Gary Lee Gearhart, 73, of La Salle, Attorney, Philanthropist, and unflagging champion of great causes, passed away unexpectedly on the morning of December, 1, 2020.
It would be impossible to catalog the achievements of this man, and the incredible good he did in his 73 years as we struggle with the pain of losing someone so special. Suffice it to say, Gary Gearhart left this world a better place than he found it. We hope this obituary will give you a glimpse of the wonderful person he was.
Gary was born August 12, 1947, the second child of Olin LeMoine Gearhart, and Alice Viola (Pearson) Gearhart, both proud veterans of World War II, who owned and operated the Gearhart Funeral Home in La Salle for more than 50 years.
This year, Gary celebrated 50 years of marriage with his beloved wife, Lynn (Hoffmann) Gearhart, whom he married June 4, 1970, at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington D.C. They had three children, Tara Lynn (Charles) Gruber, Alissa L. Gearhart-Vargo (Nicolas), and Reagan (Kristie Bluemer) Gearhart, but the Gearhart family extended to include many wonderful friends, new and old. Gary Gearhart never met a stranger, and made it his mission to spread joy, laughter, and provide a helping hand to anyone in need.
Gary attended public grade schools in La Salle, where he began his lifelong of habit of making friends and making waves, including the time he set his desk on fire to impress a little red haired girl in the third grade. During middle school, the school district insisted on placing Gary with children four years his senior for contact sports, because he was so much taller and bigger than the other children his age. This surely made him a better player, put also put an inordinate amount of wear and tear on his developing joints and bones, which contributed to physical challenges he experienced in life.
Gary attended L-P, where he was first chair Trumpet, and member of the Marching Band under the legendary Chris Izzo. Gary was offered numerous scholarships to college for his musical abilities, and an invitation to the prestigious McDonalds Marching Band. He chose to attend Illinois Wesleyan University, instead, where he graduated in with B.A. in his double major of politics and pre-law. He is remembered there fondly by his nickname, “Senator,” and as that big guy who picked up and flipped a sofa while three people were sitting upon it after the Bears lost a particularly important game.
Gary graduated from Georgetown Law School in Washington D.C., where he was Editor of the prestigious Criminal Law Review in his second and third years. After graduation, Gary served as Georgetown’s Midwestern recruiter and interviewer for the school for more than 30 years, advising the school on the suitability of Midwestern candidates desiring admission to the school’s undergraduate and graduate programs.
Gary was always a hard worker, employed at his parent’s funeral home and ambulance service lifting people and caskets from the age of 8, and walked two daily paper routes in La Salle to fund his jones for Baseball cards and sweets from Pierson’s bakery on 8th Street in La Salle. Gary took up the trumpet so he could play Taps at the funerals of area veteran (and because his Mother took away his drum kit after an exuberant inaugural practice session). He taught himself to play the flugelhorn in his 50’s just for fun.
Gary put himself through school with a variety of jobs, including working as a furniture repairman, a laborer for the City of La Salle, an oiler for the laborer’s union, and public defender at a busy D.C. bail agency, as well as his parent’s funeral home. Hustling ping pong provided ample pizza money, and the odd championship title from Austria to St. Croix.
While living in D.C., Gary worked on Capitol Hill for Senator Everett Dirksen. Gary also worked for President Richard Nixon, as a founding member of Youth for Nixon, with his “brother from another mother” Ray Jast. Gary was working at the White House when he first met world boxing heavyweight champ, Joe Louis, who was First Lady Pat Nixon’s personal close protection body guard.
Gary’s interests were numerous and varied because he had such a zest for living, and he tried to make the most of every minute on this earth. He collected sports memorabilia, fine art, antiques, swords, art glass, but most to him were his collection of great friends and wonderful stories wherever he went in life.
Gary was an outspoken and dedicated to supporting Conservative political causes and candidates that supported business owners, gun rights, freedom of religion and speech, and always supported law enforcement and veterans. He named his only son, Reagan, after President Reagan. On certain rare occasions, Gary assisted political candidates on the Democratic ticket who were better suited to the office at issue, because Gary always believed doing right was more important than ‘going with the flow.’
Gary was sworn into the practice of law in 1972. Gary clerked for Chief Justice Howard C. Ryan of the Illinois Supreme Court, and served as City Attorney for La Salle under Mayor Jack Foley. Gary co-founded Gearhart & Zandecki with his friend Thomas Zandecki, and the pair had a great time practicing law, and told people they were also professional wrestling team, the Bone Brothers. When Tom moved out of the area, Gary opened a solo law practice, Gary L. Gearhart & Associates, taking over the Gearhart Funeral Home building on 5th Street, which allowed his parents to be Florida snowbirds. The practice was re-christened the Gearhart Law Office after 2004, when his daughter, Alissa, became followed in his footsteps in becoming a lawyer. After Chief Justice Ryan retired from the bench, Gary brokered a deal to have Justice Ryan become a part of the prestigious law firm of Peterson & Ross, while working out of Gary’s law physically office on 5th Street in La Salle. Gary and Howard were tickled by the letterhead of that internationally known firm reflecting offices in London, Paris, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and La Salle, Illinois.
Gary did much more than just helping clients with their legal work. He became a local resource center for people in need, helping people find jobs, reconnect with their faith, obtaining job training and admission to college. He helped untold numbers of local kids succeed with quiet donations of money, food, band instruments, travel opportunities and other support throughout his life.
Sports were one of Gary’s biggest passions. Gary followed sports of every type, foreign and domestic throughout his life, and had a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of sports. Gary also enjoyed playing baseball, basketball, and football, throughout his entire academic career, and joined the KiJohns bar baseball team upon his return from Washington D.C. Gary particularly loved the Dodgers, and was very proud of his work with the 65 Roses, the Dodger charity organization, and his enduring friendship with Orel Herschiser and Tommy Lasorda, and his work throughout the years to gain proper recognition for Negro League baseball players.
Gary lived to travel and see new things. He insisted his children see the world, taking them on spectacular trips to several continents to explore the world’s art, architecture and cultures, because he had longed to travel as a boy.
Gary was a “foodie” before the word existed. Gary planned many of his extensive world travels around Michelin starred places he wanted to dine, but he also loved the coconut chicken at a hole in the wall in New Zealand to fly 22 hours each way to Auckland more than once. He enjoyed taking his wife to the opera in New York for her birthday, and dining at La Grenouille and Le Circque, and scouting trips for extraordinary Tiffany and Chihuly pieces on his travels.
Gary was known for his unique and colorful flair with his suits, and ties. As a kid, he only had somber suits suitable for funerals, so he reveled in the colors and designers items available to him as a grown up, and loved to cheer up a courtroom with a particularly snazzy tie, or his famous yellow suit. He loved anything blue which matched his bright blue eyes, which were always twinkling.
Gary always had a special place in his heart for veterans. He supported every veteran’s charity, and every veteran he knew. On his 18th birthday in 1965, during the Vietnam War, he accompanied his friends to the Civil Service ready to enlistment with the U.S. Navy, as his parents and older brother had done. He alone among his friends was not permitted to serve because he was unable to bend his knees or squat, for all the sports injuries to his knees and lack of cartilage. For the rest of his life, he reflected that perhaps God spared him the trauma his friends endured in Vietnam so he could accomplish other things and it further drove him to use each day wisely in the service of the Lord and his community.
Gary had envisioned and championed the idea of a consolidated outdoor recreation park space for La Salle since the 1970’s, and ultimately, saw his vision realized in La Salle Rotary Park, the 106 acre park on the east side of La Salle. Gary put together a group of private businesses, most notably, Illinois Cement, partnered with the La Salle Rotary Club, and Mayor Art Washkowiak, and later, Jeff Grove, to create this lasting legacy for the people of La Salle, ensuring families young and old could stay together for all their children’s events and have a lovely, state of the art facility enjoy healthy recreation as a family. Gary was Chairman of the La Salle Rotary Park Committee, the La Salle Rotary Park Foundation, and helped Alissa design and champion the world class playground at La Salle Rotary Park where kids and parents with wheelchair disabilities could truly enjoy all of the playground without limitation. When his back hurt, and the stress of the world weighed heavily upon him, Gary would drive past and see so many families enjoying the park, police using the soft rubber play area for safe PT, and it filled him with a sense of hope and joy, and a desire to do more.
Gary asked his friends to give to the park, and led by example. Gary donated the 5 acre dog park area, Mickey’s Meadows, in La Salle Rotary Park, in honor of his younger brother, Arden Gearhart, who died of Ewing’s Sarcoma at age 11 in 1962, and the little dachshund, Mickey, that gave his brother so much happiness as Arden battled the cancer that took his life. Gary secured State of Illinois grant money to finance the park’s purchase and development, to ensure state tax money earmarked to improve Illinois’ recreation spaces came back to help citizens of La Salle. He also enjoyed playing trivia with the winning La Salle Rotary Trivia Team to help support the cause.
After having a serious heart attack in 2013, Gary opened his eyes and informed the cardiology team prepping him for four-way bypass, with Joliet Jake and Elwood Blues sincerity, that he was on a Mission from God, that he had a park to finish building, so they understood their role in making sure this important job would be done for the community he loved.
Gary had fond memories of east end baseball games, and was one of the longest running sponsors of the La Salle Little League. Gary spent many frustrating and wonderful seasons coaching kids in baseball and life, and enjoyed taking the team to the Peoria Chiefs games and having his players recognized on that field. He was dedicated to helping local kids succeed through academics, sports, music, arts, and strengthening families.
Rotary was more than a Club to Gary- it was a representation of his own mantra of Service before Self. Gary twice served as President of the La Salle Rotary Club, the Club of which his father was also a member, and served on the Board of Directors for many years. During his first term as Rotary President, at great personal and professional expense, Gary helped resettle a Vietnamese family in the area, after they were evacuated from the US Embassy in Saigon because these patriots would have been killed for their support for the American Mission in Vietnam.
Gary never suffered fools or faint hearts gladly. Gary was always willing to take a stand for what he knew to be right. For that, he suffered many slings and arrows throughout his life. Poet Charles McKay summed up Gary’s willingness to go to battle at any cost for what he knew to be right in the following lines:
You have no enemies, you say?
Alas, my friend, the boast is poor.
He who has mingled in the fray of duty that the brave endure, must have made foes. If you have none, small is the work that you have done.
You’ve hit no traitor on the hip.
You’ve dashed no cup from perjured lip.
You’ve never turned the wrong to right.
You’ve been a coward in the fight.”
Gary served under several administrations as a Special Assistant Attorney General for worker’s compensation, was a Board member, and held various offices for the La Salle County Historical Society, the La Salle County Republican Party, and the Republican Century Club, member of the Illinois Bar Association, the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association for many years, and several professional organizations, served as a fundraiser for the United Way, the Boy Scouts of America, the L-P Band, the Girl Scouts, and so many worthwhile organizations locally and around the world.
Gary loved all music, but particularly the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where he was a patron, and sponsor, and a season ticket holder for over 25 years. Each Christmas, he looked forward to the concert of Handel’s Messiah, loved any pieces composed for brass, and loved sharing music with people. He sang along in the car, and became an avid fan of Glee and the Voice. He enjoyed a lifelong friendship with fellow trumpet player Carl “Doc” Severenson, Johnny Carson’s band leader from the Tonight Show, and stopped by tapings of the show whenever Gary was in Burbank, CA. Gary was thrilled when Doc arranged tickets for Gary and his Father, Olin, to see the show and meet Olin’s hero, Jimmy Stewart, when Jimmy appeared on the Tonight Show. It was such a magical night, Johnny cancelled his other guests, and gave the entire hour to Jimmy Stewart.
Some of his proudest achievements are those that will never be known. A great number of children, some who don’t know they are adopted, came to their families through Gary’s help with private adoptions in the first several years of his practice, and witnessing these children thriving and succeeding throughout their lives strengthened his resolve to share the message that when possible, babies should have every chance at life. It is Gary’s hope that society will recognize that Mothers who bear a child, and allow that child a chance for a better life through adoption are committing a truly loving, noble, and selfless act, which should be exalted, and never denigrated for choosing adoption.
Gary had a lifetime of accolades and awards for his good deeds, including an Emmy Award, but his greatest awards and most valuable collection were his stories from a life lived to the fullest and the friends he made along the way. We could not begin to list all the people whose lives he touched, but we know that he was profoundly grateful to help and to be part of so many lives.
Gary incorporated the Illinois Valley Animal Rescue, known as IVAR, and served as their attorney, until he asked his daughter to take over the role. Animals, and in particular, dogs enriched Gary’s life, and he looked forward to coming home to see his IVAR dogs, blind dog, Louis and Susie, and his rescue cats, Chloe, and Stewie, at the end of the day. He enjoyed co-owning Molson, a champion Chesapeake Bay Retriever, bred and shown by Diane Baker of Paws Here Pet Resort, and it was a thrill for Gary to watch Molson win dog shows all over the country, especially at the famous Westminster Kennel Club Show at Madison Square Gardens.
Gary was the Dad who did not often say, “No”, allowing Alissa to get a pony, bunnies, ducks, peacocks, a particularly obstinate llama, pygmy goats, and a full menagerie of other pets. Alissa’s first horse quickly became a herd and an operation known as Timberlane Farms, with Gary and Lynn breeding Arabian and Halflinger horses. Gary looked forward to horse scouting trips to Austria and Gary’s first domestically birthed Halflinger foal, Alf, proudly leads a team of Budweiser parade Clydesdales, and one of his Arabians, Evangeline, co-owned with Edmund Thornton, was sold to Belgium to a new breeding operation because of her superior beauty and blood lines. Watching his horses win halter competitions, and Alissa compete in horse shows as her Mother once did was a source of great joy to Gary.
Gary was thrilled to find out his birthday was a National Holiday in Scotland, known as the Glorious Twelfth. When his wife went into labor on August 11, 1975, Gary determined that the best birthday present he could ask would be to have his child born on his birthday. Gary insisted Lynn “hang on” until August 12, going so far as to take Dr. Farley out for a sausage and mushroom pizza at Leo’s an hour before midnight. That Lynn did wait, and that Alissa was born three minutes after midnight on Gary’s birthday was a testament to their commitment and maybe a little insanity. Gary’s tendency to forget Alissa’s birthday in his excitement over his own party planning was an endless source of amusement within the family.
Gary formed a company with Don Huling selling merchandise to Rotarians at the International conventions each year, until Russell Hampton bought their company. The pair had wonderful stories from their Convention trips, including the Badge A Minute Booth, where the pair created photo badges of attendees, and were overwhelmed with orders from foreign Rotarians with multiple wives, and the inherent complications in delivering correctly hundreds of these badges to the non-English speaking wives clad in full burkas and hijab; and the Great Canadian Frisbee Adventure. One year the entire stock of Rotary belts they had ordered to sell arrived at the convention in much larger proportions than anticipated. Dad and Don sold the entire stock to Japanese attendees by extolling the superior value of leather belts that could wrap around you twice. Gary was thrilled to host his Japanese Rotary friends, Takadas, from a club in Tokyo at his home during the International Convention in Chicago in 1980, and arranged for a memorable excursion option to Starved Rock for the nearly 20,000 Chicago convention attendees, complete with Native American stories and a tribal dance exhibition by a local Indian Chief. The event was the most talked about of all the
Gary supported the Make-A-Wish Foundation, as it’s precursor arranged for Yogi Berra, Arden’s hero, to call Arden during his convalescence and dedicate a game to Arden, which cheered Arden immensely, and founded a local chapter of Wreaths across America, to honor veterans buried locally with a holiday wreath at their grave.
Gary never cared for computers, but he discovered Facebook a few years before his death, first dictating his posts to his Secretary, then to Siri on his phone. He enjoyed sharing memories and memes with his friends. To all of you who clicked, “like”, on his photos, you made him very happy, and he looked forward to checking in with you all every day. Those memories will sustain us in the days to come.
Gary is survived and his loss deeply mourned by his loving wife and inseparable partner of 50 years, Lynn, daughter Tara, and her spouse, Charles Gruber, of San Antonio, TX, daughter Alissa, and her spouse, Nicolas Vargo, of La Salle, and son Reagan, and his spouse, Kristie (Bluemer) and their son, Alexander Magnus Gearhart, Gary’s brother, Dr. David Gearhart and Susan Gearhart of Town & Country, MO, and their children and their families, Cousin Martha James, Matthew James, Laura and Patrick Palmer, and their family, Gloria Butler, and her family, Uncle John Gearhart, Joan Peterson, and all his Michigan relations, as well as Connie Ficek, his secretary of 28 years, and Cheryl Beavers.
We know that if Gary had his way, he would still be with us, as he had so much more he wanted to do and see in his life. We know he would ask that you all treasure each day with your families, and make the most of the days you have together. We are comforted by the knowledge that Gary’s parents, his brother, Arden, Lynn’s parents, the Colonel and Fay, Gigi will be waiting at the gates of Heaven for Gary, probably with pie. Gary will enjoy reunited with his dear friends who preceded him in death, without the pains they suffered in life, to live eternally in the light of the Lord, and that Gary will surely busy himself in Heaven making a place for us, probably baroque in style, painted his favorite color of blue, when the Lord finally calls us home.
Services will be held on Monday, December 7, 2020, at the Hurst Funeral Home in La Salle (HurstFuneralHomes.com) with sanitizing stations and plenty of room for distancing. Services to celebrate Gary’s life will be officiated by the Reverend Wilbur Zeal at 1:00 p.m. following a wake from 11a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on December 7, 2020, to be followed by a graveside service at Forest Lawn in La Salle (on Route 6, before the La Salle Speedway). For those who are ill, or otherwise unable to join us on Monday in person, please join us online, through the Hurst Funeral Home Facebook page for a live stream of the funeral services, and your messages and stories will be treasured by the family.
Pallbearers, include Reagan Gearhart, Nicolas Vargo, Matthew James, David W. O. Gearhart, Brian Towne, John Hurst, Hayden Hurst, Larry Smith, Ken Credi, Patrick Griffin, Butch Orio, and Chris Vaske.
Honorary Pallbearers include Dr. David Gearhart, John Gearhart, William Gearhart, Alexander Magnus Gearhart, William Schulte, Morgan Wilson, Jerry Peterson, Raymond Jast, James Brusatte, and Edmund Thornton.
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