You might have been a little taken aback by Al Filan at first.
“He was a real character,” said Tinley Park Mayor Ed Zabrocki, who worked with Filan at Brother Rice High School. “He had a persona of almost being aloof, but down inside, and not too far down, you’d find a genuinely warm human being.”
Colleagues, former students and the greater Brother Rice community were shocked and saddened Tuesday upon learning Filan was found dead in his Orland Park home. On Wednesday, the Cook County Medical Examiner ruled his death a homicide due to stab wounds. No suspects are in custody as of Wednesday night.
Filan taught business at Brother Rice for over 39 years, and served as the business department chair. He also was a well-regarded soccer coach both at Brother Rice and Victor J. Andrew High School. Those who knew him remembered him as blunt and cantankerous, but not out of spite. Students and athletes had to earn his respect. More than anything, they recalled the time and energy Filan put into students who needed help and how he motivated his soccer players.
“He would call people ‘sugar britches,’ but not in a derogatory way,” Zabrocki said. “It was a term of endearment. He’d say things like ‘you’re not sorry. You’re only sorry you got caught.’”
Zabrocki, who worked as a counselor and American literature teacher at Brother Rice, saw firsthand how much of himself Filan would give to students, particularly in the case of an eldest child in a family going through a divorce.
“This young man was also looking after his younger brothers and sisters,” Zabrocki said. “He had a lot on his plate. I went to the teachers to tell them about it, and Al was the first to say ‘what do we need to do to help?’ He worked with him after school, helped get his homework in on time. Al was with him all the way through it.
“You could say he had a rough exterior, but it was paper thin,” Zabrocki said. “When it came to it, he was always there for the kids.”
30 Years Later, Same Filan
Dean Casper of Tinley Park got to interact with Filan twice through Brother Rice, once as a student and the other 30 years later as a student’s father.
“As long as you were giving the effort, he would be fair,” Casper said, remembering Filan’s classes when he was student. “He’d make sure kids not picking up the material got help. Business isn’t the easiest subject for teenagers to grasp, and he knew that. He may have been challenging on the outside, but some kids could use that.”
When Casper first went to see Filan for parent-teacher conferences, he found little had changed.
“He had red hair when I went to Brother Rice, and now it was grey,” Casper said. “Otherwise, he was the same. When we sat with him at the conference, he said about my son ‘I don’t know him. And that’s a very good thing.’ It meant he was doing what he was supposed to be doing.
“But if you had a discipline problem, you did not want to se Mr. Filan.”
‘He Left Happiness in Our Hearts’
Kacey Lorenzen and Nicole Hack played on Filan’s soccer teams while students at Andrew. They remembered a long list of catchphrases Filan would fire off, many of which ended up on a tshirt worn by Hack’s team.
Sit down and quit embarrassing your parents. Here’s a quarter…call someone who cares. If you can't take the heat...get out of the kitchen! If you were a horse…they’d shoot ya.
During soccer games, Filan would throw down his clipboard, sending paper flying all around during heated moments.
“People that didn't know him were put off by this, but those of us that had the opportunity to know him on a personal level knew that his emotion came from his love for us,” Hack wrote in an email. “He was kind, caring, and extremely passionate.”
Lorenzen remembered how he brought a sense of joy to all of the hard work put in.
“I learned to have fun while playing the game with him,” Lorenzen said. “It wasn’t always about winning. It was about having fun. Enjoying your team mates and enjoying high school soccer.”
News of Filan’s sudden and tragic death have led to a great deal of sadness among his former athletes, who took to social media since Tuesday to share memories. But in recollecting, Lorenzen said they found themselves often smiling.
“For such a tragedy and sad circumstances, bringing up his name has put a lot of smiles on a lot of people who are sitting down and thinking of Coach Filan,” Lorenzen said. “He left happiness in our hearts. I was very blessed to have four years with Coach Filan.”
Hack found out in years since high school that his influence continues and grows.
“Filan taught us things we didn't know he was teaching us until years after we graduated,” she wrote. “I am truly thankful he left such an impact on me and was a source of guidance through my influential teenage years. We have lost a legend. He was a unique soul. Incomparable to anyone else I’ve ever met."