When Karen Wessel of Arlington Heights, Ill., drowned in Star Lake July 22 after helping to save three children who were struggling in the water, it was an act that those who knew her well say was very much in keeping with how she chose to live her life.
The 47-year old single mother of two, whose family has owned vacation homes in the township of Plum Lake for four generations, was always one to give of herself to make the lives of those around her easier, her loved ones say. To a person, they call Wessel an everyday hero.
Wessel’s sister, Janice Potocki, who was involved in the rescue of the three children on that fateful day, said her sister would go out of her way to pitch in whenever she saw a need.
“Many years ago there was a forest fire up there near our house at Star Lake. And what could we do? You don’t know anything about what to do, so you step back and let the firemen take care of it,” Potocki said. “Immediately she got a bucket together that was full of ice, put stuff in the bucket and went with a tray of cheese and crackers to make sure that everyone had some food, everyone had the beverage that they wanted, Diet Coke, regular Coke, a bottle of water. She was the caretaker for everybody. She volunteered for everything to make life better for everybody.”
Don Bussey, who has known the sisters for many years, described Wessel as someone who went out of her way to help others.
“She worked as a secretary in the office of a hard-charging personal injury lawyer,” Bussey said. “She would go above and beyond what was expected of her, doing things that were not in her job description, to help make things easier for her coworkers.”
Bussey described Wessel as a woman who loved her friends unconditionally and would make financial sacrifices to help any of them. She was like a second mother to her sister’s children (the women lived next door to each other in Arlington Heights) and the other children in the neighborhood.
“The neighborhood in Arlington Heights where they (Wessel and Potocki) live is one where most of the houses are owned either by the original owners or their children,” he said. “Karen’s house was like the center of the social circle for the kids in that neighborhood. She wouldn’t have it any other way”
When her now nine-year old son Michael started playing hockey, Wessel raised money to not only pay his fees but help other kids in the Glenview Stars Youth Hockey Association. Her son’s coach, Robert Messner, posted online that Wessel was a loving mother who not only cherished her own kids, but also the other children who came into their lives.
“She was an extremely passionate person,” Messner wrote in a Facebook post. “One of those people that could find passion and be passionate about all that they did. There was no halfway with Karen.”
Bussey added that it was so like Wessel to use the last moments of her life to push a young boy, the grandson of a lifelong friend in Star Lake, out of the water.
“That was so like her in everyday life, too,” Bussey said. “She didn’t aspire to riches, and sometimes struggled to get by, but if she could help someone she would do so wholeheartedly. She was so giving to others, even strangers.
“With all the bad breaks life had thrown her, she could have very easily been a very negative person,” he added. “But she always faced the world with a smile and did her best to make those around her smile too.”
Potocki said her sister worked tirelessly on fundraisers to buy iPads for the students and otherwise improve the schools her children attended.
“Just so that every kid had a chance at a better life,” Potocki said. “She took that upon herself, that it was the right thing to do to do what you could to make kids’ lives better, adults lives better, too.”
Bussey recounted when Wessel’s 17-year old daughter Elizabeth started dating for the first time. She wanted to make the moment easier for the parents of the young man, as well as get to know them. To do that she put together a little dinner party with Mexican food, complete with her homemade tacos.
“She invited a few of her friends over along with the boy’s parents,” Bussey said. “She was able to turn what could have been an awkward evening into a fun gathering where everyone got to know everyone else and become friends.
“I’m going to miss those tacos,” he added.
Wessel and her sister have always been close, so close that their nicknames were “Pete and Repeat.”
“That’s what our mom always called us, Pete and Repeat, because we were never apart,” Potocki said. “When our father passed away, it was just her and I. I bought the house we grew up in and got her the house next door.”
Potocki, who says she still owns a rotary phone and rarely uses her cellphone for texting, said living next door to her sister and best friend meant she was both the first and last person she communicated with each day.
“She was the first person I would text in the morning to let her know I got to work okay,” Potocki said. “We always ended our day with a ‘video chat’ where I’d be on my rotary phone and she would be on her phone and we would talk to each other while looking out our windows at each other. I can’t believe I can no longer pick up my phone and hear her voice.”
Potocki said there were countless times she would come home from work and there would be a covered dish in her refrigerator or either Elizabeth or Michael would bring over something for her to eat.
“You know some days you get home from work and you’re absolutely starving and you’re so exhausted you can’t even imagine going through the effort of cooking,” she said. “That miracle means more to you than words.”
Potocki said that Elizabeth is already showing signs of having inherited her mother’s empathy for others.
“I don’t even know all the names of the stuff she volunteers in at school,” she said. “My sister raised the girliest girl you will ever meet and the ‘boyiest’ boy you will ever meet,” Potocki said. “But they are both fabulous, wonderful people.”
For Potocki, the days since her sister’s death have been a blur of lawyers and friends working to help her and her sister’s children through a process that is as complicated as it is tedious. It is also a process that keeps the wound open, not allowing the healing process to begin.
“The inside of my head is a whirling dervish of crazy, like when somebody talks to you and you say ‘wait, did I just talk to you?’ because I’m stressed out...,” Potocki said. “I have people who are helping me get things settled because I have to merge two households. I have to get the kids moved over here. Whatever I’m going to do with that house, there are repairs that have to be done.”
Since her sister’s death, Potocki said she has been fielding call after call from media outlets asking if Wessel was as selfless as news reports have made her out to be. She always replies that, yes, her sister truly was an “everyday hero.”
“She was so fantastic,” Potocki said. “I don’t know how you can express that in words but it’s important to me that the world does acknowledge that there still are heroes. That there still are good people who do the right thing. We so often see so many examples of someone getting mad at you for taking your parking spot, that we’ve become a very negative society. I want people to know that there are still people who try to do the right thing every single day and that we should live up to their example. That is what we should be aspiring to do.”
With Potocki’s permission, Bussey has established a trust fund to help ensure that Wessel’s children have a chance to go to college.
“I’ve given up on my life for the last two weeks to make sure these kids have a future,” Bussey said. “If it had been someone else, Karen would be the first to volunteer to do the same for their kids.”
Information on how to donate to the trust can be found at http://www.wesselbarrsupport.com.
Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at email@example.com.