Growing up on the Kankakee River banks, Laborers Local 751 member Curt Ralston grew to love and know the river.
As a union retiree, he actively works on river restoration, an effort that won him this year’s Illinois AFL-CIO Robert G. Gibson Community Service Award.
Annually the state labor federation gives one award to a rank and file, community-oriented union member.
From age ten on, Curt grew up on the river and lives by it today. His father was a union bricklayer and in 1972 Curt joined Laborers 751, working on a crew where his father was the brick foreman.
In 2008 Curt retired. Two passions have fueled his retirement - the Kankakee River and music.
Currently he is active with the Kankakee River Roundtable, the Kankakee River Conservancy and the Momence Anchor Club.
After years of diversion and industrial use, river advocates are working to restore the river.
With his construction background, Curt is able to complete hands on tasks. This might include clearing logs and river debris. As part of a wetlands restoration effort, he recently collected, at his own expense, 35 different buckets of sand from various locations. That sand is now being tested as a growing ground for aquatic and wetland plants.
Curt has served as the secretary of the Conservancy since 2009 and seven years as the Anchor Club’s secretary.
“The river is where you go if you want to go slow and relax,” Curt says. “The river is the place to go where you can have fun and relax whether it be on a pontoon, jet boat, or jet ski.”
Boating and fishing activity has given him intimate knowledge of the river and its ways. “You can’t do something for the river unless you know the river,” Curt adds.
During winter months he weekly reports river ice thickness to the National Weather Service.
An upcoming project he is working on is restoration of a 1920s steel bridge on State Line Road. Not only is the bridge historic, Curt notes that this is a vital path for rescue services.
After retirement, Curt took up a side business as a music DJ. “I can entertain people and do something different than construction work,” he noted.
At the same time, he is a regular volunteer DJ for fund-raisers, union functions and community events.
On Sundays he works the sound board at his church, Freedom Life Center in Manteno. He also volunteers with the Illinois Department of Transportation highway work exposure project at Kankakee Community College.
“Curt is one of our best,” said Laborers 751 business manager Mike Smith. “Quiet, unassuming, but incredibly generous with his time and his talents.”
Michael Van Mill, co-convener of the Kankakee River Roundtable, said, “I have been quite impressed with Curt Ralston’s active commitment to the mission of conserving and enhancing our community’s greatest natural resource, the Kankakee River. Curt has advanced our cause with an action-oriented approach involving; hosting public river tours, undertaking sand and sediment extraction, and serving on the Kankakee River Conservancy District Board. Curt Ralston is an exceptional volunteer who certainly deserves this honor.”
A river defines a community, as towns grew from the river banks and return again to the river for relaxation, sustenance and enjoyment. Thanks to Local 751’s Curt Ralston, the Kankakee River is again a rich and refreshed environment for all.