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Irish O’Reilly: A baseball man and so much more

October 19, 2018

Irish O’Reilly earned fame through his success as a baseball coach.

But describing O’Reilly as purely a baseball man would not do him justice. His contributions were many and varied, and that’s what those who knew him well mention as they reflect on his recent passing.

O’Reilly, a Kankakee native and longtime resident of Manteno, died Monday at age 74. He is survived by his wife of 48 years, Patricia, three adult daughters and many other family members.

O’Reilly’s visitation service will be held from 3 to 8 p.m. today at Clancy-Gernon Funeral Home in Manteno. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Friday at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Manteno.

His prowess in baseball was discovered at an early age, but not immediately. He threw the ball with his right arm when he first started playing, and the tosses did not have a lot of velocity.

It was assumed he wasn’t a very good player, but one day, he picked the ball up and threw it with his left hand. It moved at a rapid pace, and any question that O’Reilly lacked skill was dismissed.

“He was lights out,” Denny Lehnus recalled. Lehnus first met O’Reilly when they were boys playing Little League. “He’s as good a pitcher as I’ve ever seen.’’

Before long, Lehnus and O’Reilly were working closely together, first through their involvement with the Kankakee Salked Chiefs semi-pro baseball team and later as coaches and employees at Kankakee Community College.

While O’Reilly’s star rose as a baseball coach, the same thing happened for Lehnus in basketball. Both men led teams to multiple national tournaments, and both have been named to multiple Hall of Fame groups.

Part of building a successful program is involvement in all aspects of the operation, including fundraising. This role came more easily to O’Reilly, who became an ace fundraiser at Lewis University after he left KCC to work and coach there. Lehnus became adept at it, too, and said it was O’Reilly’s advice that helped him improve.

“I learned from Irish you don’t get it if you don’t ask,” Lehnus said.

O’Reilly did a lot of asking, including when he asked players to join his program. He recruited Mike Van Mill to come to Lewis in 1983 as Van Mill was graduating from Bishop McNamara High School, the same school O’Reilly attended and then taught and coached at after graduating from Illinois State University and spending time as a farmhand in the Boston Red Sox organization.

It’s a choice Van Mill continues to be glad he made.

“He was a real person,” Van Mill said of O’Reilly’s authentic nature. “He was straightforward. I learned a lot about baseball and a lot about life from him.”

Van Mill entered public service after college, and currently serves as the Bourbonnais village administrator. He said O’Reilly influenced his career choice.

“He would work his job at Lewis, and then come to be with us (his team),” Van Mill said. “Then he would go back to Manteno for meetings at night (O’Reilly was a longtime village trustee).

“He would talk about all of these things on the bus rides (to and from games),” Van Mill said. “It was hard work and dedication. That’s what I saw for many years.”

Annette LaMore, another longtime Manteno community servant, worked closely with O’Reilly during those years. Perhaps their pet project was the Manteno Save the Golf Course Committee.

The public course was struggling at the turn of the current century and talk of it closing surfaced. The village needed a group to dedicate itself to preserving the venue, and O’Reilly and LaMore offered their assistance. O’Reilly was the first chairman of the committee and LaMore is the current chair.

“Irish O’Reilly was a great volunteer and a great member of the community,” LaMore said. “We decided we couldn’t let the golf course shut down. Now it’s a hub of activity.”

The word activity pertains to O’Reilly in other ways. LaMore said she saw him at Mass virtually every week at St. Joseph Church, and also saw him in the middle of much recreational activity at Manteno, offerings that expanded throughout the years through O’Reilly’s work.

“Manteno is going to miss Irish O’Reilly,” LaMore said. “He won’t be forgotten.”