By Ken Trainor
With Redd Griffin there was no such thing as a short conversation. He knew too much, and it was all connected. He could take you to the seemingly innocuous intersection of Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street, and suddenly you saw it — and the entire village — as the juxtaposition of old world architecture (southeast corner, modeled on the Rothaus in Frankfort, Germany) and the new world (southwest corner, the Prairie-style Scoville Square building). On the northwest corner, you heard about James Scoville, resting on the ridge (a continental divide, for heaven's sake) of what is now the 100-year-old Scoville Park (designed by famous landscape architect Jens Jensen) and deciding to settle there. Suddenly you saw the entire life span of the village, stretching out from that hill.
Suddenly you were seeing the Oak Park that Redd Griffin saw — and lived in and celebrated — the village where everything is an intersection.
Redd died unexpectedly of a heart condition on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012 at Rush Oak Park Hospital. He was 73.
Writing the obituaries of most people, it is difficult to encompass them. With Redd Griffin, it is impossible.
He taught history at Morton East and West high schools. A lifelong Republican, he served a term as state representative in Springfield in the early 1980s. He was Oak Park's greatest champion of Ernest Hemingway, serving on the board of the local Hemingway Foundation, which he co-founded in 1983. He was also a co-founder the Wright Preservation Trust in the 1970s and the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest in the 1960s. He was married to his loyal life partner, Mary Jo, for 42 years. They had two sons and two grandsons and lived in their home on Kenilworth Avenue with the beloved back deck where Redd held court with guests late into the evening (and early into the morning).
And none of that even begins to define him.
When he was born in Oak Park Hospital, his mother shared a room with Sunny Hemingway, Ernie's younger sister.
Redd attended Bishop Quarter Military Academy, located in the building that first housed Oak Park High School at East Avenue and Lake Street, and the truncated version of which now serves as the home of Stephanie Clemens' Academy of Movement and Music. During his time at Bishop Quarter, he commuted from Chicago State Mental Hospital (now Chicago-Read Mental Health Center) on North Oak Park Avenue, where his father was the superintendent and the Griffin family lived on the grounds. In later years, they moved to River Forest.
He attended OPRF High School for two years in the mid-1950s, then gained early admission to Shimer College, an experimental school based on the ideas of the University of Chicago's legendary president Robert Maynard Hutchins. There he became a lifelong devotee of Hutchins' Great Books program.
He served in U.S. Army Intelligence in Berlin during the early 1960s, when the Wall went up. He was there during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and heard Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech. He experienced a profound spiritual conversion in Berlin, which he described as a mystical experience.
He worked for WTTW in the 1950s, and managed to have a private conversation with Frank Lloyd Wright as he waited for a televised interview. On a trip to California, he managed to track down and visit author John Steinbeck. He was still on the WTTW Community Advisory Board when he died.
He served a stint with the City News Bureau.
He was a Republican who was also a proponent of alternative medicine and vegan restaurants. And he cultivated friendships with local liberals like Tom Ard and the late Journal columnist Francis J. Walsh (not to mention a certain current columnist with Wednesday Journal).
He became state rep just as the effort to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution came to a head and a vote.
He and Mary Jo were avid supporters of Alcuin, the first Montessori school in the village, where they enrolled their two sons.
After retiring from Morton, he continued to teach courses at Triton College and Holley Court Terrace. He also gave presentations through Elderhostel.
He was a board member of the Illinois State Historical Society and was just about to join the board of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. He was also a recipient of the Senior Citizens Center's Ulyssean Award for his many contributions to the community.
He wrote and collaborated on readers theater productions and led Hemingway discussion groups for the foundation.
He established relationships with the Hemingway and Wright family and coordinated visits to Oak Park and River Forest by members of both — when he died, he was coordinating the visit of Ernie's grandson, Sean Hemingway, on Dec. 1.
The problem with Redd is that it takes so long to describe him, you never get around to saying how you feel about him. But here's a sample:
"Redd was one of the smartest, most vibrant people I have ever known, and I feel like a huge hole has opened up in the world that will be impossible to fill," said Sue Mosher, one of the students in his Triton philosophy class.
"I will surely miss our conversations, and listening to his ideas on the continuum linking Jeffersonian democracy, the legacy of Hemingway and Wright, and Oak Park's past, present and future values." (Mike Iverson)
"Redd Griffin was a wonderful human being, the kind of man who gave Oak Park a good name." (Christine Vernon)
"Redd's intellect and warm, generous spirit will be terribly missed. He understood as well as anyone the sense of place and character that define Oak Park and he worked relentlessly to preserve those qualities." (Kathryn Jonas)
"He had high standards in his teaching and his work with many organizations. It's hard to visualize the Ernest Hemingway Foundation without him." (Maryanne Rusinak)
"He cared so deeply about so many things. That's why he talked so much," noted Martha Swisher, who hosted Redd on many a porch night.
Redd Griffin was a lifelong learner, a lifelong educator, and a master integrator of our past and present, finding value and meaning in it all. His heart was as expansive as his mind.
He only did one thing badly. You couldn't interview him because with Redd Griffin, there were no short (or simple) answers.
In addition to Mary Jo, Redd is survived by his sons, Daniel (Sarah) and Timothy Griffin; his grandsons, James and Reid Griffin; and his siblings, Michael Griffin and Marnie (Joseph) Fretty.
Visitation was held on Nov. 26 at Drechsler, Brown & Williams Funeral Home. The funeral Mass was celebrated on Nov. 27 at St. Vincent Ferrer Church in River Forest, followed by interment at Queen of Heaven Cemetery.
In honor of Redd, please support your favorite local charity.