1: sneaker issued inside the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center 2: Ronald Oldaker, employee since 1973.
Detention center residents have long called their county-issued white sneakers "Oldakers," but it's unlikely they know that the shoes
are named for a veteran employee who handed them out decades ago when no other caseworkers would.
The utilitarian shoes are a perfect metaphor for Ronald Oldaker, a
low-key problem solver and red-tape-eradicator who is considered by
many to be the center's unsung hero, a consistent advocate through eras
of turmoil and mismanagement.
Now, Oldaker, who has risen to director of the resident advocacy unit, said he is planning to retire at the end of the year.
"Anytime we have a problem with the detention center, he's my go-to
guy. If he can't answer it, there's no answer to the problem," said
Juvenile Court Judge Terrence Sharkey. "Cook County will take a big hit
when he leaves. They can replace him with a body. But I don't know that
they are going to replace him."
"Oh, no, no, no," said Linda Utall, chief of the juvenile justice
division in the Cook County public defender's office, when told of
Oldaker's retirement plans. "We need him."
That anyone could rise to hero status amid the years of violence, chaos
and court-intervention at the beleaguered facility is remarkable.
But over almost four decades, the 62-year-old evolved into just that
for lawyers, judges, parents and administrators — not to mention kids —
who need help in navigating the county bureaucracy to fix a problem,
whether it is finding a kid's coat or locating a parent to take a child
Oldaker, originally from Indiana, has silver-white hair, rosy skin and
punctuates many of his sentences with "and such forth." He lives in
Calumet City with two of his five adopted sons; he never married.
Emblematic of his humility: Oldaker's name is misspelled on his county
e-mail address, but he's never gone through the trouble of changing it.
On a recent afternoon, Oldaker wore a navy blazer as he met with
residents who had filed grievances about staff treatment on the
detention center's living units.
Oldaker read from the grievance. "You wrote down staff told you a
lie…You felt offended," he said to a teen boy from unit 5F. Before
meeting with him, Oldaker had spoken to supervisors about the
complaint. They in turn, spoke to the staff.
"They shouldn't lie to get you to do something," Oldaker said. The boy signed the grievance, closing the case.
"All right," Oldaker said. "Take it easy."
That same day on that unit, Oldaker sneakers were lined up outside the
kids' rooms because they are required to take them off before they
enter, Oldaker said. They're less likely to kick their doors if they're
Oldaker said he handed out the shoes, among his other duties, from the
mid-1970s to about 2000. Staff members slowly went from saying "we need
Oldaker" when they needed the sneakers to "we need Oldakers." The name
Now, when he calls a unit to resolve a problem and identifies himself,
a new staff member on the other end of the call inevitably responds:
"Like the sneakers?"
Walking the halls, Oldaker said the kids in the facility are tougher
today than when he started in 1973, due to new probation screening
practices as well as diversion programs like electronic monitoring and
home confinement. Oldaker said these changes have kept out the younger
petty thieves and runaways, leaving the older, more violent, repeat
As Oldaker stopped by the intake unit, a boy said he was being released to Downstate authorities.
"What are you on probation for?" Oldaker asked.
"Residential burglary," the boy answered.
"Good luck," Oldaker told him.
David Lux, a retiree who worked three decades at the detention center,
said one of Oldaker's greatest qualities is that he doesn't mince words.
"He was always more concerned with getting the job done than making it
sound pretty," Lux said. "He doesn't have high philosophical
justifications. … People take care of people, and these are people that
need someone to take care of them."
Lux said juvenile court officials will feel the loss when they can no longer call Oldaker.
"He'll tell you what happened or he'll find the kid's coat… ‘Where are
those shoes the mom brought?' Call Oldaker and see if he can find them.
And he does," Lux said.
Such traits added stability during times when fights and chaos defined the facility. Problems came to a head in 1999 when the American Civil Liberties Union
filed suit against Cook County officials, citing violence and
unsanitary conditions. Eventually, the facility was handed over to the
Cook County Circuit Court to oversee.
"We were understaffed, overcrowded, the staff themselves not trained," Oldaker said.
Benjamin Wolf, an ACLU attorney, said through it all, Oldaker remained consistent.
"I certainly have always had a positive impression of the work that he does," Wolf said.
Through numerous superintendents, Oldaker moved up from line staff to
caseworker and supervisor to administratorwhere he remained for 15
years until 2007, when a transitional administrator, Earl Dunlap, was
appointed by a federal court judge to make changes.
Dunlap promoted Oldaker. And his sense of history and dedication came
in handy as Dunlap began to make improvements, such as breaking up
large groups of kids into smaller, more manageable units and training
some staff members while firing others.
"He probably knows more about every single kid in this building and
every single kid that has come through this building than anybody in
Cook County," Dunlap said. "He's been here through the peaks and
valleys, and there have been more valleys than peaks."
Cook County Public Guardian Robert Harris
said his lawyers have had positive interactions with Oldaker when they
need help with detention center residents who are wards of state.
Harris said Oldaker is an "unsung hero."
"If you want something done, that's the guy you call," Harris said. "The man behind the curtain, like Oz."
Most of Oldaker's days are spent solving problems by phone in his
cluttered office. When asked why people rely on him so much, Oldaker
replies that it's just because he's accessible.
"I answer my phone. I return calls. Something is brought to you, you
want to see if you can find a solution," he said. "Once you've got that
reputation, people come back for more."
Oldaker assumes most of the kids and parents are good, even though some aren't.
"I treat them the way I would want my children to be treated," he said.
He stayed at the center so long, he said, because "I fulfilled a need."
Then, he added, "It fulfilled me."