Despite serving on the Ottawa school board, off and on, since 1996, Steve Omolecki classifies himself as a retired guy. Steve’s wife retired as a career educator & taught second grade for several decades before retiring.
The Satisfaction of a Selfless Life
During this time, Steve grew interested in education. He decided to answer a newspaper advertisement calling for individuals to apply for an expiring school board position that had unexpectedly opened. Not one to run an aggressive campaign, his philosophy was and continues to be simple. “I view this as a public service, and if people want me, I’m willing to volunteer my time.”
Steve moved around as a child. His father served in World War II and worked as an Engineer, moving from Michigan to New York City to Illinois, staying with his grandparents in Pennsylvania, and earning his bachelor’s degree in Florida.
While Steve returned to Illinois for law school and his wife grew up in Ottawa, he didn’t anticipate making the town his home. Steve shares that he didn’t meet his wife in Ottawa but at a bus station in DeKalb. His first job out of law school was as a public defender at the Appellate Court in Ottawa. Most young lawyers consider public defense a stepping stone, but Steve fell in love with the work and the town.
“It was satisfying work, says Steve before joking, “I could have asked for more money, but I couldn’t have asked for better working conditions or better people to work with.”
Satisfying work is a concept Steve continues to pursue in retirement and why he continues to volunteer. “If I, in even the smallest of ways, do something to enhance and improve education for the children in our community, that’s satisfying. Also, in general, I like the idea of serving the community.”
While Steve was selected to fill the open board of education seat based on his 1996 application, he was required to run for re-election soon after. He was elected and served another term before losing his seat during the next election. He suggests that his competitor ran an aggressive campaign and was elected fairly based on his efforts and apparent desire.
Steve thought his tenure on the school board had run its course until 2007, when a board member encouraged him to run again. After some consideration, Steve threw his hat in the ring and won. He has remained on the school board ever since. As of 2023, Steve has served on the board for sixteen straight years (and a total of twenty) and continues to devote his time to Ottawa’s youth and the educators who serve them.
When looking towards the future, Steve is both cautious and optimistic, sharing that while Ottawa has held a competitive advantage in hiring top talent during his tenure, he identifies the shortage in teachers, overall, as a potential hurdle that his district, as well as all schools, need to address proactively. The board also spends a great deal of time weighing infrastructure projects and the difficulty of maintaining schools with limited financial resources. While he feels that struggles are natural, he’s very fortunate that in a society that’s often polarized, the people of Ottawa have always supported the school board and prioritized their youth.
Years ago, Steve moved to Ottawa. While he eventually planned on leaving and after a lifetime of travel, it became his home. He hopes the school system helps maintain a community that others are proud to call home. As she shares, “Schools affect the district in so many ways. Good schools enhance the community’s economic viability because they attract more people. People are going to want to come here and live here and work here more if you have a good school system.”