PULLMAN — Victor Crivello loved a good fight.
You could say he was Pullman's Don Quixote. His specialty was taking on unwinnable battles against heavy polluters that threatened the environment on the Far South Side.
And going up against the politicians and bureaucrats who wanted to destroy Lake Calumet — with their plans to put a marina there or, worse yet, fill it in — became his greatest battle.
In fact, that's why Crivello moved to Pullman 30 years ago.
“He wanted to be on the front lines,” said Crivello’s wife, Lynn. “He walked the walk fighting pollution. He wanted to live in the place where the pollution was, be part of it.”
Crivello fought for local kids, too, dedicating much of his life to mentoring children, steering them from street life and introducing them to the hidden nature and wildlife that surrounded them.
He was a martial artist and boxing corner man who coached a kid who showed up on his stoop asking to shovel the walk and became more like a son, Joseph McDaye, to a Golden Gloves championship.
“He was always fighting something,” Lynn said, her cheeks wet with tears.
Crivello died at home Saturday after losing his long fight with hepatitis C, a disease he contracted a lifetime ago after receiving tainted blood during a transfusion after a motorcycle accident.
He was 64.
Folks in Pullman knew Crivello as "the environmentalist" mostly for his tireless efforts to tear down the ugly chain link fence that kept locals and nature lovers from getting to the Lake Calumet shore.
He also helped found the Pullman Urban Garden on the Pullman factory site where neighbors grow fresh vegetables and beekeepers collect honey.
Crivello spent his last days in a hospital bed overlooking his tiny backyard utopia — a small nature preserve and urban farm where tomatoes and prairie grass grew near the koi pond fed by rainwater collected in barrels.
The Crivello's Pullman row house was home — like no other place they’d ever been.
"Pullman's like a small town. Everybody knows who you are, knows your business," Lynn said. "We both really loved Pullman, and he was passionate about the neighborhood surviving and getting better."
A sailor without a boat
Crivello was born on Oct. 22, 1948, in Chicago.
He grew up in Wrigleyville and worked at his parents' diner, the Arena Grill across from the long-closed Marigold Arena — a venue famous for hosting the first national professional wrestling TV show.
"Victor would always talk about the Marigold," his wife, Lynn said. "He'd tell me so many stories. The midget wrestlers were his favorite."
When he was a kid, Crivello loved spending warm days at the lakefront, where he learned to sail and developed his love for nature.
"One of the reasons he fought so hard for public access to the Lake Calumet and Lake Michigan down here is because kids down here were surrounded by all this nature and they couldn't go there," Lynn said.
Crivello graduated from Northern Illinois University and earned a master's degree from Roosevelt University. He moved to Springfield to work for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
In 1980, the IEPA was young — and so were a lot of the folks who worked there. Young and single. The office secretary liked to play matchmaker, but Victor didn’t need any help meeting his future wife, who worked in the field enforcing Illinois' hazardous waste laws.
"He was giving a briefing to all the people in the field and took a shine to me," she said. "I was carrying a backgammon board and he stopped to ask me to play. So we went out and had a drink. … Went out on a few dates."
Early in their relationship, Lynn's father inherited a small sailboat that wasn't much good to a landlubber in rural Illinois. Ironically, though, that boat helped them fall in love.
"I had a boat but didn't know how to sail, and he was a sailor who didn't have a boat," Lynn said. "I guess we were made for each other."
They were married in 1981 and moved to Chicago. They bought a small boat and sailed along the lakeshore where Crivello grew up.
For 20 years, they raced boats twice a week from Montrose Harbor. They made regular day trips down the Little Calumet River when it was pretty much an open sewer and on Lake Calumet, which you still can only access by boat.
“He loved seeing the egrets and herons and studying the ecology of the bald eagles,” Lynn said. “He was so passionate that people got over there and could see all that. So for 20 years he worked to get public access to Lake Calumet.”
That was Crivello’s greatest battle. It’s where he met U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, then a lowly Cook County Board member and Loyola University professor teaching environmental policy.
“Vic took my class on a canoe tour of Lake Calumet. He called it, ‘Down in the Dumps’ because down by the river you’re looking at an old dump. He talked to them about his fight to save it. His passion and knowledge was unsurpassed in the region. It’s what got me motivated to push for west shore access,” Quigley said.
“I remember asking him how he got permission to show us around Lake Calumet and he said, ‘I’m sort of hoping that with you here they won’t arrest us.’ Technically, we were trespassing. Nothing would stop him.”
'Tear that wall down'
In 2011, Quigley was instrumental in getting Crivello appointed to the Illinois International Port District, which controls access to Lake Calumet.
Last year, Crivello worked the system from the inside to organize the first public tours of the Lake Calumet shore on Earth Day.
“That was huge for him,” Lynn said. “It was the first time ever that people who lived in the area had seen the shore of Lake Calumet.”
Despite his illness, Crivello never missed a port district meeting. And he certainly never stopped fighting for public access to Lake Calumet. Quigley has the emails to prove it.
“We talked just a couple of weeks ago. It’s amazing how he always seemed so vibrant. Up until his last days he was emailing me, texting and calling asking how things were going,” Quigley said. “I told him he had to hang around long enough until — I guess you would say it would be his Ronald Reagan moment — he could be there at that fence around Lake Calumet and say, ‘Tear that wall down.' "
Quigley, a guy who knows a thing or two about fighting unwinnable odds, promised Lynn that he would carry on her late husband's fight.
"I can see the light at the end of the tunnel for the first time," he said. "It's going to happen. And when that day comes I'm going to think of Vic Crivello. We lost a real gem."
He was a guy who never backed down from a fight.
Services will be private.