A collection of local leaders and advocates dedicates to making a difference.
Each year, our editorial board of directors selects influential leaders, educators, philanthropists and advocates over 50 years of age who have influenced their communities in Northwest Indiana. The people profiled in this issue of Retirement Living have touched the region through their leadership, philanthropy, entrepreneurship and dedication to their careers. We present to you the most influential and intriguing people over 50 for 2016.
JACK ALLEN travels the world to make and restore stained-glass pieces. He also teaches classes about the artistry of stained glass from his residence in an effort to inspire others to take up the dying art. Allen is the former owner of The Vintage Rose in La Porte, a store he closed in 2014.
His great-grandfather, George Wood Allen, came to La Porte in the 1890s and designed buildings, including churches and chapels, as well as their stained glass windows.
“As I grew up, the beauty of these windows and the fact that my great-grandfather had designed them always impressed me, and I fell in love with stained glass,” Allen says. “But being busy with all the things my life contained, I never had the time to do much but admire and dabble in small pieces. Since I’ve retired, I’m busier than I ever was while gainfully employed.”
Allen has encountered several stained glass pieces that are in need of a method of repair or restoration that is no longer known. “I teach classes for only one reason: to keep the art alive as long as possible,” he says. “Most stained glass people like me are gone.”
Woman-owned business and advocacy
KATHY CORTOPASSI graduated from MacCormac Junior College in Chicago with an associate’s degree in court reporting. She worked as a freelance court reporter in Chicago for 10 years. Kathy is now president of Voice to Print Captioning LLC in Crown Point and Momentum Realtime and holds several national certifications.
Her life changed forever the day she learned her daughter, Abbie, was deaf. Abbie, who had always been an obedient child, didn’t respond when her parents called to her. “We were shocked. The school hadn’t caught it, pediatricians over the years hadn’t caught it, nor had we,” she says. Tubes inserted in her ears drained fluid and helped her regain much of her hearing, but Abbie did not fully recover. What happened to her daughter prompted Cortopassi to learn a new career: captioning and translation.
Today Cortopassi serves people with hearing loss, including those who are losing their hearing because of illness, medication, accidents, heredity or aging, and she helps those in the deaf community as a Communication Access Real Time Transcription provider. She captioned one of the Presidential debates this fall as well as the Democratic and Republican national conventions. She captions for colleges, theaters and companies worldwide. But her favorite is captioning church services.
“This is not just a job to me, it is a mission,” Cortopassi says. “I love people. I love helping people. And I care. I understand hearing loss and I am a true disability advocate.”
DR. BARBARA EASON-WATKINS, superintendent of Michigan City Area Schools, started as a premed major at the University of Michigan. But the Detroit native decided to major in education after spending the summer of 1972 as a teacher’s assistant at a school for disturbed children. She received a bachelor’s degree with honors in elementary education from the University of Michigan; a master’s degree in educational administration and supervision from Chicago State University; and a doctorate in education from Loyola University in Chicago.
Eason-Watkins served as chief education officer of the Chicago Public Schools from 2001 to 2010 before moving to the Michigan City school district, where she has focused on strengthening the instructional core and expanding career and technology education opportunities. She has transformed the district’s middle schools to offer curricula centered on STEM, environmental science and the arts. Eason-Watkins works collaboratively with higher education, business and industry partners to realign programs to support students and to meet 21st century workforce needs.
RICHARD GARZA SR. is owner of the oldest Mexican food manufacturing company in the United States, located in Valparaiso. His father, V.F. Garza, founded El Popular in 1927. Today, the company manufactures the El Popular Chorizo brand Mexican sausage in Valparaiso and ships it from a distribution center in East Chicago to more than 32 states. The popular sausage is available in more than 500 Walmart stores and at many major food retailers.
Garza, 86, is a Korean War veteran and currently serves as treasurer of Chapter 3 of the Korean War Veterans Association. El Popular Inc. was named to the Indiana Companies to Watch in 2011 and 2016. Garza was named Businessman of the Year by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in 1992. He is married to wife, Connie, and the couple has four children, Richard Jr., Edward, Michael and Rosanne.
Recreation and outdoors
MILAN KRUSZYNSKI has guided the Hammond Port Authority for the past 12 years of his 33-year career with the City of Hammond, showing his commitment and dedication to public service. “We welcome all slip holders, golfers, concert goers, fishermen, windsurfers and bikers and hikers to our Northwest Indiana stay-cation facilities and waters,” he says.
Kruszynski holds the responsibility of guiding the Port’s Facilities-Hammond Marina, Lost Marsh Golf Course & Recreation Area, Wolf Lake Memorial Park (pavilion stage, splash pad and conservatory), Forsythe Park and the miles of bike trails at the 3 Hammond Lakes Area along Lake Michigan, over Wolf Lake and around George Lake. Recent surveys indicate that these safe, family-friendly locations have been named top facilities to visit in their respective categories.
Kruszynski has served on or volunteered with numerous local boards and service organizations, including the Whiting Knights of Columbus, Whiting Robertsdale Chamber of Commerce, and St. John the Baptist Catholic Church Finance Council, and he has served as an advisor to many college-bound students.
Technology and Innovation
DR. PETER KESLING is a La Porte native who developed the Tip Edge Orthodontic Appliance and holds more than 50 patents related to orthodontic products. He was inducted as a fellow in the Society of Innovators of Northwest Indiana. Kesling is retired, but remains a consultant for orthodontic diagnosis and treatment planning.
Dr. Kesling was an associate clinical professor of orthodontics at Saint Louis University for more than 40 years and is a diplomate of the American Board of Orthodontics. He has written numerous articles and several orthodontic textbooks that have been translated into four languages. Kesling and his wife, Charlene, have loaned 30 vintage automobiles they have collected over the years to the La Porte County Historical Society.
KONNIE KUIPER is the former owner of Kuiper Funeral Home in Highland and is a current member of the Highland Town Council. He established an auto museum in Griffith, which contains horse-drawn carriages and antique automobiles that he opens to the public by request.
“People are important to me and young people are our future,” Kuiper told the Northwest Indiana Times in 2007. “If I can spend 30 years or a lifetime and make a difference in the life of one person it’s super; two is profound.”
Kuiper has served on the Highland Public School Board, Highland Christian School Board and Illiana Christian School Board. He is a U.S. Army veteran and a graduate of Illiana Christian High School class of 1957 and of Worsham College of Mortuary Science.
Chain store owner
KOSTAS “GUS” OLYMPIDIS is president and CEO of Family Express Corp., based in Valparaiso. He started in the convenience store industry at age 21 and has never looked back. He opened his first convenience store in 1975. Today, Family Express is a 65-store chain with all locations in Indiana. Family Express’ Valparaiso headquarters is also a learning center that includes a full-sized Family Express training store to train employees and test new products.
Family Express won the 2015 Convenience Store Chain of the Year award. Olympidis received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence in 2012 from the Indiana Small Business Development Center. And he received the Innovation Fellow Award in 2012 from Ivy Tech’s Society of Innovators of Northwest Indiana.
Business owner and philanthropist
FRED HALPERN began working in the jewelry business in 1959. He owned and operated Albert’s Diamond Jewelers in Schererville until 2010, when he named his son Josh as president. He wanted to have more time to take care of his wife, who has multiple sclerosis. Albert’s Diamond Jewelers raises money–more than $750,000 to date–for MS during an annual auction. Halpern has also raised money for such causes and charities as the American Cancer Society, Parkinson’s Foundation, The Humane Society and the American Heart Association.
“I want to change the world one person at a time,” Halpern said in a 2014 article in the Northwest Indiana Times. “The truth is, people who are givers have more fun and enjoy life more than takers. And I’m always going to be a giver.”
TOM SOURLIS is chairman and founder of Mortar Net Solutions in Burns Harbor, an environmentally focused company. He holds a patent on his invention, Mortar Net, that is widely used to solve water seepage problems in masonry buildings. Sourlis learned about masonry restoration from his father, and he took over the family tuck-pointing business in 1972.
Sourlis has accumulated a list of professional awards, most recently receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Northwest Indiana Small Business Development Center’s annual E-Day event. He’s been named to the Times Business Hall of Fame and a fellow of the Society of Innovators of Northwest Indiana.
As he eases into retirement, Sourlis enjoys fishing, painting, weaving, making stained glass and coaching rugby. Acclaimed for his philanthropy, Sourlis has assisted a long list of nonprofits and foundations in the region and received the Northwest Indiana chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals Individual Philanthropist Award in 2009. He was recognized as South Shore Arts Patron of the Year in 2011.
These Most Influential individuals exude passion for their work and routinely go above and beyond what is expected of them for the greater good of those around them. They are benevolent. They work tirelessly to make our communities a better place. They are, in a word, inspiring.