Best of Springfield®

People and places

Best of Springfield 2010

Tracey Sims – TurnOut Movement Art Studio
6100 S Second St., Suite C, 816-3888

It’s no surprise that voters named Abe Lincoln “best real-life superhero” in this year’s poll. We get it; Lincoln was pretty great. After Abe, voters chose “military men and women” as the next-best real-life superheroes, but that’s not exclusive to Springfield. Setting aside those two choices, our living and local winner for best real-life superhero is Tracey Sims, who teaches dance to kids and adults alike at her own dance studios in Springfield and Taylorville. Sims uses her classes to teach self-confidence, responsibility and trust, and her specialty is working with kids who have special needs like mental or physical handicaps. “We do real dancing,” Sims says. “The difference is that we’re fun.”
Runner-up: Wes Barr

Animal Protective League
1001 Taintor Rd., 544-7387

Few people like to see animals suffering, but the Animal Protective League in Springfield does something about it. Voted “best animal rescue organization” this year, APL rescues pets from abusive situations, cares for pets that would otherwise be abandoned or put down, and maintains a local network of pet foster homes so that sheltered animals can feel the love and companionship of a real home while they await adoption. This no-kill shelter provides low-cost spaying and neutering services, microchipping, and education for pet owners as they seek to eliminate animal euthanasia in Sangamon County. APL operates entirely on private donations, and volunteers or foster families are always needed, says Deana Corbin, interim executive director of APL. “It’s very exciting,” she says. “It’s great to see the success stories. To see the ones that go home and make people very happy and have a great life is very rewarding.”


Knights Action Park
1700 Knights Recreation Dr

Keeping kids entertained is a never-ending task, but Knights Action Park has enough activities to occupy even the most fickle munchkins. Started in the 1930s as a golf range, the family-owned business has added arcade games, water slides, mini golf and amusement rides since moving in 1976 to their current location just south of Interstate 72. They also run the Route 66 Drive-In theater, which shows mainly kid-friendly films. General manager Doug Knight says the park is geared not just for kids, but for the whole family. “Everything we put in, we try to make it a family attraction, so the whole family can play,” he says.


Washington Park
Who says you have to have money to enjoy life? Washington Park was voted the best hangout if you’re broke, and it’s easy to see why. The historic park, created in 1901, features a paved pathway lined with beautiful old trees and stately houses, and the calm lagoon is a great place to sit and feed the ducks while you ruminate about life. It doesn’t matter if you’re just out on a jog, trying to keep the kids busy or if you’re taking a date on a romantic picnic to hide your empty wallet; Washington Park is an absolute treasure, especially when you can’t afford anything else.

People and places
Ken and Derek Leonard.

Ken Leonard, Sacred Heart-Griffin

After 26 years of coaching at Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield, SHG athletic director Ken Leonard still seems thrilled to be doing what he loves. Leonard describes his job as “a blessing, a privilege and a pleasure.” It was likely that enthusiasm that earned him the title of “best high school coach” from this year’s voters, and he jokingly explains his success as a coach by hypothesizing, “If an old dinosaur stays around long enough…” But that’s just half the story; not only is Ken Leonard this year’s best coach, but he also raised this year’s runner-up. Leonard’s son, Derek Leonard, came in second by a single vote. The younger Leonard coaches at Rochester High School, and he shares a joyful eagerness for the job with his father. Asked separately why they got into coaching, their answers are eerily similar: both Leonards smile widely when they say they love having a positive impact on kids. It definitely shows.
Runner-up: Derek Leonard, Rochester High School

People and places
Julie Ratz, Gus Gordon and Gina DeCroix Russell at the Chicago Gala.

Gus Gordon

Practically everyone in Springfield knows Gus Gordon. If you haven’t seen him on Channel 20’s weather forecasts in the past 20 years, perhaps you’ve seen him in one of the numerous plays and musicals in which he has performed over the years. Throw in the fact that Gordon has won  “best actor” in our Best of Springfield polls several years in a row, and it’s no surprise that he has been voted “best local character” this year. Gordon says performing on stage lets him show his adventurous side, as opposed to the straight-laced Gus Gordon everyone sees on TV. “It really helped me find my place in high school and helped me develop self-confidence,” he says, adding that one of his favorite characters to play is Billy Flynn in The Producers.  If you’re not already familiar with Gus Gordon, catch his next production, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play in the LRS Theatre at the Hoogland Center for the Arts Dec. 17-19. Gordon is playing multiple parts this time, which will really give him a chance to shine.

Steve Unverzagt, realtor

Last year, local realtor Steve Unverzagt was a runner-up for “best local character”, and although he passed away in September from complications of a motorcycle crash, Unverzagt still managed to take second in the same category this year. His larger-than-life personality complimented his outgoing, positive style. An avid motorcyclist and volunteer, Unverzagt made friends wherever he went, especially when he told hilarious stories about his colorful past. (He told us last year about his 12,000 mile motorcycle ride to the Arctic Circle with little more than a pistol he carried in case of polar bears.) “I’m a guy who wants to live,” Unverzagt once said. “I live every moment like it’s my last.” Great advice from a real character who will be missed.

Stella Blue
221 S 5th St., 789-8988

Every establishment has restrooms, but not every place makes their restrooms into a statement. Stella Blue was voted to have the “most interesting restrooms” this year, but they’re more than just interesting – they are works of art. From the custom glass sinks made by Ed Martin of Martin Fine Arts to the iconic painting of a blazing sun on the wall, the restrooms at Stella Blue actually create an atmosphere instead of just housing a toilet. The design of the restrooms has changed over time, but every design continues the sleek and modern aesthetic established outside the restrooms. The restrooms are really just the finishing touches.

Wes Barr

Most people who volunteer are content to be involved in one or two projects. For Wes Barr of Springfield, who was voted “best volunteer” yet again this year, that’s just an appetizer. Despite working full time for the Sangamon County Sheriff’s Office, Barr somehow finds time to volunteer for a whopping five causes around Springfield. In addition to donating his time, hard work and enthusiasm to the American Red Cross, United Cerebral Palsy and SPARC, Barr also serves on the board of Habitat for Humanity of Sangamon County, where he will soon assume the role of vice chairman. Around the holiday season, Barr coordinates Toys for Tots, which collects toys for local churches and service agencies to pass along to children in need. Last year, they collected 17,000 toys that went to an estimated 8,000 kids through 32 different churches and agencies. “I just love making a difference in peoples’ lives,” Barr says. “When I’m helping others, I just can’t describe the feelings.”
Runner-up: Anna Pearson, Animal Protective League


Choosing a spot for your first date is always a crucial decision, but where do you go if you’re ready to end a relationship? While Déj Vu strip club, 3220 Lake Plaza Dr., won this category with 142 votes, that seems more like a place one might go after a last date. Runners-up included the funeral home, the Department of Public Health, Planned Parenthood, a dark alley and “text message.” (May we suggest “C U NEVER” or “ITS OVR” ?) Soccer World, 2700 W. Lawrence Ave., also got several votes, which makes us wonder whether there’s more to soccer than we thought….

Cozy Dog Drive-In
2935 S. Sixth St., 525-1992

If quirks are what set something apart as a treasure, Cozy Dog Drive-In is a gold mine. The family-owned and operated restaurant has become an institution in Springfield since the first Cozy Dog in 1946, and no visit to Lincoln’s city is complete without scarfing down a Cozy Dog basket. Tony Waldmire proudly recounts how his grandfather, Ed Waldmire Jr., began selling “crusty curs” – the precursor to the Cozy Dog - while in the army. The elder Waldmire brought the recipe back to Springfield and launched the first Cozy Dogs stand at the Lake Springfield Beach House on June 16, 1946. Though the location has changed a few times, Cozy Dog still retains that uniquely satisfying quirk that makes it a true landmark.

Erica Filipiak
Wilcox Elementary School

Anyone who teaches kids automatically has our respect. How they deal with the rambunctious behavior of other peoples’ kids all day is simply a wonder. Erica Filipiak, a fourth-grade teacher at Wilcox Elementary School in Springfield, seems to handle it well, earning her the title of “best schoolteacher” this year. “I’ve always just enjoyed school, believe it or not,” Filipiak says. “It has always come easily for me, so I really like being able to help people that it doesn’t come as easily for.” She says her goal is to make her students feel comfortable and successful. “I want to show them a little bit of success and fun so they’ll feel like they can do well and go on to be good students.”

Bob Nesbit, who teaches health at Springfield High School, was runner-up by only four votes. He has taught for 27 years in District 186, saying, “The part of education that’s  important is making it interesting. I have a passion for coaching and teaching, and I think if you have that passion, you’re able to pass that on to the kids.”
Runner-up: Bob Nesbit, Springfield High School

Hoogland Center for the Arts
420 S. Sixth St., 523-2787

Springfield’s Hoogland Center for the Arts arrived on the social media scene about a year ago, and they’ve really taken advantage of the ability to connect with fans instantly. They won “best social media effort by a nonprofit” this year, thanks in large part to Lara Lebeck, deputy executive director at Hoogland. With more than 1,600 “fans” and new posts all the time, the center’s Facebook page has become the easiest way to get information about the various activities within its walls. “Being a not-for-profit, we don’t have a lot of money to send mass mailings out,” Lebeck says. “Facebook is a great way to get a lot of messages out to a lot of people quickly. It’s been really exciting. We get a lot of feedback, and now we know what our patrons are saying.” Check them out at, and watch for their upcoming Flickr and YouTube pages.

Lindsay McCall and Steve Sykes

For many people with full mobility, being in a wheelchair would seem like a limitation. But for local wheelchair athletes Lindsay McCall and Steve Sykes, it’s just another fact of life. Steve Sykes of Springfield has been in a wheelchair his whole life, but he says that actually helps him in his chosen sport of table tennis. “Being right at the level of the table actually gives me a little bit of an advantage,” he says slyly. He plays in the ping pong league at Horace Mann, where he works, saying it’s a sport where he can be on a level playing field. Lindsay McCall of Chatham was injured after falling out of a tree during high school, and she plays wheelchair basketball and sled hockey – a version of hockey played on sleds – whenever possible. McCall says it has been difficult to adapt to not getting around as easily. “But, you get over it,” she says. “It could be worse.”

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