YORKVILLE, Ill. — Jeff Nix wasn’t allowed to go on team road trips with high school wrestling coach Denny Hastert. His mother wouldn’t let him.
She never gave him an explanation. “All I know is that she didn’t like him,” said Nix, 64, who now wonders if his late mother's reservations had anything to do with the allegations that have since surfaced about Hastert molesting boys on the team , including equipment manager Stephen Reinboldt, whom Nix knew when he started at Yorkville High in 1967.
[Related: Two Small Towns, One Big Secret] When those allegations made national news last May, Nix didn't believe them. “Not a bit,” he said. Over the course of the last year, he’s changed his mind about that. “Um, he’s basically admitted it, so I don’t have any choice.”
Nix still struggles, though, to reconcile the man who had such a positive impact on him with the predator he's read about: “It bothers me in the back of my mind because a lot of things that I do in life I patterned after what I learned from him," he said, sitting in the back office of his video digitizing business in nearby Plano, where Hastert now lives.
[Related: Hastert Pleads Guilty in Hush Money Scheme] Six miles down the road, residents in Hastert's hometown of 18,000 have spent the last year — a year in which the former coach went from local hero to “he who shall not be named,” as one Yorkville mom put it — trying to figure out how, in a small country town where everyone knows practically everything about their neighbors, they could have missed a secret like this.
“Back in the 1970s, this being a small town, you heard rumors. I mean, lots of rumors. But that never surfaced,” said Jo Ann Gilbert, 74, whose kids went to school with the Hastert’s two boys. “It was very surprising when the facts came out," she said, "that people knew this was happening," and yet, it remained closely held.
One business owner who interacts widely with the Yorkville community suggested that for a tiny minority of locals, the allegations did ring true. “Like you couldn’t put a finger on it, but you knew something was off. And you think, 'OK, now it’s falling together.'”
Just beyond Chicago's prosperous outer suburbs, Yorkville's freight-rail tracks curve along the Fox River. The historic Kendall County Courthouse, where Hastert launched his state house and congressional campaigns, and for which he later secured federal funds, watches over the town’s now quiet main drag.
When Nix joined the wrestling team in 1967, Hastert “wasn’t Jesus walking on water yet." But his big-man-around-town image grew, Nix said, because of his intense dedication to the team. Then, in 1976, he led the Foxes to the state championship.
That's what gave him a platform from which to launch a political career.
“Even people who were on opposing teams were supporting him,” said former state Rep. Bill Kempiners, who managed Hastert’s first campaign. He praised his down-to-earth campaign style and said he respects him still.
"If he did have some relations with students, obviously that is not in the plus column, but from the standpoint of what he’s accomplished and the relationship I’ve had with him, I obviously will give him the benefit of the doubt. I know his family very well, and I just feel very sad about the whole thing." Hastert's early electoral success also came with some lucky breaks — breaks that in retrospect may have kept him from being more carefully vetted.
In his first run for office, in the Republican primary for a seat in the Illinois statehouse in 1980, he actually lost, but he was later appointed to the seat when the incumbent fell ill. Five years later, he won the GOP nomination for the 14th Congressional District after the Republican incumbent who'd won the primary withdrew from the race for medical reasons.
Hastert narrowly defeated the Democratic coroner running against him in 1986, but after that, he never again had any serious competition.
Hastert, now 74 and in poor health after a stroke , hides away in his green farmhouse on a quiet country road in Plano, where the frogs in his front-yard pond are the only sound of life. There’s no gate in front of the circular driveway, just a modest chain-link fence. Behind the mailbox, a small stone fox — the Yorkville High mascot — stands guard.
Why didn't anyone know?
At the Silver Dollars Restaurant, where a sign above the hearth reads “Life Is Good,” everyone has their Hastert story — their kids had him as a coach or history teacher or his wife as a physical education teacher. They saw him around town loading his own groceries, or they took a picture with him at a parade and still give him credit for remembering their names.
Most Yorkville residents are comfortable sharing their thoughts about Hastert, but often without their names, or at least not their last names. Others want nothing to do with the topic.
As to why so few knew, they kept circling back to sports. Yorkville is a place where high school games attract even the townspeople without kids on the team, and that boosterism gave Hastert considerable sway.
[Related: Five Creepy Passages in Dennis Hastert's Autobiography] “These young boys, think how vulnerable they are. There’s a lot of politics in high school sports,” said Tracy, a mom whose sons played sports for the nearby rival Morris Community High School. Players looked up to Hastert, and his position as a respected role model would have made it more difficult for victims to come forward.
“Think about it. In the late 70s and early 80s, there wasn’t really a safe place for a lot of kids to come forward in a very, very conservative Republican town,” said Rhonda Annala, the coordinator of sexual abuse prevention education programming at Mutual Ground, a non-profit in nearby Aurora.
That's especially true, said Mutual Ground Director Michelle Meyer, since Hastert tried to normalize his behavior, allegedly telling the victims he needed to massage them to treat injuries.
“They don’t look like monsters. ... They look just like everybody else,” Annala said of sexual predators. “And when people say, ‘Oh he was such a nice guy,’ well yeah, they are. That’s how the grooming [of victims] starts. You gotta earn the trust.”
A hard truth to accept
From his wrestling victories to the millions in federal funds he secured for his district, Hastert earned Yorkville’s respect. And while plenty of residents said they’d like to see him “rot in hell,” others remain loyal. Some even suggest he’s the victim.
“Of course, it wasn’t right what he did — but that one victim, I think, was blackmailing him,” said Jerry Jiles, 65, of nearby Montgomery, who praised Hastert for remembering his name the last time they saw each other at a nearby Cracker Barrel.
Even some of those who’d like to see Hastert punished for the abuse placed some blame on the victims: “It’s a shame that back then, somebody didn’t have the courage to come forward,” said Jo Ann Gilbert, who knows the Hasterts. “It’s like the priests. It would have been nice if these young people would have come forward.”
That attitude troubles Nix, who graduated in 1970, and said he knows at least two of the victims passed through the wrestling program about eight years after he did. “You’re a kid. How can you be responsible when you’re a kid? When you’re 16 or 14, you think you’re a grown-up, but you’re not.”
Mutual Ground educators have been offering in-school education programming for the past 30 years, and they now talk to students in kindergarten through 12th grade about sexual assault — why it’s wrong and what to do if it’s happening. “My hope is that we’re making it really hard for perpetrators to commit this crime,” said Meyer, the director.
Needless to say, they haven't eradicated sexual abuse. In fact, a young wrestling coach who also taught social studies at an area school was recently charged with multiple counts of aggravated battery and criminal sexual abuse against six students. The coach had been staying with the students — four girls and two boys — at the Yorkville Hampton Inn on Dec. 11 for a wrestling tournament in Plano.
Here's what's changed: The alleged victims in that case came forward almost immediately, and on Dec. 31, the alleged offender was charged.
And here's what hasn't: Among many Yorkville residents, the mention of that case elicits only squinted eyes and cocked heads. No, they say, they haven't heard anything about it.