Eugene Kolling was a natural creator.
If there was a need in Darien, he helped fill it by chartering everything from the Marion-Brook Sanitary District to the Darien Bank, now West Suburban Bank, where he served as president for 13 years.
The city itself wouldn’t be what it is without Kolling. He lived in Darien before it was Darien, acting as one of the city’s founding fathers when it was incorporated in 1969.
Even in his spare time, Kolling still had the urge to build something new, constructing elaborate model railroads in his basement—assembling everything from the switches to the miniature houses to the train cars himself.
He was a founding member of the Darien Lions Club and served as its first president, chairing nearly every event and committee at some point during his 40 years with the organization.
“If there was something going on, Gene Kolling was involved with it,” said family friend Cindie Hagen.
Darien lost one of its most active and well-known residents Sunday when Gene Kolling passed away in his home surrounded by family. He was 87.
Dedicated to family
Kolling was born in Maywood and attended Proviso Township High School before serving three years as a corporal with the Marines in Okinawa during World War II.
Upon his return from the war, he married his sweetheart, Mary, at Our Lady of Sorrows in Chicago. They had four children, Robert, Michael, Kathy and Cindy.
As active as he was in his community, family was Kolling’s priority. Every night, he sat down for a family dinner and always made sure to attend his childrens’ ballgames and school plays.
“He was very devoted to his family,” daughter Kathy Kolling said.
While Mary worked nights, Kolling took his children almost everywhere with him, Kathy said, whether to the bank or the hardware store.
When she was 8 or 9 years old, Kathy would work alongside him in the basement on models as he laid out his railroads. About two years ago, she said he sold his trains and started building immaculate replicas of World War II-era tanks, airplanes and jeeps.
“He was so exact and precise in his buildings,” Kathy said. “They’re just perfect. That says a lot for someone who was 86 years old.”
The loving family man had seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, as well as numerous nieces and nephews.
A true community banker
Kolling brought a similar care and dedication to his career as a banker. He founded the Darien Bank to be a real service for residents and small businesses within the community, lending a hand to others as much as possible, said longtime friend Kris Sant.
“He was a true humanitarian,” Sant said. “He helped people as much as he could with loans.”
Every day, Kolling would gather with his employees in the bank’s lobby and wish them good morning, said Greg Ruffolo, whom Kolling hired as a teller in 1977.
Then Kolling would unlock the front door himself so he was the first face to greet early-morning customers.
“His goal was to make sure the community always knew there was a local, friendly banker in town,” Ruffolo said.
Before the bank had its own janitorial staff, Kathy Kolling said she and her mother cleaned the bathrooms, mowed the lawns and ensured customers were served in a spotless environment.
Kolling was committed to building relationships with both his employees as well as his customers, traveling to their offices or meeting on the golf course to do business on their terms.
The Junior Chamber of Commerce recognized him as Businessman of the Year in 1981.
Serving the community was Kolling’s priority not just at work, but also in his personal time.
In 1969, he became Darien’s first police commissioner. He held a spot on the city’s planning commission for 17 years. He also co-founded the Lace-Marion Youth Club, known today as the Darien Youth Club, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2010.
The city named him Citizen of the Year in 1976.
He also loved to have fun, rallying as many as 20 couples to go on a cruise together, said friend Ira Bresof.
Bresof worked down the street from Darien Bank at Argonne National Laboratory and would stop by every morning for a cup of coffee with Kolling.
For years they played golf together every Sunday—but it wasn’t uncommon for Bresof to get a midday call from the avid golfer asking if he wanted to head out to the greens.
Kolling was also a regular fixture at weekly poker games, which Dave Hagen said earned him the nickname “Full-House Gene.”
“When he started betting we knew he had a full house,” Dave Hagen said.
‘Social with a purpose’
Kolling became close with Dave and Cindie Hagen after Mary passed away in 1995. The three would go out to weekly dinners, and Kolling would frequently volunteer at Safety Village of Darien, which the Hagens run.
Even in the early days of the Lions Club when it functioned on a shoestring budget, Kolling strived to make it a “social club with a purpose,” Ruffolo said.
“What he meant was while we’re doing good for others, it’s supposed to be pleasant and fun,” he said. “He never took himself too seriously.”
For 21 years, he had perfect attendance at the club’s meetings and events, helping to build events such as the annual Halloween party and Fourth of July parade into well-loved Darien traditions.
He was recognized as the Darien Lions Member of the Year in 1981 and received the Lions Club Melvin Jones Fellowship Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992, among other honors.
“He was one of the best,” Sant said. “He was one of a kind.”
Kolling warmly welcomed new members to the club, said Ruffolo, whose membership Kolling sponsored in 1987.
“He literally took my hand and said these are the people you should know,” Ruffolo said.
No matter where he went, Kolling ran into people he knew, Kathy said.
“We went to Hawaii one time, and even someone out there knew him,” she said.
When he wasn’t out and about in the community or pursuing one of his other numerous hobbies, Kathy said Kolling could always be found with a book in his hand. Between she and her father, Kathy said they subscribed to dozens of magazines that they would trade back and forth.
Kolling was a passionate Bears and White Sox fan, as were his two sons, Kathy said. Always quick with a joke, he teased her for her devotion to the Cubs, calling them the "Chicago Flubs."
In September 2010, Kolling went on an Honor Flight Chicago trip to Washington, DC, during which about 90 World War II veterans spent a day touring war memorials in the nation’s capitol.
Dozens of friends and family members welcomed him home to Midway Airport at the end of the whirlwind day.
“He was just amazed and humbled by how many people were there when he returned from the Honor Flight,” Kathy said. She made him a scrapbook that he took everywhere with him so he could share his memories of the day.
Until September, Kolling still played golf, drove and went for walks around town.
And every single day from 1995 until this fall, Kolling visited Mary at Clarendon Hills Cemetery.
“He loved his community,” Kathy Kolling said. “And he loved his family even more.”
Visitation is scheduled for 3 to 9 p.m. Thursday at Modell Funeral Home, 7710 S. Cass Ave., Darien. Funeral services are set for 10:30 a.m. Friday, also at Modell. Kolling will be buried at Clarendon Hills Cemetery in Darien.
Memorial contributions in Kolling’s name may be made to the Darien Lions Club Foundation.