Elgin's Veteran of the Month

About the program

The Elgin Veteran of the Month program was established to honor our veterans, not only for their military service, but also for their community commitment. Elgin has a long lineage of supporting its veterans, and this is another way we are able to remind the community of those who give their today for our tomorrow.

The Elgin Veteran of the Month award program highlights and honors the work of area veterans whose contributions in service to our local community are truly above and beyond. Nominees are evaluated on the basis of their dedication, leadership, and impact in serving Elgin.

Award recipients are those whose efforts add to the powerful narrative of veterans as dedicated, lifelong public servants. It is from these efforts that all of Elgin stands to benefit. In contributing to this narrative through our local community, the Elgin Veteran of the Month recipients not only impact the lives of those they serve, but also the overall quality of life thought the city. 

One local veteran is recognized every month of the year. Each quarter, the three recognized veterans are presented with a customized color plaque by Mayor David Kaptain at a city council meeting. 

Elgin's Honored Veterans of the Month

To all of our Elgin veterans:

Whether you fought at Iwo Jima or Inchon, Bastogne or Baghdad, Khe Sanh or the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, you are part of an unbroken chain of men and women who have served our country and community with honor and distinction, with courage and commitment. 

America’s best days are still ahead. And Elgin’s best days are still ahead, too. 
We are a country and community that does what’s necessary for future generations to succeed.

 We thank you, our veterans, for making that possible. 

July 2014Jack Shales; United States Marines, 1951-54

Jack has more than sixty years of volunteer service in our community. There’s nothing that harvests a stronger feeling of empowerment than being of service to people in need. Jack has been of service everywhere in Elgin, to people of every color, creed and ethnicity.
He has the longest consecutive volunteer record in the history of the United Way of Elgin. In addition, Jack has served on the board of directors for Judson University, the Elgin Community College Foundation, the U-46 Educational Foundation and the Salvation Army. He chaired the Elgin Riverfront Action Committee. He and his wife Marlene have supported the Elgin Area Chamber of Commerce, the Boys and Girls Club of Elgin, the Community Crisis Center, the Gail Borden Public Library Foundation, the YWCA of Elgin, the YMCA of Elgin and PADS of Elgin, among many others. Jack, a Korean War veteran, is our first Elgin Veteran of the Month. He has always worked for a cause, not for applause. And his life has become a message to Elgin - a message of inspiration, a message imbued in the knowledge that the time is always right to do what is right.

August 2014: Carl Menconi; United States Army, 1951-53

The greatest sacrifices veterans have made for their country do not just happen on the battlefield. Some sacrifices happen quietly, without much fanfare, without much recognition. They happen in small homes, large homes, kitchens and living rooms. But no matter where they happen, no matter where they start, these sacrifices spark a renewed sense of obligation, a renewed sense of duty, a renewed season of service. From community to community, the sacrifice of time is an extraordinarily important thing, some say as important as the bravery shown during war, and, oftentimes, just as difficult. In Elgin, these sacrifices are what help make our veterans something special.Anyone who has ever met Carl Menconi knows just how special he is. Carl and his wife Rose live in Edgewater, on the city’s southwest side. When the Korean War veteran and retired Chicago police detective moved to Elgin, he saw that there was no American flag flying from the entrance of the upscale community he had just moved to. That changed. That changed quickly. Carl helped secure funding for a flag and flagpole. The dedication of that flag included a 21-gun salute by members of Elgin American Legion Post 57. Members of Elgin VFW Post 1307 raised the flag for the first time.
In addition to the flag installation, Carl also helped energize a veterans group out in Edgewater. In 2007, there were only six members in the group. Today there are more than a hundred. Among other things, the group travels to a local veteran’s hospital to deliver donated clothing and visit with patients there.   
No act of kindness, no matter how seemingly insignificant at the time, is ever wasted. Carl recently coordinated a fundraiser at a local Sam’s Club. The one-day event raised $1,300 for area  veterans.
Carl also is involved with Warrior Wishes, a not-for-profit group that brings wounded military personnel to all National Football League stadiums. Carl also works with Toys for Tots.If it’s true that happiness doesn’t result from what we get, but from what we give, Carl’s smile should be switched on all the time—morning, noon and night. He has given that much. 

September 2014Chin Keomuongchanh; United States Navy, 1981-2001

Centuries from now, when history looks back upon the records of our age, our country and our community, it will be written that once there was a great nation of free people who sent their very best young men and women out to serve on the frontiers of freedom in uniform. They went to defend their country and its ideals, giving up the comforts and conveniences of home. Too many never returned to their families, but none who served ever sacrificed in vain. As much as anyone you’ll ever meet, Chin understands the importance of service. In his military service, Chin carries forward a tradition of both immigrants and Asian-Americans who are making a difference in ever expanding roles over the decades. In Elgin, he is a wonderful example of what our local veterans bring back to the community in terms of a lifelong commitment to serving others.
Since his discharge from the United States Navy, Chin has continued to serve through a wide variety of roles, organizational memberships and community activities, including the spearheading of an extensive advocacy effort to gain recognition for the Laotian veterans who fought and died alongside U.S. Armed Forces during the Vietnam War. His efforts helped inspire state and local lawmakers to proclaim July 19th as Lao American Veterans Day in Illinois. He has also been very active in Elgin and in the Laotian-American community, including serving on the board of directors as a Civic Engagement Program Director for the Lao American Organization of Elgin and helping launch a number of community health projects to increase awareness and promote prevention strategies for cancer, hepatitis and other ailments.
Both overseas and at home in Elgin, Chin has led a life of great consequence, doing his part to keep the torch of liberty burning in the oldest democracy on Earth. He has brought a precious and irreplaceable gift to our community. And Elgin remains eternally grateful.

October 2014: Donald J. Sleeman; United States Army, 1951-1953

Donald SleemanDon Sleeman's Elgin is much more than just a city in Northern Illinois. His Elgin is a place of principle. His Elgin is a place of patriotism. Don is a United States Army Veteran. He has been an extraordinary active volunteer since his honorable discharge, which dates back some sixty years. Sixty years of volunteering in the community. Sixty years of volunteering at our local American Legion, where Don has done everything and been everything, including three terms as post commander. Don has chaired and served 
on too many committees to count. He has, in addition, volunteered with organization after organization. And while those totals would certainly be impressive, Don doesn’t need nor has ever asked for an accounting of his community value. It is embedded in who he is as a person. People who know Don will tell you—without hesitation or reservation—that he has always stood for integrity. He honors his commitments, and he’s the same person in public as he is in private.
Don doesn’t volunteer out of ego. He volunteers out of allegiance. It’s his own personal pledge of allegiance. He is a member of the American Legion Honor Guard and the American Legion Funeral Detail.
We give thanks Don Sleeman, to all our local veterans, to all veterans. Every day they give us the gift of a life that we can enjoy, and every night they have watched and continue to watch over us. They are soldiers, sailors, Marines and other military personnel. They are angels, guardians, friends and community members—brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers, forming a family that stretches back to the beginning of our country. We need to take time tonight and every night before bed … we need to say a prayer that God will watch over those who watch over us, and thank them for their sacrifices, on and off the battlefield. Pray that they have a peaceful night, and will be home soon with their families—families that have always shared their burden. Without them we would not have this or any other secure moment. 

November 2014: Tricia L. Dieringer; U.S. Army, 1972-1986; National Guard, 1996-2012

Tricia DieringerServing her country was a life-changing experience. It was those years that reinforced the importance of commitment, dedication, discipline and honor for Tricia Dieringer, who enlisted in the United States Army during the Vietnam War. She has a legacy to be extremely proud of.
 Like Don Sleeman, Tricia grew up right here in Elgin. As a little girl, she would attend every Elgin parade with her father. At one of those parades—a 4th of July parade—she pointed to a group of veterans marching with the American Legion, telling her dad that she was going to be “part of that” someday. Well, she has been part of it ... a big part of it.
Tricia has served the American Legion as Sergeant at Arms, Finance Officer, Medical Officer, Assistant Department Officer, Post Commander, Kane County Commander and 11th District Commander. And she served 16 years with the Elgin Patriotic Memorial Association. 
She also has volunteered at the Church of the Redeemer’s Soup Kitchen, PADS and the Salvation Army. She has assisted in many, many Veteran’s Day Programs, as well as many community events throughout the Fox Valley. Tricia means a great deal to a great many people. And she means a great deal to Elgin.
In certain circles, it has become commonplace to say that we live in a time when it has never been more tempting or accepted to pursue narrow self-interest and personal ambition. Our local veterans remind us that there are few things that are more fundamentally American than doing what we can to make a positive difference in the lives of others. 
Tricia Dieringer has been doing just that for decades. And that’s why Tricia and other veterans like her will always represent the best our country has to offer.

December 2014: Wayde A. Smith; United States Marine Corps, 2005-2011

Wayde SmithFirefighter Wayde Smith was nominated for the Elgin Veteran of the Month by John Fahy, our city’s fire chief. Wayde puts principles before privilege, Chief Fahy said. And he always has. He did it as a sergeant in the United States Marines. And he does it on a day-to-day basis in our community. In his nomination, Chief Fahy said that Wayde, who served in Iraq, spearheaded an are initiative that directed homeless and at-risk veterans to a VA Community Outreach Clinic. Among other things, not too terribly long ago, after Elgin was struck by strong storm, Wayde, who was then off duty, came in on his own time and helped the fire department respond to the more than 200 calls that they had in just a 12-hour period of time. Chief Fahy wrote, “As a firefighter, a citizen and a veteran, Wayde Smith stands for what’s best in Elgin.”
The legacy of our local veterans is the memory of a great name and the inheritance of a great example. Wayde Smith exemplifies both. Like generations of veterans before him, he put his own future on hold to defend our freedom. We remain strengthened as a city by the courage imbued in military service. We remain heartened by its valor. And we continue to stand up for the ideals for which our veterans have lived and died. 

January 2015: Lowell "Whitey" Reiser; United States Army, 1948-1953
Lowell Reiser

We too often take for granted the things that most deserve our gratitude. Lowell Reiser has long been a constant in Elgin—a constant force for good. Lowell served in the United States Army during the Korean War. The ultimate measure of a person is not where he or she stands in times of comfort and convenience, but where he or she stands in times of challenge and concern. Lowell Reiser stood up for his country during the Korean War. And he has stood up for Elgin in the more than six decades since.  Lowell has helped seniors throughout the area, taking them to doctor, dental and physical therapy appointments, among other things. He visits homebound veterans. He helps out at the Elgin Soup Kitchen. He picks up clothes and furniture for Transitional Living Services, a center for veterans—especially younger veterans—having a tough time transitioning back to civilian life. Christmas is a special time in the Reiser household. Lowell and his wife make holiday treats for veterans in need. Lowell has helped organize many, many Veterans Day programs. He participates in funeral services for deceased veterans. He also works with local schools in coordinating and helping judge their Voice of Democracy Scholarship applications. And each year, he helps out on Memorial Day, placing American flags at the gravesites of deceased veterans at eight area cemeteries. Lowell is a member of the Elgin Model T Club. The club regularly visits older adult facilities and nursing homes. The seniors at those places love these visits, which remind them of old friends and younger days. For them, the vintage cars are much more than antiques; they are the facts of an earlier life. 
When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully, everyone is blessed. 
Elgin has been blessed by its veterans; blessed by men and women like Lowell Reiser.

February 2015: Diane Ahrens, United States Marine Corps, 1978-1980

Diane AhrensDiane Ahrens is the “sweetest” United States Marine you’ll ever meet. She and her husband Roger, also a Marine, own Piece-A-Cake Bakery, a local landmark, at least it is to those who love the very best bakery goods. There’s an old saying about money not being able to buy happiness. Well, whomever said that has obviously never been to a really good bakery. Diane served as a military police officer in the late 1970s. We meet a lot of people as we go through life. We meet some people who’ve spent an entire lifetime wondering if they’ve made a difference in the world. Marines never seem to have that problem. Diane, in or out of the Marines, should never question the extraordinarily positive difference she’s made in the world. About a decade ago, she started a program called “Operation Sweet Tooth,” which sends her gourmet cookie care packages to the troops who have been deployed. The cost to bake and ship one care package is about $25. Diane doesn’t ask parents or loved ones for the money. To her, making a difference is much more important than making a buck. She just sends the care packages out on her own. Diane received multiple nominations for the Elgin Veteran of the Month award. One came from United States Marine Staff Sergeant Freddy Garcia. Another came from Jody Reiter, whose son is a Marine. Jody said that community, the kind of community Diane believes in, is not an accumulation of what we get, but of what we give. Diane has given in abundance. She serves on the Advisory Board for the Salvation Army of Elgin. She has, in addition, worked with homeless veterans, with Wounded Warriors and with the Wounded Heroes Foundation. She is auxiliary president of her local VFW. If you want the recipe for caring and compassion, stop at Piece-A-Cake bakery and get it from Diane Ahrens. She understands that it’s not always how much we give that counts. It’s how much care and compassion we put into the giving. Diane has always given from the heart, which stays in and is carried in the hearts of others. 

March 2015: Ernie Broadnax, United States Marine Corps, 1955-1966

Ernie Broadnax

Lifelong resident Ernie Broadnax is the thread that connects Elgin’s history to the very best of what we have in our city today. Ernie’s great-great grandmother, Ann Bosley, was a runaway slave, an escaped slave, who came to Elgin in 1862.
Ernie spent more than a decade in the United States Marine Corps. And he continued serving long after his military career ended in 1966. He continues serving today, service that has carried him through the loss of friends, like Elgin City Councilman Bob Gilliam, and family members, like his younger brother Richard, also a Marine, who was killed in a car crash on Rt. 25 … service that has carried him through his ongoing battle with cancer. It’s a personal privilege to know Ernie Broadnax. And it’s a blessing to call him a friend. 
If you talk to Ernie for any length of time, you’ll come to appreciate the scope and significance of his community service.
Ernie will tell you that people need to do more than belong … they need to participate.
They need to do more than care … they need to help.
They need to do more than believe … they need to contribute.
They need to do more than be fair … they need to be kind.
They need to do more than forgive … they need to forget.
They need to do more than dream … they need to deliver.
Ernie is a longtime member of New Hope Baptist Church, which was the first African-American church on Elgin’s west side. Ernie is a man of faith, a man of passion and principle, someone who believes that he has one life and one chance to make it count for something. It’s this daily devotion that pushes him to do whatever he can, wherever he can, whenever he can, and for as long as he can with whatever he has to try to make Elgin an even better place. Ernie is an Elgin Image Award winner, an Elgin Mayor’s Award winner and an Elgin Community College Lasting Impact Award winner. In a lifetime of firsts, he was the first African-American basketball player at Elgin Community College and the coordinator of the first Black History Trolley Car Tour of Elgin. Ernie spent a large part of his post-military career working as a recreation leader for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, an agency that named him Illinois Childcare Worker of the Year in the1990s.
Ernie has been in the news a great deal over the past month or so. It was his dream that inspired Grindstone Production’s new documentary film, “Project 2-3-1: Two Boxcars, Three Blocks, One City,” which traces the history of African Americans in Elgin. The film opened to rave reviews at Elgin Community College and the Gail Borden Public Library. Along with so many other things, the film will be part of Ernie’s everlasting legacy in Elgin. We would like to add the Elgin Veteran of the Month Award for March 2015 to that long, long list.

April 2015: Officer Eric Echevarria, United States Marine Corps, 1993-97

Eric EElgin Police Officer Eric Echevarria, who was promoted to police sergeant just this year, 2015, is a representative of the American Dream, which, in the end, is neither a sprint nor a marathon. It’s a relay, with family members passing on the fruits of their labor to the next generation.  When Sergeant Echevarria’s parents came to Elgin from Puerto Rico, they worked for minimum wage. Eric’s father started out as a janitor. His mother got a job at a fast food restaurant. They knew the value of hard work. And they knew the value of education.
Eric’s father became a supervisor for the Illinois Department of Human Services. His mother still teaches at School District U-46. Eric joined the United States Marines after graduating from Elgin High School.  He’s proud of his military service. He’s proud of his country. He’s proud of his community. Eric has been with the Elgin Police Department since 1999. He was an Elgin ROPE Officer for nearly a decade, providing a residential police presence in otherwise challenged neighborhoods. Eric has received numerous awards throughout his career. He was the American Legion Police Officer of the Year in 2004. In 2009, he was the Community Crisis Center’s Partner in Peace recipient. He now writes a monthly column for Reflejos, having been named as a liaison between the Elgin Police Department and the bilingual newspaper. His column appears in both English and Spanish. Those columns, his columns, serve as another community connector between the police department and area residents.
Eric was nominated for Elgin Veteran of the Month by Elgin City Councilwoman Rose Martinez. The nomination was seconded by Elgin Police Chief Jeff Swoboda, who said that “Sergeant Echevarria is always busy, always motivated to do what’s best for the community.” And so he is …  As a country and community, we owe all our veterans, Eric included, a debt of gratitude we can never fully repay.  Elgin Police Sergeant Eric Echevarria is our Elgin Veteran of the Month for April, 2015.

May 2015: Johnny Vargas, United States Army, 1951-53 

Johnny VargasThe sound of music for Johnny Vargas has always been a salute to America. It is a tune that its citizens—regardless of race, gender or ethnicity—must sing together. Johnny Vargas has been playing the trumpet for more than seven decades, since starting high school. For many, many years, he played “Taps” at area cemeteries, including Bluff City Cemetery, where the City of Elgin holds its annual Memorial Day service. He has played “Taps” at local funerals for veterans. He has played “Taps” at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington. D.C.
Johnny himself is a Korean War veteran, having spent eleven months in combat there. He served with the United States Army and was involved in five major engagements, including action at Bloody Ridge, which saw more than 17,000 casualties. Johnny was awarded a Purple Heart in Korea. His own heart has given much to Elgin. He and his wife Mary are active members of at least two community groups: ABODE—Admirers of Beautiful Old Dwellings of Elgin and NENA—the Northeast Neighborhood Association of Elgin. And, yes, he still plays the trumpet, appearing with Les Pace and the Pacemakers each month at the Elgin VFW. And he regularly volunteers to play at the Anne Kiley Center, which serves developmentally disabled adults, his son Robert among them.
Johnny also was part of the Elgin American Legion Color Guard. And he has long been a regular visitor at local elementary schools, speaking to young students about the importance of patriotism, which, to Johnny, is much more than a lesson in geography. Patriotism is the constant striving toward the principles and ideals on which this country was founded.
Johnny’s parents came from Mexico. He was one of eleven children. They grew up along Taylor Street in Chicago.
“We never got a second helping at the dinner table,” Johnny said. “We didn’t have much of anything, including food.”
He may not have had much growing up, but he has given a full measure of devotion to his country and community.
Johnny’s willingness to sacrifice for both has earned him our lasting gratitude.
He is personally aware of the amount of blood spilled, the volume of tears shed, the degree of pain and anguish endured, the number of courageous men and women lost in battle so that we as citizens are able to live under an American umbrella of freedom. Johnny Vargas is our Elgin Veteran of the Month for May, 2015.

June 2015: Melvin Copeland, United States Army, 1943-45

Melvin CopelandFive minutes into meeting Mel Copeland, you know that he is someone special—a good guy, a gentleman who has always taken pride in what he does. But not the type of arrogant pride that sometimes seems so prevalent today. Mel Copeland’s pride is in caring—fiercely caring—about other people. Mel is a World War II veteran, having served in the United States Army in Europe. He enlisted at age 16.  It was obviously a different world back then—and different doesn’t always mean better. Mel’s best friend in parachute school was white. When that best friend was critically injured in a training jump, Mel ran to the army medics who had arrived on the scene. His best friend had lost a great deal of blood. Just coincidentally, he and his best friend had the same blood type. But there skin color was different. The army medics refused Mel’s blood. Even at an early age, Mel knew that prejudice is nothing more than the handmaiden of ignorance.  Throughout his adult life, Mel confronted ignorance with knowledge, with tolerance and with the outstretched hand of generosity.  He spent more than 50 years as a social worker. He was the first-ever African-American social worker in School District U-46. And he also served as a clinical therapist for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. At age 77, he was named Social Worker of the Year by the Illinois Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. During his time in Elgin, Mel began a close friendship with Elgin City Councilman Bob Gilliam. In the 1960s, Mel headed up the local branch of the NAACP. He advocated the importance of education and non-violence. He said that we should judge people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. It was a lesson learned from his mentor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with whom Mel was closely acquainted in the early 1960s. “He was the most charismatic man I’d ever met,” Mel said of Dr. King. Mel, now in his 90s, remains active in the community. He’s part of a veterans group at Del Webb Edgewater in Elgin. And he’s a senior liaison for Honor Flight Chicago. When we count our blessing in Elgin, let’s count Mel Copeland at least twice. Treasure him … Treasure all our veterans. 
Melvin Copeland is our Elgin Veteran of the Month for June, 2015.

Nomination Guidelines
  • The nominee must work, reside, or have resided in Elgin and must have received an honorable discharge from the United States Military
  • Honorees will be recognized for significant public service contributions made at the local level, including significant contributions in volunteer work in support of veterans and/or the military.
  • In addition to information requested on the nomination form, please provide a brief written summary of the nominee's achievements; to include: (a) a description of significant accomplishments, including appropriate dates, (b) information concerning military service, and, (c) a list of military awards and decorations received by the nominee.
  • Nominations will be evaluated on the scope and impact of a nominee's achievements and the extent to which his/her efforts benefit and provide inspiration to the community and to other veterans. Please document significant achievements and accomplishment, especially those made after the nominee's military service.
  • Nominations will be reviewed and the recipients selected by the Elgin Veteran of the Month Committee. Nominations are accepted at all times throughout the year and remain valid for 12 months.

How to Nominate a Veteran

Print & complete a Nomination Form.
Send completed nomination form and additional information requested to:

Elgin Veteran of the Month
City of Elgin
150 Dexter Ct. 
Elgin, IL 60120

For additional information, contact: George Rawlinson 

Email:  ; Phone: 847-902-3664

Elgin Veteran of the Month Committee

Members: Steve Thoren, Ron Edelmann, James Harvey, Rose Martinez, Linda Fagan & George Rawlinson