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Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016 12:27 am

A softer side of a larger-than-life player

DENNIS LEE “DENNY” POLK June 17, 1955 – May 29, 2016

DENNIS LEE “DENNY” POLK
When Denny Polk passed away of acute myeloid leukemia this past spring, he left behind a 30-year legacy in area real estate as well as an indelible impression on those who encountered him. By all accounts, Denny’s larger-than-life personality dominated any room he was in and his bold entrepreneurial spirit, sometimes described as bordering on reckless, left a singular mark on the city. He received the Illinois Historic Preservation Award in 1994 for his work in downtown Springfield.

He first made his mark in the late 1980s with the renovation of the Grand Hotel and next set about renovating Seventh Street downtown, nearly singlehandedly bringing the area back to life. He and his partners eventually owned the Hilton Hotel along with various car lots, buildings occupied by bars – Miss Kitty’s, Brewhaus, Floyd’s and others. When the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce named Denny the Small Businessperson of the Year in 1989, Polk Properties had 38 commercial ventures, including 17 businesses and 14 apartment buildings.  His empire continued to expand and contract from that point until his death, inspiring both praise and criticism. His company, The Real Estate Firm, was disbanded in August amid legal confusion.

Laura Nestler knew a more private side of Denny. She first met him when she was a young child after becoming close friends with his daughter, Karla, while they were both attending Cathedral Grade School. “When my parents divorced, Denny and [his then-wife] Paula really stepped up,” she said. “My parents were both still very active in my life but spending time together with Denny’s family gave me something I longed to have – and that I did find as an adult – just quality time between parents and their children.”

During summers while in high school, Nestler would live at the Polk house while working for Denny at Dennis Polk Real Estate, riding in to the office with her boss every morning. “I stayed at their house every single night, I was fed by them every day – and it was all because their daughter was my best friend and we enjoyed our time together so much. They would introduce me to people as their adoptive daughter and it really felt like I was part of the family.”

Nestler said Denny’s work ethic left a tremendously positive influence on her life. “Every day he was up at the crack of dawn, he was always working. But it wasn’t in a way where you wondered, gosh, doesn’t he have time for anything else? He could manage everything,” she recalled. “He could be the life of the party – I saw the warm handshakes and embraces that he had together with friends and family at every encounter, his smile, his laughter. At the same time, he was also making business opportunities happen for himself and for others, continuously developing the community of Springfield.”

Denny’s sense of humor also had an impact on Nestler. “He was so funny and I always had a sense of pride and felt really cool and special if I was able to make him laugh,” she said. While most people in the community saw Denny the raconteur and the wheeler-dealer, Nestler had the opportunity to see him interacting with people in many diverse roles, including as father, friend, son, brother and spouse. “He was such a special man. I feel like I know him like I was one of his own children,” she said.

As is so often the case, Denny’s absence has served to underline the ways he can never fully depart from his loved ones. “There are a lot of characteristics of his that I’m realizing I have picked up and will continue to do throughout my life,” she said. “Both of my parents are alive and healthy and I love them and they’ve had a huge impact on my life – but I would say the life I choose to live is a lot more like the life that Denny and Paula made for themselves.”

Which is not to say there are not also regrets. “He always made time for everyone. He could be in the process of a deal but still show up for the lunch and then be at the birthday party for the niece or the nephew – he was everywhere all the time and how he managed to do all that and juggle everything was really inspirational. Since he’s been gone I wish I would have been more like him in that aspect before he left. I would have spent a lot more time with him in his final days.”

Scott Faingold can be reached at sfaingold@illinoistimes.com.

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