DANVILLE — Vermilion County residents are remembering an 84-year-old Oakwood area man, who died a day after an ice-fishing accident on Monday, as an avid fisherman who shared his love of the recreational activity with anyone who would listen.
"Jack was one of those guys who, if you started talking with him about fishing, you wouldn't get away," Jamie Pasquale, the Vermilion County Conservation District's director of operations, said fondly of John "Jack" Leverenz, a longtime seasonal employee. "He was so knowledgeable about fishing."
"He just loved the water," added Mr. Leverenz's son, Mike, his voice choked with emotion.
"He always joked he wanted to die with a fishing pole in his hands," he continued, adding his family is taking comfort knowing that "at least he died doing what he enjoyed."
Mr. Leverenz was ice-fishing on a pond at the Pollywog Association late Monday morning, when he fell through about a half inch of ice into the frigid water.
The Vermilion County sheriff's office was called to the area, southeast of Oakwood, around 12:05 p.m.
"We had a call that someone could be heard yelling for help," Capt. Eric Deck said.
Deck said it was initially thought the cries were coming from a wooded area. Then a man was sighted floating in a pond.
Deck said one of the first deputies on the scene tried to throw the man a life jacket, but he was too weak to grab it.
Then a neighbor offered a kayak, which Deck used to paddle out to the man, who was about 25 feet from the shore.
"He was about to go under," Deck said, adding he was able to hold on to the man until members of the sheriff's dive team could put him in a rescue basket and pull him to safety.
Deck said the air temperature was only about 12 or 13 degrees, so the water temperature was likely 30 to 35 degrees. He estimated the man may have been in the water for about an hour.
The man was rushed to OSF HealthCare Sacred Heart Medical Center, where he was treated for hypothermia.
Mike Leverenz said hospital staff brought his father's body temperature up, but he passed away in the intensive care unit a little after 11 a.m. Tuesday.
He said his mom, Carol; brother Mark; children Russ and Megan; other family members; and longtime fishing buddy Dave Redenbaugh were by Mr. Leverenz's side.
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Mr. Leverenz worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 37 years, Mike Leverenz said. He said his dad had a mail route in Danville for 26 years, then was in charge of vehicle maintenance until he retired at age 57.
Later, Mr. Leverenz was hired as a seasonal worker for the conservation district. Pasquale said he worked from roughly mid-April or May through September or October, doing maintenance and cleanup and overseeing the concession stand at the Lake Vermilion boat ramp.
"He knew all of the boaters down there," Mike Leverenz said.
He also met many people through the conservation district's pontoon boat rides, Pasquale said.
"He took groups, sometimes up to 19 people at a time, on tours of the lake," Pasquale said, adding Mr. Leverenz was good with people. "He loved that. ... Once, we called him to say we had a ride. He said, 'I've got a doctor's appointment, but let me call to see if I can change my appointment.'
"He was a great employee, continued Pasquale, who said fellow co-workers were "deeply saddened" by his passing.
"He had a great personality. He loved to work. He was in his 80s, but you would have thought he was in his 60s. He felt like if he retired, he wouldn't enjoy life. He wanted to be out there and stay busy."
Mike Leverenz said as soon as his dad retired from the post office, he fished "pretty much" every day.
"I would say he fished about 360 days a year," he said. "Maybe he'd stay in if the weather was really bad. But he'd always say (that) he wasn't going to catch any fish for supper sitting on the couch.
"He would catch everything — bass, crappie, blue gill," his son said, adding his dad's favorite fishing spot was the Pollywogs, which he knew well.
Mike Leverenz said he helped his dad put on fish fries about four times a year.
"Every two years, he'd have a huge one," he said, adding his dad would lay out bags of fish, and he'd fry them. "There were many times we cooked over 500 fish filets."
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Redenbaugh met Mr. Leverenz 30 years ago when he started delivering his mail.
About two years later, Redenbaugh mentioned that he went fishing with his father-in-law in Sullivan.
"He wanted to know what kind of poles and reels I had, and told me I should have this and that," Redenbaugh recalled with a laugh.
"He taught me how to fish, basically," Redenbaugh continued. "He taught a lot of people in Vermilion County about fishing and tackle. ... He got me into the Illini Bass Fishing Club, and he sponsored me at the Pollywogs, and even helped me buy my first boat. We'd go to the Pollywogs, and he would tell me how to cast, where to retrieve. He was really good about explaining how to do things the way he felt they should be done, and I would always listen. He was an outstanding fisherman."
Redenbaugh said his friend holds a world record for catching the largest grass carp on ultralight tackle.
"He was fishing for crappie, and he hooked into a 65-pound grass carp, and he landed it," he said. "It took him close to an hour ... but he was really patient. He would play it and get it worn out and get it into the boat."
Redenbaugh said the two took a fishing trip on Lake Michigan with Big Bird Charters — owned by Jim Condor of Danville — and caught salmon and lake trout. They were planning on going to the Indianapolis Boat, Sport & Travel show at the Indiana State Fairgrounds later this month.
"I'm going to miss him," Redenbaugh said.
At the hospital, he prayed for his friend to pull through.
"It didn't work," he said. "The minister said, 'I bet Jack's up in heaven now teaching people how to fish.'"