By Dan Haley
Six years ago, when the headhunting firm asked Tom Barwin to join a pool of applicants to be village manager of Oak Park, and then when he was a finalist being interviewed by as badly fractured a village board as this town has ever endured, the headhunter warned and cautioned him about Oak Park with its "oversight and micromanagement," and the intensely engaged citizenry "that is in the DNA here."
But when the job was offered, Barwin eagerly accepted "because I wanted to be here so much."
Barwin had followed Oak Park through the 1960s and '70s as it rushed headlong and took every risk trying to figure out if it was possible to create a legitimately integrated town. "This was a huge, complex, frustrating national problem. And Oak Park tried to see what they could do on fair housing," he said.
Barwin is pragmatist enough to know that such a win is never fully finished, that the fair-housing efforts need continued active support through the Housing Center and the Residence Corporation, that definitions of diversity keep broadening, that economic inequity threatens diversity today.
Sitting and talking last Friday, Barwin recalled his first weeks in Oak Park when he kept getting invited to peoples' living rooms to talk with small groups of citizens about their concerns and frustrations with the village. He had never had such an experience before. "There were a half dozen of these invitations. We'd sit in the living room. I didn't know who was aligned [politically]. I heard all the complaints." But after all the complaints were spoken, he said, people would start talking about why they came to Oak Park in the '60s and '70s — to be part of that diverse community being crafted because, he said, "they believed in the cause."
Just as being part of a cause is what attracted Barwin to Oak Park in the first place, he saw the same passions even if the people he was talking to were now mightily frustrated with aspects of the village.
"People want to be affiliated with a town that is about something," he said. If the latter part of the last century was about integration, Barwin, with strong support from the current board, set out to make urban sustainability "the next big thing."
He pointed to a raft of initiatives involving the environment. "This country needs some town to really do this." Oak Park is that town, he believes.
This week, Barwin departs village hall, having, he said, read the tea leaves which showed diminishing support for his tenure among elected officials. Unlike previous officials who lined up a new gig in advance or were overtly fired, Barwin isn't leaving town. He's got a lease on a coach house he likes, and he's not sure at this early moment if, at age 57, jumping to another town's hot seat is what he wants to do. His early preference is to find nonprofit work or private sector work involving topics he is passionate about: sustainability, rebuilding city neighborhoods.
"I still love this town. Big time. More than when I came. The people here are up to something. It is really cool. And they are nice people, too. This is as cool a town as you can be without mountains and rivers," said the now former manager.
Our tongue-tied village board hasn't had much to say about Barwin this week. Surely they've got areas they want to see better addressed. That's fine. But as a watcher of village managers for 30 years, this board would do well to consider the upside of passion for this village in choosing the next manager. There are technocrats aplenty to choose from. We've had them here. Carl Swenson. Ralph DeSantis. Allen Parker. They have their virtues. They also had giant blind spots because they never quite got this wonderful and peculiar town.
Tom Barwin got it, and imperfect though he was, we all benefited.