'He's The Only Thing This Town's Got': Dennis Hastert's Hometown Shocked By Allegations

05/29/2015 11:35 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015
Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

YORKVILLE, Ill. -- From the public library to the American Legion post, Dennis Hastert -- just "Denny" to residents of his hometown -- was on everyone's TV screen and everyone's lips.

"Shocked" and "disappointed" were common responses to the former Republican House speaker's indictment on federal charges he deliberately structured cash withdrawals to avoid bank reporting requirements and lied to the FBI.

But then it got worse. Friday's news that Hastert reportedly withdrew the cash to pay a man $3.5 million in hush money over sexual abuse when Hastert was a teacher and wrestling coach at Yorkville High School made the allegations even harder to stomach for most residents interviewed by The Huffington Post.

"Nobody could believe it. He was the nicest guy," Eddie Iljazi, who owns Yorkville's Silver Dollar Restaurant, said Friday. Iljazi's diner is a popular hangout for everyone from families to farmers -- and all were chatting about the scandal involving the town's most famous resident from the first 6 a.m. pot of coffee.

Iljazi said customers had guessed Hastert's misconduct was maybe a love child, corruption or something tax-related. But as Friday wore on, and The New York Times and other news organizations reported the misconduct was sexual in nature and involved a former male student, the whispers intensified.

"Everybody hopes it’s not sexual abuse, but that something got misconstrued,” Iljazi said. “To everybody here, [Hastert] was a role-model politician in their eyes. He’s the only thing the town’s got.”

dennis hastert

Hastert coached the wrestling team at Yorkville High School for nearly two decades.

Yorkville, about 50 miles southwest of Chicago, has a mostly white population of about 17,000. A major employer is the Wrigley chewing gum factory, which has announced plans to begin Skittles production.

Hastert worked at the Yorkville school from 1965 to 1981. The school district released a statement on Friday, saying it had no knowledge of any misconduct.

Iljazi said old-timers at the Silver Dollar chatted about Hastert’s glory days as a wrestling coach. The team had multiple district and state championships in the ‘70s under Hastert.

Class of '76 graduate Bonnie Mahaney -- whose older brother wrestled under Hastert -- said “he would fill the gym.”

Mahaney said she, too, was shocked by the allegations against Hastert, her study hall teacher in high school.

“He was great -- he was always doing wrestling," said Mahaney. "Everybody loved him.”

Yorkville created an annual all-day tournament for children through the eighth grade called “The Denny Hastert Open.”

At The American Legion, where Mahaney was bartending, patrons seemed to recognize everyone from Yorkville who appeared in evening news stories about Hastert. When Gary Matlock, Hastert's first state wrestling champ, flashed across the screen, Mahaney and other patrons instantly recognized him.

"Are they digging out the old stuff or what?" Mahaney said.

dennis hastert

A plaque of Hastert in the hallway of the Kendall County Forest Preserve office.

A resident who didn’t want her name used was one of the few with an unfavorable memory of Hastert, claiming he used to “ogle” cheerleaders in his social studies class. But most Yorkville residents spoke of Hastert fondly -- even reverently -- and seemed to want to protect his reputation.

To them, Denny Hastert was a familiar fixture at the grocery store and in local parades. His face is emblazoned on a plaque in the hallway of the Kendall County Park District's office -- a historic building Hastert helped preserve. They called Hastert an accessible “Regular Joe.”

“When he was speaker of the House, he’d ditch his security and go around town,” resident Robert E. Lee told HuffPost.

dennis hastert

A 1960s-era photo of Hastert in his early years as a popular Yorkville teacher.

Many said they don’t believe the sexual misconduct, suspicious of allegations surfacing so long after they supposedly occurred.

“If it were actually true, it would have come out a long time ago," resident Kathy Tucek said. "It was a very small town -- I don’t think it was something that could be kept under wraps.”

Jim Richter said he was slightly less surprised at the indictment than some of his neighbors.

“He had been pinched for other money things,” Richter said. “I say investigate every one of them. There are things the public doesn’t know.”

Among those things is the identity of the person who allegedly received Hastert's hush money. The indictment identifies the person as "Individual A," a Yorkville resident who had known Hastert for many years.

“I wonder what’s going to happen when Individual A is revealed,” Iljazi said. “Folks probably know Individual A, they just don’t know [he or she] is the subject of the allegations.”

Tucek said she found the allegations difficult to accept.

“We’re a very small town," Tucek said. "We believe in our own, and it would mean one of our own betrayed another one of our own."

Also on HuffPost:

  • School
    Hastert is a graduate of Wheaton College and Northern Illinois University.
  • Family
    Hastert was born on Jan. 2, 1942, in Aurora, Illinois. He has two children, Ethan and Joshua, with his wife, Jean.
  • Nickname
    Hastert often goes by "Denny."
  • Coaching And Teaching
    Ben Sklar via Getty Images
    Hastert was a history teacher at Yorkville High School in Illinois from 1964 to 1980. While working there, Hastert coached football and wrestling.
  • House Experience
    Hastert began serving in the Illinois House of Representatives in 1980, and the U.S. House of Representatives in 1987. He served as the House chief deputy minority whip from 1995 to 1999.
  • Foley Scandal
    Scott Olson via Getty Images
    Hastert and others in GOP leadership were embroiled in scandal in 2006 when it was revealed then-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) had sent sexually explicit instant messages and emails to male congressional pages. The Republican leadership’s handling of the scandal, with Hastert at the helm, played a key role in that year’s midterm elections, when the GOP sustained a major shellacking and was forced to hand over control of the House to Democrats, after dominating it since 1994.
  • Speaker Of The House
    Hastert served as speaker of the House from 1999 to 2007, and is the longest-serving Republican speaker in U.S. history.
  • Hastert Resignation
    JACQUES DEMARTHON via Getty Images
    Hastert announced he would not run for re-election in August 2007. He formally announced his resignation from Congress on the House floor in November 2007.
  • Dickstein Shapiro
    KAREN BLEIER via Getty Images
    In May 2008, Hastert agreed to join the lobbying firm Dickstein Shapiro as a senior advisor.
  • Indictment
    The AP reports: Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert agreed to pay $3.5 million in hush money to keep a person from the town where he was a longtime high school teacher silent about "prior misconduct" by the Illinois Republican who once was second in line to the U.S. presidency, according to a federal grand jury indictment handed down Thursday. The indictment, which doesn't describe the alleged misconduct by Hastert, charges the 73-year-old with one count of evading bank regulations by withdrawing $952,000 in increments of less than $10,000 to skirt reporting requirements. He also is charged with one count of lying to the FBI about the reason for the unusual withdrawals.
  • Retirement From Dickstein Shapiro
    Upon news of his indictment, Hastert resigned from Dickstein Shapiro.
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