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By Devin Rose
As a former high school teacher, Al Popowits has learned how to effectively communicate to an audience. His classroom experience taught him to be heard, make eye contact and, most importantly, not be boring.
In fact, he was so not boring that Wednesday Journal has named him River Forest's Village of the Year.
"Teenagers, they're the hardest audience there is," Popowits, 80, said during a recent interview. Unlike adults, who will act polite in front of a boring speaker, teenagers never will.
"You better damn well not be boring," said Popowits, a 22-year resident of River Forest.
His experience in the classroom could explain his performance at an October forum where residents heard the pros and cons of home rule, a designation that River Forest residents voted against in November. Popowits led a grassroots effort opposing the referendum that the village board had put on the ballot this past summer.
Popowits knew he took a more forceful tone at the forum compared to his fellow speaker, Bruno Behrend, but he said the two complemented each other well to get their point across.
"I was kind of the bombastic individual," Popowits said.
As a home-rule community, the board would have expanded its power to take any action except for those prohibited by the state constitution or statutes. Roughly 80 percent of voters said they did not want the designation, a result that surprised even Popowits.
Once he found out about a year ago that the board was serious about exploring the home rule option, Popowits sprang into action. He started making calls and gathering people together who were also opposed. The group began producing fliers to distribute around town. Popowits was also involved in the opposition effort in 2006, when a committee studying the issue narrowly voted in favor of putting a similar referendum on the ballot. The village board, however, decided against it.
Popowits argued for months in letters to Wednesday Journal that becoming a home-rule community would give current and future trustees almost absolute power. This could lead to higher taxes and could do away with referendums because the board would have no reason for public input.
It wasn't difficult to find others with a similar point of view, he said. Many people he talked to were afraid of being socially ostracized and wanted to help the effort anonymously. Others were frustrated with what they said was a lack of transparency by the board.
"I wasn't aware of the extent of the resentment," Popowits said. "I was shocked by it, really."
But for Popowits, opposition to home rule was never personal. He said a healthy skepticism of government is good, but people also need to be informed in order to get a dialogue going. A disconnect may have occurred with home rule because the board could have reached out more, but residents should also make a better effort to find out what's going on at board meetings, he said.
Trustee Cathy Adduci, who will be a candidate next April for village president, said she has gotten to know Popowits through the River Forest Service Club over the last several years. She said his familiarity with the community and passion for its issues make him a valued resident of River Forest. Healthy debate, like that which emerged during the home-rule discussion, is a good thing, Adduci said, as long as it doesn't get personal. Popowits, she said, just wanted to do what he thought was right for the community.
"Al was able to bring together an argument that resonated with 80 percent of the community," said Adduci, who has found Popowits to be a good listener who does not want to dominate discussions.
Popowits said he's been interested in politics since he was about 11 years old when he ran errands for a local precinct captain. His parents were poor Austrian immigrants with very little education, but his mother bribed a Chicago alderman to let him attend Austin High School. Being around middle-class kids for the first time made him realize that college could be an option.
"I always had a sense that there was something better out there than what I had," Popowits said. He attended the former Chicago Teachers College and got a job with the Chicago Public School system, which paid $4,800 a year — the highest starting salary in the state at the time, he recalled. When his father saw his paycheck, it was the first time he realized the value of a college education. He always insisted that his four children get summer jobs so they would understand why they were going to college.
Opposition to home rule wasn't the first cause Popowits has gotten behind in the community. He said he and his wife, Gail, were always involved in community issues while raising their family in Oak Park. They attended school board meetings, and he served as a Republican precinct captain.
"We fell in love with [Barry] Goldwater," he said, noting that he has since moved to the opposite end of the political spectrum.
He started to earn the trust of his fellow residents several years ago when he was president of an advocacy group that fought the Illinois Elevator Safety Review Board. The group got the attention of Sen. Don Harmon, who helped pass a law protecting the public from the elevator industry, which was attempting to force condo associations to make unnecessary upgrades.
Now, Popowits said, he's using the momentum from the home rule effort to develop a civic organization called the River Forest Voice. Members will attend meetings to keep up with the village board and report back to the public so they're informed. They're working on a website: www.riverforestvoice.com.
Popowits recognized River Forest is lucky to have volunteer trustees who are willing to serve the community, but he wants residents to pay more attention to what they do. With home rule this year, he wanted the board to know that he and others were listening.
"I was like the pesky little yip-yap dog," he said. "If you didn't accept me today, I'd come back tomorrow."