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15 years strong for Marquette Park Match Fishing League

Down “hole” basement Marquette Park fieldhouse Gary DeLeonardis stands by tied piles finished wooden fishing rods. | Dale Bowman/For Sun-Times

Down in “the hole” of the basement of the Marquette Park fieldhouse, Gary DeLeonardis stands by tied piles of finished wooden fishing rods. | Dale Bowman/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 12, 2013 6:31AM

Down in ‘‘The Hole,’’ Mr. D.’s woodworking shop in the basement of the Marquette Park fieldhouse, stacks of wooden fishing rods were tied together Monday by the colors of their handles — hot pink, red, blue, green and purple.

There’s fishing history at Marquette Park, which once had Chicago’s greatest lagoon.

On Monday, the Marquette Park Match Fishing League celebrated its 15th year at 67th and Kedzie. Showers held off until the awards ceremony for the kids was finished about 5 p.m. The adults division, which runs from 6 to 8 p.m. Mondays, went on as usual.

The league is built on European-style bank fishing from fixed spots called pegs. It was brought to Chicago by the messianic Mick Thill, then popularized by Ralph Grasso and the Chicagoland Bank Anglers.

At one point, there were plans for league competitions between Marquette, Sherman, McKinley and Gompers parks. That fell apart.

But the match fishing league at Marquette held, becoming part of community history and park programming. And because Gary DeLeonardis willed it with help from dedicated volunteers.

‘‘They would take off work to come here,’’ he said.

Tony Williams, Al Schwarz, Robert Hoskins and John ‘‘Ozzy’’ Delmonte were there from the beginning. The 85-year-old Percy ‘‘Butter Worm’’ Jordan started near the beginning and is a living example. Schoolteacher Dawn Gasior had kids go through; now she takes pictures for all.

In recent years, Michael Elam, Scott Brazill and Ivan Marquez swelled the ranks of regular volunteers.

Sisters Lucia Flores and Griselda Caballero had kids in the league since the beginning. DeLeonardis’ daughter Marisa began fishing it at 4, then for the last six or seven volunteered. This year she is part of park staff.

‘‘A parent or an adult needs to be with the kid,’’ DeLeonardis said. ‘‘They don’t just drop the kids off. I stress having a parent here.’’

Support from the top helps.

‘‘Not every kid is going to come in and play basketball or sports,’’ said Doug Borders, park superintendent. ‘‘They need a wide range.’’

His support has been vital. So has community support from independent bait/tackle shops such as Henry’s and Mik-Lurch, and wallet support from volunteers and DeLeonardis.

‘‘I am old-school enough to think there should be some free or reasonably priced programs for the kids,’’ DeLeonardis said.

It was $5 for the six-week league this year. Usually, there are 35-40 kids. This year drew 51 kids and 17 adults.

‘‘Lord, we need more of these kids to get into fishing,’’ Williams said.

From a couple neighborhoods away, Erik and Jean Tait brought their kids Brendan, 8, for his second year, and Danny, 6, and Lily, 4, for their first.

‘‘It was the best $5 by far,’’ they said.

Brendan’s most memorable fish was a channel catfish, which brought a lesson in fish physiology.

Fishing history goes into DeLeonardis’ woodworking for day camps. Every other year, he has them build wooden fishing poles, which he learned as a kid from Carl Baio, who died at 99 last year. After retirement, Baio would come and ‘‘putz around’’ DeLeonardis’ shop.

DeLeonardis, 58, has been at it so long that Williams joked, ‘‘When he started, he looked like Serpico with all his dark hair.’’

The program has lasted long enough, 15 years and counting, for hair to mature.

‘‘It is something I will keep doing as long as I am around,’’ DeLeonardis said. ‘‘It would be nice to get other parks around involved. I try to get them to do it every year. Even if they didn’t compete with us, I would be willing to show them how we do it.’’

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