephan helping his teenage friends out of difficult situations over the years.

Once, Mora said, Stephan managed to stop a judge from sending Mora’s two friends to jail. Stephan arranged for Mora’s friends to serve in the Marines instead. Stephan himself had served in the Army as a young man.

Another time, when one of Mora’s friends was accidentally shot and killed by another one of his friends, Stephan stepped in to arrange the funeral.

“If it wasn’t for John, I don’t know what [the families] would’ve done,” Mora said.

“When we were kids, he would always call us heroes. … When you look at it, the real hero was John.”

In addition to his work at the Boys & Girls Club, Stephan was also active in local policing and court advocacy. He worked for the Chicago Police Department’s peer jury program and chaired the senior advisory council for the Shakespeare Police District, hosting bingo nights and field trips for seniors twice a month.

Most notably, Stephan founded the United Peace Coalition Zone in the mid-1990s, an initiative in which he worked with local anti-violence organizations like Ceasefire to broker peace deals with warring gangs in the area surrounding the Logan Square Boys & Girls Club. He helped bring peace to the area between Armitage and Fullerton avenues to the north and west to Sacramento and Kimball avenues to the east and west.

The initiative had a lasting impact on the neighborhood, according to Marco De La Rosa, who worked under Stephan at the Logan Square Boys & Girls Club.

“To this day, there has not been a murder in that zone. That treaty still stands today between those gangs,” De La Rosa said.

De La Rosa, now the director of the revived Lathrop Homes Boys & Girls Club, called Stephan the “intervention master.”

“He knew how to stray kids back to the right path, especially kids who had fallen far from the path,” De La Rosa said.

“John always stressed that you have to become a part of peoples’ lives for them to open up to you and talk about difficult things. By doing that, you would become a part of that person’s family.”

The Logan Square Boys & Girls Club closed this past summer.

The organization said it could no longer keep up with building maintenance. There are also a lot fewer at-risk kids in the neighborhood today compared to 1955, when the club first moved in.

A trio of developers are now looking to convert the building into a 14-unit apartment complex.

In a way, it makes sense that the club, as it was, no longer exists: There is no Logan Square Boys & Girls Club without Stephan.

“You could look at it as eerie, or you could look at it as destiny. That place became his heart and soul,” Colon said.

Said Mora: “We lost a champion.”

Stephan is survived by his sister, Sharon.

A visitation is set for 2-8 p.m. Sunday at Casey Laskowski Funeral Home, 4540 W. Diversey Ave. The funeral will be held there on the following day at 10 a.m.

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