By Ken Trainor
Maybe it's because he was in office when I started at Wednesday Journal (20 long years ago this fall), but John Philbin has always been my prototype village president.
Witty, intelligent, and comfortable in his own skin, he had two qualities that every future village president should inculcate: He never took himself too seriously and he had a thick enough skin to let the barbs bounce off.
John Hedges, who, barring a legitimate challenger, will be our next village president, seems to fit that profile pretty well — although you never know how thick your skin is until you step into the role.
David Pope, our current president, is a fine person with his heart and head in the right place, but the rap on him has always been excessive seriousness (not the worst offense, by a long shot, on the list of political liabilities).
His three previous predecessors, Joanne Trapani, Barbara Furlong, and Larry Christmas, all quality people as well, trended toward taciturn, though Trapani could also be caustic (after all, she had Bob Milstein to contend with).
But Philbin was a delight. Eminently quotable (and available), he didn't view the local press with wary suspicion because he understood that everyone at this level of governance is basically on the same side. He served as trustee and president and just before he left office in 1993, Eric Linden and I interviewed him in our offices.
A few of his responses highlight why Philbin was in a class by himself:
Asked how he got into local politics, he replied: "One of my wife's thousands of old boyfriends asked me one day if I wanted to do some work for The Party," which is what he called the VMA, whose members would turn pasty-faced if anyone referred to the organization that way today.
"Not even old Richard Daley had as much success as The Party," he added.
He talked about the relationship between village boards and village managers as "the yo-yo effect." Sometimes the trustees wanted someone they could dominate and sometimes they wanted "a take-charge guy." In the 1980s, Philbin said, "they got it in spades with Ralph De Santis. Ralph was a take-charge guy who needed to smooth his public relations edges. By the time he walked the plank, the mindset was again that we don't want to have the manager [exercise too much authority]."
The Philbin prescription was: "The manager should be doing 80 percent of what's needed. The board can't set new policy every day of the week." Something to keep in mind as we search for our next chief executive.
On the subject of Oak Park's notoriously opinionated populace, he had this to say: "For the most part, people have class. I've only gotten two hate calls in 10 years of service [one about the fire department and one about the handgun ban]. You'll get some complaining letters, but you also get a lot of complimentary letters. It's a class community, where it isn't just people carping.
"Probably the biggest problem with a literate, educated community," he added, "is on the part of some people who disagree with the village and have an arrogance. Some people think they know everything about everything but don't really know what the facts are."
The toughest part of being village president? "Balancing interests and trying to come out even," he said. "Sometimes you balance the interests and you don't do the right thing because you try to give both sides half a loaf."
On Oak Park exceptionalism: "There are people who live in Schaumburg, whose last experience with Oak Park might have been 10 years ago, who say, 'How's Oak Park doing?' which is what you usually say to a cancer patient. Oak Park is a high-visibility community. … Whenever the metropolitan press wants to do a story about what the suburbs are doing on this or this, automatically one of them says, 'We'd better find out what Oak Park is doing.' It's sort of a burden that keeps you breathless because everybody expects you to be light years ahead of everybody else."
On the benefits of the arts, tourism and diversity: "Hopefully it impacts on people to want to visit here, or they're making a decision on whether to move here. It can tell people what life's like in the community.
"You know, that nervousness about diversity — there was always a rule of thumb that there was a tilt point. Sociologists would say, well, 20 percent or something. But there's less emphasis, I think, on a tilt point today because people are looking at more than numbers and more at what else the town has to offer."
John Philbin took everything in stride and was wise enough not to get too worked up or take anything too personally. He was refreshingly honest in a way that was easy to listen to. He inspired confidence. Future trustees and presidents would do well to study his style.
Don't take yourself too seriously, and let the barbs bounce off. That should be inscribed in the VMA playbook for future selection committees. And it's something for all of us to keep in mind as we head toward next April's local election.
Call it "The Philbin Rule."
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