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Mr. Vondrak

Mr. Vondrak

A ‘businessman with a heart’

Colleagues pay tribute to Jim Vondrak

By Joan Hadac

In a business world frequently competitive to the point of being harsh and even cruel, James C. “Jim” Vondrak stood out as a businessman with a heart.

The scion of a Southwest Side newspaper family, Mr. Vondrak owned and operated a chain of community newspapers led by the Southwest News-Herald, from 1987 to 2013. He died Oct. 17 at age 79.

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Mr. Vondrak

A Southwest Side native, Mr. Vondrak learned the newspaper business largely from his parents, the late Edward and Daisy Vondrak, who founded the Southwest News-Herald in 1945 by combining two weekly papers: the Southwest News and the Gage Park Herald.

As a boy, he started with the most basic tasks around the newspaper office at 5845 S. Kedzie and even worked his own newspaper route near 66th and Whipple. Over time and as he grew older, he worked his way up until he eventually knew how to handle virtually any job at the paper.

He was a 1960 graduate of Harper High School and later served in the U.S. Army before returning to the family business.

When his parents retired in 1987, he purchased the chain of papers. The News-Herald was its flagship publication, and the group of weeklies at that time included the Southwest Courier, a newspaper serving several southwest suburbs; and three shopper publications in the city: the Southwest Shopper, Southwest Beacon and the Clear-Ridge Reporter.

In 2013, he and a business partner sold the chain to its current owner, the Southwest Community News Group.

“Jim was a gentleman in the truest sense of the word: kind, loyal to family and devoted to community,” said Mark Hornung, chief operating officer of Southwest Regional Publishing Co., parent of the Southwest Community News Group. “It has been an honor to sustain the legacy of Jim and his legendary father by keeping alive the Greater Southwest News-Herald and Clear-Ridge Reporter & NewsHound under extremely difficult circumstances.”

Former Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan said Mr. Vondrak was “an institution on the Southwest Side of Chicago, and he will be sorely missed. As co-publisher of the city and suburban editions of the News-Herald and Clear-Ridge Reporter, Jim understood not just the community and the people, but the energy and pulse of the local neighborhoods. Jim brought people the news and so much more – support, understanding and a voice to those who often could not share their own. His impact on the local community will be felt for years to come. My thoughts and prayers are with Jim and his loved ones at this difficult time.”

United Business Association of Midway founder Anita Cummings saw Mr. Vondrak as much more than the former publisher of “an iconic neighborhood newspaper.”

“Jim Vondrak maintained a special bond with our southwest communities,” she said. “The result was a comprehensive reporting of all the important news affecting the many neighborhoods he served. His dedication to his profession is not easily duplicated in today’s world of journalism.”

Mr. Vondrak was “truly a businessman with a heart,” added current GSWNH editor Tim Hadac, who was the newspaper chain’s editor in 1987. “He was a champion of the common man and woman, and his newspapers always reflected that. He advised other business owners to get involved in their customers’ communities, and he led by example—playing an active role in local chambers of commerce and supporting local charitable groups, especially Sertoma and the West Communities YMCA.”

Mr. Vondrak also was an exceptional boss, Hadac added.

“He was adept at analyzing the skill sets of his staff,” he recalled. “He had a knack of putting the right people in the right positions, and he had the confidence to step back and let them do what they do best.”

While it was always clear he was the man in charge, he fostered “a unique air of collegiality with his employees,” Hadac added. “One day, I think he sensed his reporters were having a kind of collective writer’s block. So he walked over to our side of the office, piled several of us into his car and drove over to a soccer field at the south end of Marquette Park, where he pulled out a full-size, wooden boomerang and proceeded to teach us how to throw it correctly. It was all a bit crazy, and we shared a lot of laughter for an hour or so—but you know, it worked. I went back to the office and worked full tilt on the stories I was writing.”

Mr. Vondrak is survived by his wife, Carmen (nee Dunham); sons, James (Dana) Vondrak, Thomas (Linda) Vondrak and Kenneth (Michelle) Vondrak; grandchildren, Dakota, Hunter, Jenna (Olivia) Cheyeene and Shaylee; and great-granddaughter, Aubrey; his brother, Edward (Mary Alice) Vondrak; two nieces and a nephew.

Visitation will be 4 to 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 22 at Hills Funeral Home, Ltd., 10201 S. Roberts Road, Palos Hills. Funeral is Saturday, with a viewing at 10 a.m. at Peace Memorial Church, 10300 W. 131st St., Palos Park, until time of service at 11 a.m. Interment with military honors will occur at Chapel Hill Garden South Cemetery, 11333 S. Central, Oak Lawn. Call (708) 598-5880 or visit hillsfh.com for details.

In addition to flowers, memorial donations are welcomed in Mr. Vondrak’s memory to Hickory Hills Sertoma.

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