On the Record With ... Rich Tobiasz

SPRING GROVE – Rich Tobiasz loves an ending with a good twist.

The Spring Grove fire chief got his start telling stories on a historical tour through Spring Grove on the village’s 101st anniversary.

Jim May, author of “The Farm on Nippersink Creek,” was in the audience and told Tobiasz after the event that he should work on his storytelling because he was pretty good at it.

At the Illinois Storytelling Festival, which May founded and has been held in Spring Grove for many years, Tobiasz participated in the Liar’s Contest, telling a story about cows who walk on two legs and walking away as the winner.

Tobiasz also is well known for his expansive gardens, which are complete with a Japanese contemplative garden, an English garden, 56 species of trees, vegetable gardens and even some chickens and goats.

Tobiasz has lived in Spring Grove since he graduated from a Chicago high school in 1969.

Tobiasz went to college for fire science and worked for Centegra Hospital as a teacher and nurse and the Fox Lake and Spring Grove fire departments.

Spring Grove eventually hired him as its full-time fire chief, the first full-time employee for the formerly all-volunteer department.

Tobiasz sat down with reporter Emily K. Coleman to talk about his storytelling, gardening and whether he ever relaxes.

Coleman: Do you ever – I don’t know – not do something? Or are you one of those people who has to be doing something?

Tobiasz: At 9 o’clock at night, I go to bed. I’m tired. Beyond that, if it’s a long, hard day. I’ll take a nap, but other than that, no, I’m always on the go.

If you asked me what’s on TV, I couldn’t tell you because except for watching the Olympics and a little bit of sports, I don’t watch much TV. I’m too busy doing other things to do that. With this kind of garden, it takes a lot of time.

Coleman: How much time does it take?

Tobiasz: I’m going to say you need to spend – by the time I do animals – let’s say two to three hours a day during the week and probably four to six hours on the weekend, so if you’ve got something planned for the weekend, like we had the steak fry, that whole day was nothing. I didn’t get anything done, so then I worked the next day for eight to 10 hours.

Coleman: What do you enjoy most about it?

Tobiasz: Two things: It takes your mind off some of the other things that I do because everything I do at the fire department isn’t always fun. It takes your mind off some of the bad things that happen there.

Other times, the phone isn’t ringing out here when I’m out here in the garden. It’s peace. It’s quiet. I can sit on the lawnmower, and it’s an opportunity to think. I can do nothing if I want to. I can clear my mind.

Coleman: What do you enjoy about storytelling?

Tobiasz: There’s a lot of lessons, I guess, to be learned from what has happened to other people, and if I know that, I feel like I should share that with somebody else because maybe it’s benefited me and I can share it with somebody else and it will benefit them.

Coleman: Do you prefer to tell the stories or write the stories?

Tobiasz: I like writing them, and that helps me remember them. But I think I like telling them better because you get the audience reaction to the story. It’s immediate. ... When I stand up there in front of a group and I tell the story, I can see them thinking, I can see them smiling, I can see them frowning, I can see them become angry with me about some point in the story maybe or whatever. I can see their reaction. I guess I get immediate feedback from it. Hopefully, it’s good.

Coleman: Have you ever had a bad story?

Tobiasz: I didn’t know my audience one time. I went to the town of Richmond, and I was supposed to tell some stories to the public. ... The stories I had prepared were stories of farming and other things, and the crowd was pretty much kids. Oops!

I really wasn’t prepared, so it’s like, ‘Uh oh, I’m seeing that I have all of these kids. How do I change my stories?’ You say, ‘Wait a minute. You wrote a story. It should stay the way it is.’ No, they change. You emphasize different parts, so they were farming stories and I emphasized a little bit more about the farm. ...  Whew. It wasn’t bad, but I’ll tell you what, it was almost a disaster because I had the wrong stories for the wrong group.

Coleman: Why do you think community service is such a big thing for you.

Tobiasz: I’m not sure where that started.

I didn’t play sports in high school. I did some theater in high school as an extracurricular, and I did some things with the annual yearbook. I’m not  a musician. I don’t play music. I can’t sing. Probably a good thing. I did theater, and they actually told me – I love this – they told me that I had to lip sync the words. I was not allowed to sing because my voice was so bad.

I guess what I do is – I think I should be involved in my community. I think everybody should be in some way, shape or form. I realize there are some people who can’t. They’re sick, they’re ill, their jobs take them out of town so much.

But I think if you, we’re all a part of, in this case, Spring Grove, and we should all contribute something to each other. I guess that’s my philosophy about things. That’s what I do.

The Tobiasz lowdown

Who he is? Spring Grove Fire Protection District chief

Family: Tobiasz and his wife, Wendy, have been married for 25 years.

Favorite flower, vegetable and tree: My favorite flower is the dahlia. There’s no doubt about it because of my grandmother. 

My favorite vegetable ... I’m tossed up between tomatoes and sweet corn. It has to be the tomato. Too many things with tomatoes. I enjoy cooking with tomatoes, tomato sauce, salads. It has to be the tomato. And I’ll say this: Heirloom tomatoes because they just have better flavor. There’s no doubt about it.

My favorite tree ... the sugar maple because I can make maple syrup with it. The trees on the property are now big enough that I can tap them in the spring and make maple syrup.

Favorite event in Spring Grove: The fish boil. ...  Whole neighborhoods come, and they sit together. It’s not a big-cheer-for-a-football-team. It’s all sit together in a community and chat and visit.

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