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By Ken Trainor
One of Galen and Marge Gockel's first encounters with Oak Park's village government was when the village bought their house and demolished it. The Gockel family moved into 534 S. Lombard Ave. in August 1969. Three years later, the village purchased 24 homes and razed them to make way for the new village hall.
Two of those homeowners had already relocated once when the Eisenhower Expressway came through, Marge recalled.
It's telling, said Galen, that most of those who left their Lombard and Taylor homes stayed in Oak Park.
It's also telling that by the time the family moved out of their cedar-sided bungalow in 1972, Galen was already a year into his first term as a District 97 elementary school board member. And it tells even more than 30 years later, he attended board meetings as a village trustee on the site of his old house.
Galen, 78, and Marge, 77, trace their community involvement back to Hyde Park, which was "a hotbed of activism," said Marge, in the late 1950s/early 1960s. While studying for his doctorate in sociology at the University of Chicago, a neighbor who worked for the Chicago Conference on Religion and Race (CCRR), told them they were having problems with unfair real estate practices in Oak Park. So on their first visit to the village, the Gockels acted as "straw buyers" for a black couple that couldn't get anyone to show them a house on the 600 block of South East Avenue.
They liked what they saw.
"There was a core of progressives here," Marge recalled. "The civic engagement was attractive — and we agreed with them."
Integration was the buzzword and everyone was worried that the village would "change" too rapidly. Galen ran for the school board because he was worried that the schools were changing too unevenly.
"It was a hot time," he remembered. "It was clear that District 97 was not ready to accept black students willingly." Since most of the minority students were moving into the schools in east-central Oak Park, he feared it would affect the housing market and cause the kind of uneven diversity that today characterizes Evanston.
He and others got behind a plan to create two junior highs that would pair the northeast quadrant of the village with the southwest in one school and the northwest quadrant with the southeast in the other. It helped redistribute the racial balance in the schools.
"The buses started to roll in 1976," Galen said. "People said we were destroying the neighborhood school system, which we were," but integrating the schools demanded it. He credits Marilyn Lehman, president of the board, who had connections with the Republicans and the Oak Park Country Club set, with helping the establishment to accept the change.
"She believed it was good for black and white kids to play together."
As Galen was completing his second three-year term in 1977, Marge was co-founding a Saturday morning event that has become a cherished village institution — the Farmers' Market.
She and Carla Lind, both University of Michigan grads, were familiar with Ann Arbor's market, and Evanston had started theirs the year before. The Oak Park Mall Commission turned down their request to locate it in the downtown because they were afraid of attracting rats, but the village got on board. The first summer, they started with three growers. By the end of the season, they had 15. Once the market moved from North Boulevard to the Pilgrim Church parking lot on Lake Street, a couple of members of the church started bringing their wives' electric frying pans and making donuts.
"That has turned into a powerhouse for nonprofit fundraising," said Marge. "They have up to 40 people per weekend making donuts now."
Galen kept a lower profile through the 1980s and focused on his job as director of the Urban Studies Program for the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, a consortium of 12 Midwestern colleges, which sent students to Chicago for hands-on field work. After morning classes, some of which Galen taught, the students headed to their internships at the Cook County Jail, the Chicago Public Schools, women's health clinics, and other organizations.
A number of students were so inspired by the experience, they left their schools and transferred to Chicago universities.
"Many have leadership positions in Chicago," Galen noted. "Eleven of them are now living in Oak Park." That includes the head of Wonder Works Children's Museum.
The Gockels were also one of 60 local families who were early investors in Wednesday Journal. Galen served on the company's board for several years in the 1990s.
He retired in 1996, which allowed more time for his part-time position as Township Assessor (he replaced the retiring Bill Shafer in 1993). He enjoyed his taste of local governance so much ("It was half social work, half tax policy") that he began thinking of running for the Oak Park village board. He appeared before the VMA and came three votes shy of being slated for president. As it turns out, it was a blessing since he and then-village manager Carl Swenson didn't see eye to eye.
But he was elected trustee in 2001. As stressful as that job is under the best of circumstances, it became even more so the following year when Marge was diagnosed with cancer, multiple myeloma, and underwent a stem-cell transplant. So while Galen was trustee, he was also nursing his wife back to health.
When his term ended in 2005, he'd had enough.
As a trustee, he said, "A lot is beyond your control. You're at the mercy of economic, political and demographic forces."
"And Oak Park is a particularly contentious community," Marge added.
"That's good and it's bad," Galen said.
The term following his was particularly tumultuous. A non-VMA slate swept into office; then two of the new trustees resigned early. Galen was asked to return for a year to fill out a term.
Then he joined Festival Theatre.
"It was a community asset," he said. "It was one of those things from the 1970s — like Farmers' Market, A Day in Our Village, and saving the Oak Park Conservatory — that were part of the renaissance of our community."
The theater had fallen on hard times and hadn't had a managing director for two years.
"They were really in debt," he recalled. "The previous board let the artistic director go wild. There was no cost control."
He joined the "rescue operation," led by Joyce Porter and new artistic director Jack Hickey.
"I knew nothing about theater," he said. "I just knew that you can't spend more dollars than you have."
Five years later, the group is in much better shape and recently received a coveted Jeff nomination for set design. But it was turning into a full-time job, and Galen was ready to slow down. Festival Theatre recently honored him for his efforts.
His latest involvement is with Ten Thousand Villages, the fair trade store on Marion Street, where he serves as board vice president. Marge, meanwhile, volunteers at Farmers' Market and the Economy Shop and is co-chair of the League of Women Voters' government observers.
"I like being a cog," she said.
Why do they stay involved?
"I want to fix things," Galen said. "Where that comes from I have no idea." Marge attributes it to his "feisty" mother, an avid volunteer.
"We both understand," Marge said, "that if you stay home and read your books, you become stagnant, and that's not good for your health or the community."
In terms of involvement in Oak Park and River Forest (Galen is also involved in Concordia University's new $20 million capital fundraising campaign), both Gockels say it was easier to get involved in the 1970s.
"We were united against rapid racial change," Galen said, "whether you were Republican or Democrat. The threat was very palpable. Everyone saw it and knew it. Now that glue isn't holding people together. We don't have a common task."
"A lot of people think there's no battle to be fought," said Marge.
Galen adds, "They think the battle has been won."