JOLIET – “He knew everybody.”
So said Jerry Shepich of his friend of 40 years, Don West.
West was the founder and executive director of the Joliet-based charitable organization Wish Upon a Star, which grants wishes for terminally ill children in Will and Grundy counties. He died early Sunday from complications of lung cancer. He was 64.
Born in West Virginia, West grew up in Joliet, attended Joliet West High School and lived in the city his entire adult life. His son, Anthony “Booter” West, said Don gave everything he had to the local community.
Wish Upon a Star got its start 38 years ago, when Don organized a winter pickup softball charity event to raise money for Ronald McDonald House Charities, Shepich said. Several years after that, Don decided to use the proceeds from the annual event to fulfill wishes for sick children.
“Everybody just embraced it,” Booter said.
Over the years, Wish Upon a Star has surprised young people with trips to Disney World and new computers, and helped them meet everyone from Billy Joel to Arnold Schwarzenegger to the pope.
“Don had a Rolodex bigger than the president’s,” Shepich said.
Before establishing Wish Upon a Star, Don worked as a paramedic. He was also a member of the Moose organization, the Old Timers Baseball Association of Will County and the South Side Civic Club, Shepich said. Don loved baseball and golf.
His friends and family remembered him Monday as someone who was upbeat, outgoing, big-hearted and a jokester.
David Nelson, a friend of Don’s since they attended Joliet West together and a Wish Upon a Star board member, said he never once saw Don lose his temper.
“He made a lot of dreams come true,” Nelson said.
Visitation will be held 2 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Blackburn-Giegerich-Sonntag Funeral Home, 1500 Black Road in Joliet. The funeral will take place 10 a.m. Friday at the same location.
Don is preceded in death by his son, Doni West. In addition to Booter, he is survived by Pippa Monte, his girlfriend, and Delle West, his former wife, to whom he was married for 32 years.