Jim McClure's leadership legacy

Opinion: Columns

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By David Sokol

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Remarks delivered at the recent memorial service:

Jim McClure was president of the village of Oak Park for two 4-year terms, from 1973-1981, and it was my honor and privilege to serve as a village trustee with him for the second of those terms.

When Jim was elected president, along with his mostly young board, the village had begun to squarely face the issues of racial change and diversity, as well as the challenge of ensuring economic survival, in the four prior years. There had been clear recognition of the impact of rapid racial change just east of the village in Chicago, and the first major auto dealership had recently left Oak Park for the open spaces of the far western suburbs.

Jim and the board recognized that more needed to be done to show faith in the village as a whole, and they made a major commitment to that end by acquiring the properties of the vacant Chevrolet dealership, and the houses in the area, as the site of a new Village Hall in east Oak Park. That first board of Jim's also undertook many other initiatives to deal head on with major social and economic issues. Some of those initiatives and programs were universally supported, others were more controversial, but all were aimed at making a welcoming and viable community.

In Jim's second term, we dealt with some extremely important matters, from the snow storm of 1979 through the Nazi march and the village's first steps at gun regulation, to the first sales of liquor in restaurants. Through all of these issues, Jim McClure was a patient listener, who almost never spoke until the other trustees had had their say, and who often then called for a vote if he concurred with the sentiments expressed, without having said a word.

He was tolerant of different approaches and differences of opinion; his personal religious code kept him away from imbibing, but he saw the economic benefit of having a choice of good eating establishments, and so supported the granting of liquor licenses to full-service restaurants. He was patient, always allowing members of the public to say things he strongly disagreed with; he listened, without rebuttal, without criticism, and then quietly moved the trustees along on the agenda. He never felt he had to be recognized or deferred to because he was president, and he took neither public nor private credit for programs or results. 

But when it came to an issue of social justice, whether in support of steps to ensure racial diversity or to oppose hatred, his voice was strong and clear. He spoke for our entire board when he addressed the leaders of the American Nazi Party, telling them that we abhorred all they stood for, but the price of democracy was allowing them to have their march.

Jim was a great mentor, as others have noted in public comments and in the press, in regard to his work with the Boy Scouts and to younger colleagues at his law firm, but he was equally so for the younger members of both of the village boards over which he presided. I learned from him that I didn't have to always get in the last word [though I admit to falling short of his admirable model] and that one could, and should, stick to a path that one felt was morally right, even if were unpopular. He was never deterred by an outcry against a position he had taken if he felt it was the honest and right course to take.

He was a direct, honest, and principled leader, and Oak Park is richer because of his work on behalf of all of us, yet poorer for the loss of his presence among us.

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