"It's not a vanity plate," said Marty Noll, president of Community Bank Oak Park-River Forest. But "OP 1" sure looks like a vanity plate. It's attached to Noll's Jaguar, but the plate's origins go back more than 25 years to Wallis Austin, chairman of the board of Oak Park Trust (now Bank One), the village's first bank, started by Wally's grandfather, Henry.
Wally would occasionally invite Noll over to his house for lunch. One day, he invited him out to the garage to show off his "sweetheart," a 1946 Ford, which sported the OP 1 plates.
At that time, Noll recalled, Oak Park Trust made cars available to its officers, and they had license plates OP 1 through OP 14. Noll said he wasn't a Ford lover, but told Wally he'd buy the plate if he ever wanted to sell it.
Fast forward about 10 years, and Noll picks up the phone. It's Dwight, Wally's son, calling from Florida to say his father is near death. "Do you remember that '46 Ford?" Dwight asks. "Dad wants me to have the car," he said, "and you to have the license plate."
"Now every time someone asks about the plate," Noll said, "I think of Wally Austin." Wally's widow, Virginia, lives in a retirement community in Naples, Fla. where she still has an OP 1 plate attached to her golf cart.
Noll eventually worked for First Chicago, which bought out Oak Park Trust, so he also ended up with OP 14, which he still has (on the car his wife, Mary Lou, drives).
He doesn't know what happened to OP 2-13, but Community Bank's chairman, Hank Pearsall, who has a home in Green Lake, Wisconsin, has OP 2 and OP 3, only they're Wisconsin plates.
Former state senate president Phil Rock, meanwhile, drives with the distinctive monogram "R." Every retired member of the General Assembly, it turns out, is entitled to a special plate noting their public service. Because the district numbers keep changing, said Rock, most retired members use their initials or names. Turns out there's another "R" belonging to River Forest resident Al Ronan, but it's a House "R" as opposed to Rock's Senate "R."
"R" doesn't stand for retired, but Rock likes to tell people it does. He pays the standard vanity plate fee (approximately $10 more). "There are no breaks," he said. "I send that sucker in every year just like everybody else."
Then there's "FLW 1906." We figured that had to be connected somehow to the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust crowd, but Executive Director Joan Mercuri didn't immediately recognize it. A staff e-mail, however, turned up the owner?#34;Julie Conmy, a 15-year Wright volunteer, who devotes eight hours a month working as a tour "interpreter" (the Wright folks prefer that term to "docent") and in the Ginkgo Tree Book Store.
She received the plate six years ago as a Christmas present from her ex-husband, who was under the mistaken impression that Frank was born in 1906. He was actually alive and well and building houses in Oak Park at that time, including the Beachy House. The Robie House in Hyde Park was also completed that year, Conmy said, so the year works for her. It's attached to her Chevy Malibu Maxx. Do people comment on it?
"Not as many as I would like," she said.
And we happened to be driving behind Oak Park's village manager, Carl Swenson, one day (No, we don't tail people), and noticed his plate carries a plastic frame with "Huskies" at the bottom. We figured him for a local sports booster until we noticed "Washington" at the top of the frame.
"I root for both," confessed Swenson. His daughter plays for the OPRF softball team, but Swenson's roots are in Washington State, where he grew up attending games because his dad, a U.W. alum, had season tickets. Both Swenson and his wife graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle, so he continues to be a fan although he admits it was tough this year because the program has temporarily tanked. "It was painful checking the scores each week," Swenson noted. "That's what they get for hiring a coach from UCLA."