John Philbin, former Oak Park president, had instincts of an activist

Philbin died Thursday at age 89

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By Devin Rose

Staff Reporter

John Philbin, a former Oak Park village president and trustee who was a leader during the village's integration era, died Thursday in his Oak Park home at the age of 89.

So much of Philbin's life was about service, said his daughter, Marianne, and service to Oak Park in particular. He had the natural instincts of an activist, his daughter said, and it seemed to be a given that he'd be involved in his community in some way.

"I think he just felt that it was not only a responsibility but a gift to be able to live in the community and to be a part of it," Marianne said.

He served as a village trustee from 1977 to 1981 but was appointed again in 1983 when another trustee stepped down. That term ended in 1985, said Village Clerk Teresa Powell. Philbin was elected village president in 1989 and served until 1993.

Philbin was involved early in the Oak Park Regional Housing Center as it pursued its goal of encouraging racial diversity in the village. His era of service fell during a time of rapid racial change in neighboring Austin where Philbin grew up.

He attended college before serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. Marianne said he taught for a while after the war and then started working for the Archdiocese of Chicago. He served as the executive director of Catholic Cemeteries for the archdiocese as well as director of finance.

At home, he would engage anyone he invited in, asking where they were from and what was happening in their life, his daughter said. He loved history and geography, and would amaze people with his knowledge about places many didn't know existed. Marianne said he struck up a friendship with a Jordanian owner of a gas station near his home because he knew the town where the man was from.

"He loved to just engage people and was really wonderful at [making] people part of whatever was happening," she said.

Virginia Cassin, Oak Park's village clerk for many years, said his ability to add fun to situations made him a good person to work with.

"He had this dry humor that he could bring to pretty serious subjects," Cassin said. The former village clerk remembered her retirement ceremony at village hall, when then-president Philbin read a resolution marking the event that had his trademark humor interspersed throughout. Cassin called him a prudent man who thought things through very well.

Village President David Pope said Philbin "provided a great dedication and forward-thinking guidance for our community at a time when we faced real challenges."

Mr. Philbin is survived by his wife, Mary (nee Duggan); his seven children, Mimi Carlson, Marianne, John, Joseph, Madeleine, Meg McKinley and James Mischler-Philbin; and 13 grandchildren.

Visitation was held on Nov. 12 from 3 to 9 p.m. at Drechsler, Brown & Williams Funeral Home, 203 S. Marion St. The funeral Mass was celebrated at 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 13 at St. Edmund Church, 188 S. Oak Park Ave.

Reader Comments

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Marty Bracco from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: November 13th, 2012 8:42 AM

Since Mr. P would want me to be completely accurate, I need to issue a small correction. He smoked Parlaiments (with the recessed filter!), not Newports, and his habit was to only smoke about half of each. The Martini, of course, was always, always adorned with 3 olives. Rest in Peace!

Gail Moran from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: November 12th, 2012 7:31 PM

Very sad to hear this. A great thought leader of the Village. My best to his family and close friends.

Christine Vernon from Oak Park  

Posted: November 12th, 2012 6:20 PM

John Philbin was always such a gentleman. He was a wonderful person and public servant with a wonderful wife. I am so sad to hear of this loss. My sincere sympathy to the Philbin Family.

Jay Champelli from Oak Park  

Posted: November 12th, 2012 11:04 AM

John will always be remebered as one of the great leaders of Oak Park.

Eileen Seifert from Chicago  

Posted: November 11th, 2012 10:49 PM

John Philbin was a wonderful person. He was wise and kind and witty and just the best neighbor in the world.

Vaile Scott from Valporaiso IN  

Posted: November 11th, 2012 3:09 PM

John Philbin was a true pioneer, both as a civic leader in the transition of the racial and cultural makeup of Oak Park, and as one who understood the proper role of lay people in the exercise of his Catholic faith, in a pluralist, secular society.

Marty Bracco from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: November 11th, 2012 1:59 PM

The Philbins & the Braccos moved into adjacent homes on S East Ave in 1963. For the next 45 years, Mr. Philbin was the best next door neighbor, surrogate Godfather, boss, and friend our family could have ever asked for. He led Catholic Cemeteries with dignity and vision, led Oak Park with a wise, calm yet firm hand, and led his family and a neighborhood with joy and love. My dad passed away in 1975, leaving a single mom with 10 kids. John and Mary were always there for us, strong and supportive, willing to whateve we needed. Wonderful role models, my siblings and I are all better people for having known John and Mary. John now walks with God, a Martini and Newport in hand, and big smiles on both their faces!

Gary Wood  

Posted: November 11th, 2012 11:07 AM

John was an exceptional leader. He had that unique quality of really listening to all the points of view and then problem solve the issue. I always felt that John was a community builder. Oak Park was blessed to have him.

Bruce Samuels from Oak Park  

Posted: November 11th, 2012 9:49 AM

I'd like to add to all the acknowledgements that John had a great sense of humor and accepted that some would disagree with him, but that was all right. John was a wonderful example of how to be a Village president.

Marge Greenwald from Oak Park  

Posted: November 10th, 2012 11:22 PM

John was a clear and precise thinker, a fine writer and a stalwart activist who led Oak Park as president and as a committed trustee. His work on Equity Assurance helped shepherd it through. He was one who made Oak Park the place it is today.

jane hedges from Oak Park  

Posted: November 10th, 2012 3:22 PM

I visited John and Mary Philbin for my church, after John was unable to get out. What a marvelous couple! My prayers are for Mary, her children and Grandchildren. John's death is a great loss to so many.

John Ryan from River Forest  

Posted: November 10th, 2012 3:07 PM

I worked with John on VMA and VOP isssues, and enjoyed his company, sense of humor and ability to provide leadership in critical issues facing Oak Park.

Grateful resident from Oak Park  

Posted: November 10th, 2012 10:56 AM

Those of us who were kids during the era when Mr. Philbin helped integrate Oak Park owe him a debt. I grew up in a nearby suburb where fear and ignorance prevailed. I will always be grateful to the courageous few who moved us forward.

Bill Merrill from Oak Park  

Posted: November 10th, 2012 10:55 AM

It was an honor knowing and working with John.

doug wyman from oak park  

Posted: November 9th, 2012 8:34 PM

I was associated wih john during the years of change. He was my mentor. Thoughtful,humble, bright,humorous,ahead of his time,doer,motivator,and a great frend. I love him and will miss him DW

Galen Gockel from Oak Park  

Posted: November 9th, 2012 8:12 PM

John is one of those unsung heroes of Oak Park's recent past, to whom our new, younger generation owes so much without knowing it. Rest in peace.

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