Part 7 in a series

On, Above and Behind Sherman Avenue, a series of profiles, gives our readers the opportunity to learn more about the people and businesses that would have been displaced, and the buildings that would have disappeared if a recent development proposal had not been withdrawn. The proposal called for demolishment of about half of the buildings along the west side of the 1700 block of Sherman Avenue in Evanston.

Toni DiDonato, Rendezvous Music, 1718 Sherman Ave.

Toni DiDonato is a vocalist and the band leader for Rendezvous, one of the two bands that she and her husband, Kevin Connelly, manage through their Evanston-based company Rendezvous Music. In addition to playing the drums, Mr. Connelly manages promotion and design for the company.

Ms. DiDonato and Mr. Connelly met at Northwestern University, where they were both music performance majors. While she started as a classical singer, Ms. DiDonato said that early on she had a feeling that she would be a very good band leader.

Rendezvous, the band, plays what Ms. DiDonato refers to as the American songbook of hits, including music by Bruno Mars, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Neil diamond, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder. “We’re a live band, but we kind of operate how a DJ does. Our job is to get people on the dance floor, and I’m the MC. We’ve gotten to be really good at coming into the event and shaping it,” said Ms. DiDonato.

Rendezvous performs on the North Shore and in the city for clients in hotels, clubs and a variety of venues, including places like the Bridgeport Arts Center and the Harold Washington Library. They also travel outside the metro-Chicago area a bit, including to places like St. Louis, parts of Michigan and Minnesota, and have gone as far as Atlanta, Ga.

“I think with the years of experience that I’ve had of doing this work, I’ve gotten particularly good at it,” said Ms. DiDonato, who has been the band’s leader for 10 years, a role that is typically reserved for men. “I think I’m the first woman band leader that has had as much success in Chicagloand in the last 50 years.” Ms. DiDonato talked about how much she loves the interaction she has with people and about how it comes from experience and also desire. “I listen and I want every event to be a reflection of who the client is – and at the same time I bring my expertise to the event. We perform at what are often high-moments in peoples’ life, whether it’s a birthday, a corporate event or a wedding. It’s important, and people need to be comfortable with who is driving the fun factor. I’ve been told that I’m a great MC, and I feel like I’m really good the night of the party. I plug into what’s going on and determine what songs to call at what time. It’s part of the reason that we’ve been so successful.”

Ms. DiDonato laughed as she talked about the 1700 block of Sherman Ave., “I’ve spent much of my adult life on this block. I used to rent apartments from Schermerhorn [real estate management company] when I was in college. Now I rent my office from them, and do all my sales meetings there, sitting with clients and chatting, and putting together the itinerary and song list for their event.”

Rendezvous Music, which has been in the same office at 1718 Sherman Avenue for ten years, includes two adjacent rooms, one of which serves as a waiting area. “I feel like Evanston is a really welcoming place. Clients come to meet with me and then ask where they should go for dinner,” said Ms. DiDonato.

She said that the building is “beautiful, vintage and Evanston,” that she loves what people have done with their spaces in the building, as well as her own corner office, with its hardwood floors and high ceiling. “This is a phenomenal location, there is so much history on this block – Marshall Fields, the Varsity movie theater. I was so disappointed when I heard that so much of the block might be demolished. I didn’t want it to happen; it’s my favorite block in Evanston,” said Ms. DiDonato. “Some of the businesses that are here were here when I was in school. Evanston just wouldn’t be same with all modern buildings that look like they’re made with a cookie cutter. The highrises may be good for the city, but the mix is what makes Evanston charming. If they took away all the beautiful old buildings, it wouldn’t have that quaint, cool-by-the-water vibe that it has.”

Russell J. Cook Ltd. CPA, 1718 Sherman Ave.

Starting in 1986 as an employee of small Evanston firms, Russell Cook has worked as a CPA, and began his work as a sole practitioner in 1998. Mr. Cook said that he works with a range of businesses and nonprofits that have annual budgets ranging from $300,000 all the way up to $18 million. “As a firm with one employee, I have to know how to do a bit of everything – and for businesses and organizations of many different sizes.”

Asked how he decided on accounting as a career, he said that the field had piqued his interest in the later years of high school and that when he went to college, his goal was to be an accounting major and become a CPA. “The profession attracted me – working with financials. As a public accountant, I could work with a variety of businesses and organizations. That was very appealing to me,” said Mr. Cook. “I like the problem solving part and clients have challenges on a regular basis. It’s about helping them with their accounting needs. It falls back to the accuracy and getting the numbers right – it’s all about problem solving.” Mr. Cook said he has been working with most of his clients since 1993, that they’ve referred other clients to him and that he has had a strong retention rate.

“The stereotype of an accountant is a buttoned-down, no-personality person, but like any field you have a variety of people. Yes, there is the buttoned-down type, but there is also a very outgoing personality type,” said Mr. Cook. “I’ve found that especially as a public accountant I have to be able to attract and retain a range of clients. They come in all kinds of personality types and it takes flexibility. I develop relationships with my clients, I think of them as more than the client. I think of them as friends.”

Asked how he handles all the details as a sole practitioner, especially at tax time, he said, “It’s a process. I’ve learned to become efficient over the years. I had to make the decision of whether I wanted to bring staff in or keep it small. With today’s technology it’s a lot easier and though there are lots of tasks and there can be long hours, it’s more rewarding to be working for myself and doing it on my own.”

Mr. Cook said that during the peak of tax season he works seven days a week and 10 to 12 hours a day. “I put the blinders on and just focus on getting the work done, on making sure everyone is taken care of by the tax deadline. We may extend returns, but the goal is to ensure that if money is due in April that we get it taken care of. I’ve been doing this for a number of years, and even though it still doesn’t feel routine, you get accustomed to it. The intensity is just part of the process.”

Though he lives in Rogers Park, Mr. Cook said he chose Evanston as the location for his work because he finds it attractive and it has a lot going on. “I see Evanston as a thriving downtown environment – a lot of it has to do with the University, the professors, and the administration that support the economy. There is also the proximity to Chicago. It’s a good overall community with good schools and is just a good place to be overall.”

Mr. Cook said he would have been sad to see what would have happened to Sherman Avenue had the now-failed development moved forward – and to see the building where he has worked for so many years razed. “I like the old vintage type of building, which this one is,” said Mr. Cook. “I had a client who said it felt like he was coming to see Sam Spade, the detective in some building from the ‘40s. It’s like the Carlson Building and the Hahn Building. You know, progress is great, but it’s sad to see buildings that bring character lost.” He said that he is not against progress, but that he believes that people want nice-looking buildings like the older ones in Evanston.

“It would be a travesty to see a building like Carlson go away. We have a blend of new and old, and that’s what makes Evanston attractive. If these buildings had been demolished, it would have been terrible. The street-level shops would have had to relocate or go out of business,” said Mr. Cook. “I haven’t looked at the rental market since ‘98, but a lot of small offices would have to go to Skokie or somewhere to find the right sized space at the right price. There’s not a lot of small space around. If we lost the spot, I don’t know what I would have done. I would have wanted to stay in the Evanston area, but it would be difficult to find the kind of space I’m in.”

Ned Schaub

Ned Schaub is a feature story writer for the RoundTable. He has served as reporter, content developer and communications manager across his career in the field of nonprofit communications. Ned studied...