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Scenes from Idol finalist DeWyze's 'awesome' day
Daily Herald Staff Report
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Published: 5/14/2010 10:56 PM

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No, that wasn't the ghost of Elvis Presley stopping traffic and basking in teenage adoration throughout Chicago and the suburbs Friday.

But American Idol finalist Lee DeWyze surely got the chance to know what it felt like to be Elvis, as he was ushered through a whirlwind day of parades, media appearances and, everywhere he went, deafening cheers.

DeWyze's morning began at 7 a.m. with an appearance on Fox television in downtown Chicago and ended nearly 13 hours later with a sold-out concert at Arlington Park Racecourse in Arlington Heights. Sandwiched in between, he appeared on two radio stations, sang for a gathering at a Skokie AT&T store, threw out the first pitch to a Cubs game, spoke and sang to students at two suburban schools, led a short parade and signed paint cans at the Mount Prospect store where he worked until his Idol journey began just a couple of months ago.

Here are highlights from throughout the day:

The show

For what was supposed to be a three-song mini-concert, DeWyze strummed through six covers and four original songs. He took the stage before a sellout crowd of 41,369 around 7:05 p.m. and after several goodbyes and thank yous, he left at 8:08 p.m. A crowd of 41,369 cheered their hometown hero.

Tears streamed down his face and his voice quivered between songs as he worked his way through numbers by Kings of Leon, Dave Mathews Band, Counting Crows, The Beatles, Hinder and Ben Harper.

"I love you guys," he said. "This is absolutely the best. You guys have just as much to do with this as I do, and I can't thank you enough."

He teased the crowd with a few measures of Seal's "Kiss from a Rose," one of his few Idol performances to be panned by the judges.

"You remember what happened the last time I played that?" he said.

He worked the crowd like a seasoned pro, thanking his family, accepting Mount Prospect's key to the village carved out of an ash tree by a local artist and working Mount Prospect and Arlington Heights into a line of Paul Simon's "The Boxer."

"The next time you guys see me, it's going to be big. It's going to be loud. It's going to be awesome," he said.

In the audience, Adam Pratt of Hoffman Estates wanted to take Lee DeWyze's place on stage. Pratt auditioned for American Idol in 2004 in St. Louis but failed to make the cut. He's impressed by DeWyze but said he isn't sure that he'll be crowned the winner.

"I don't think he'll be Carrie or Daughtry material," he said, referring to Carrie Underwood and Chris Daughtry, two past Idol contestants who've gone on to hugely successful personal careers.

Standing on the main concourse behind the throngs of teenage fans, Mike Mrozek of Lake Zurich held a life-size cardboard cut-out of his friend Michelle Spoke, a former Lake Zurich resident who had worked with DeWyze's sister at a local Starbucks before moving to San Diego. Unable to make the show, she'd shipped to her family the photo of her holding a pink sign reading "Lee is our Idol."

Township High School District 214 Superintendent David Schuler told the crowd before DeWyze took the stage that the rocker had been "inspirational" to the high school students he visited earlier in the day.

"He touched and changed people's lives today," Schuler said. Standing around for four hours waiting to hear DeWyze sing was totally worth it, said Meg Chamberlin of Gurnee, who was on a "girls' day out" with her 18-year-old daughter Morgan, 15-year-old niece Megan and two of her sisters from Arlington Heights.

"We had a nice day," she said. "We're just so happy that he's done so well. We look forward to see him win the whole thing."

"I thought it was amazing," said Claudette Cooper of Palatine, accompanied by her fawning 11-year-old son Travis. "I mean coming from absolutely nothing to this, it's absolutely amazing. He seems like a genuine person."

The parade

What do you do for 10 hours when you are waiting for an American Idol parade to start? Some DeWyze fans had to figure that out Friday as they began lining up along Northwest Highway in Mount Prospect even before as 7 a.m. to stake out prime seats for the afternoon pandemonium.

"We brought our stuff at 10 a.m. and we've been watching it on hourlong shifts since then," said Jan Scott of Mount Prospect, who was on sentry duty for their plot of blankets and chairs. "We had to be out here because he's one of our kids, and we're proud of our students from Mount Prospect."

Luckily, it was a beautiful sunny afternoon. Austie Savitski and Kim Karpus, sophomore college students from Plano drove 90 minutes to see their idol.

"We've been talking to people, making friends, and we even met some friends of Lee," said Savitski. "He has a great voice, and he's not too bad on the eyes either," said Karpus. DeWyze was 30 minutes late, but no one seemed to mind all that much.

Fans grooved to a playlist of his performances from this season on "Idol" that boomed from an iPod plugged into portable speakers.

"We don't mind that he's late. It's fun and we're just here to support Lee" said Mt. Prospect resident Michelle Finley, who confessed to putting out chairs at 9:30 Friday morning to reserve spots for her and her friends.

Others found more creative ways to pass the time.

Sandy Clark and her daughter Nicky dressed up three golden retrievers Cody, Cooper and Chole in T-shirts that read "Mt. Prospect loves Lee."

But once DeWyze was on the scene, the crowd literally swarmed the Mustang convertible carrying DeWyze and his father and mother, which had to inch forward, trailing cheerleaders and the Prospect High School Marching Knights and forming a moving surge of humanity until it stopped at Central Road and the paint store where DeWyze used to work.

The paint store

In a short visit to his old job at Mount Prospect Paint, DeWyze was greeted with something of a shrine - a table laid out with three guitars, a gallon of paint in tangelo (his favorite color), a few T-shirts, gloves, a hat, photos and some paint sticks. The idea was for him to sign them for a charity sale, said Bill Lagattolla, owner of the store.

"We'll keep one guitar here on display in the store for him," Lagattolla said. Lagattolla, whose store has been selling DeWyze shirts, wore a red company T-shirt because the store had been open for business part of the day - "and besides we're sold out."

But he noted he had his lucky Lee DeWyze button on.

When DeWyze came in the store, he asked for water, shed a few tears and headed right to the paint mixing station. "This is where I used to work every day. Coming back here is so crazy right now," he said.

Surprise at St. James

Barbara O'Brien just sounds like a teacher.

"He was always well behaved and a well-mannered young man," O'Brien remembered as DeWyze showed up for a surprise visit at his old grade school, St. James Catholic School in Arlington Heights, "with a great sense of humor and those lovely blue eyes."

DeWyze attended St. James through eighth grade along with his three siblings and stopped by Friday to give O'Brien a hug and sing a couple songs.

Third-grader Kiana Resch and her classmates jumped up and down and screamed with excitement the entire time.

"This is so amazing, I think it's the best thing that's ever happened here," she said. "I'm just so glad God gave us this day."

DeWyze may have felt the same. As he left clutching a stuffed bulldog mascot given to him by the school, he told the kids, St. James was "just awesome."

"I'm not kidding. You guys are the best," he said.

On passion

In a private session at Northwest Suburban High School District 214's Forest View Alternative High School in Arlington Heights, DeWyze said he'd learned how following your passion and working hard lead to success. He sang a song and told the students he'd walked in their shoes and heard people tell him all the things he couldn't do.

"He was so humble and spoke to these kids from his heart," reported Linda Zaccagnini, who worked in the Forest View office when DeWyze attended the alternative high school. "They know that you can succeed and good things can happen if you work at it."

Geri Morris, who works in the high school office, said DeWyze used to play for preschool students when he attended the school. He also liked to sit in the commons and play guitar, but didn't like others to watch him, so she would find a spot where she could listen without being seen.

"He said he always believed he'd be making music, but not at this level," she said.

First pitch

The Murphy boys of Mount Prospect had a day full of Lee DeWyze on Friday.

Mike Jr., 10, Nolan, 11, and Garrett, 7, were at the Cubs game to watch their Idol throw out the first pitch with tickets in their pockets for the evening concert at Arlington Park. They watch every Idol episode, dad Mike Sr. said.

"I like to see him get those "Lee eyes" because then you know he's happy and having fun," Nolan Murphy said.

Sporting a No. 9 home pinstripe Cubs jersey over a hoodie sweatshirt and a black mitt on his left hand, DeWyze confidently headed out to the mound around 1:05 p.m.

It was high. But it was a strike.

AT&T store, Skokie

Michael DeWyze dropped by the Skokie AT&T store Friday morning just to be part of the crowd for his brother Lee's appearance, but ended up getting a little taste of the limelight himself.

While most of the crowd huddled around Lee for autographs and photos after his two impromptu performances, smaller groups came up to the similar looking Michael to do the same with him and ask for his insights about his now-famous brother.

Small children lined up eagerly to get posters signed and shake his hand, while their parents asked whether he was the little brother or the big brother and other details about the DeWyze household.

Finally, much to Michael's surprise, Lee asked him if he wanted to go to the Cubs game with him. Michael, wearing a dark blazer and white athletic shoes, eagerly hopped into the back of the "American Idol" limo beside him.

Lee apologized to his friend Brian Friedopfer that there was only enough room for him to take one other person. But Friedopfer said he'd already got more time with Lee than he was expecting when he drove over to the AT&T store.

"I said, 'You've got nothing to apologize for,'" Friedopfer said, knowing he'd see Lee again at the Arlington Park concert.

On the radio

His iPod is full of Ben Harper, Kings of Leon and Chris Cornell, DeWyze told Q101's Steve Tingle. That was one of the questions he answered during appearances on The Mix and Q101. Another was whether he has a girlfriend. He doesn't. "Doing this kind of thing, you can't have a girlfriend," he said.

Before he went on the air, DeWyze caught a glimpse of himself from earlier on Fox's Morning Show. A shot of his former employer, Mount Prospect Paints, flashed across the screen.

"I'm glad I'm not there right now," said DeWyze as he thought about how far he'd come in less than one year.

Fox in the Morning

If the whole singing thing doesn't work out, DeWyze may have a career in television. DeWyze was chatting with Fox in the Morning hosts, when he was suddenly thrown in front of a green screen to do weather and traffic.

"Wow, Friday is looking good, it's going to be 68" he ad-libbed, while pointing to a blank weather screen. "Monday, well, is not looking so good."

When asked who would win Idol on May 26, DeWyze shrugged.

"Anything can happen," he said.

- Sheila Ahern, Eric Peterson, Ted Cox, Kathleen Danes Kim Pohl, Ashok Selvam, Madhu Krishnamurthy, Debby Donovan, Peter McGrain, Eileen O. Daday