By Dan Haley
Back in 1968, I was 13 and took part in my first political campaign. Not that the candidate knew I was taking part. Or the party. I was just taking part.
Used my mom's mimeograph machine to print up my views on why Hubert Humphrey should be president. Why Richard Nixon shouldn't. And then I'd stand at the Lombard stop of the Congress el and hand out my sweet-smelling, purple-inked sheets to unsuspecting commuters.
Hubert Humphrey came to my mind Sunday and again Monday as Ray Johnson made his loving exit from the Oak Park village board. Humphrey was rightly known for promulgating a "Politics of Joy." Optimism. Possibility. As the white mayor of Minneapolis, extolling civil rights to a wary party convention way back in 1948, Humphrey proclaimed inclusion.
And that's the Ray Johnson I know and respect. Eleven years of service on the village board seldom wore him down, usually uplifted him and led him to hundreds of meetings, every type of community gathering, and many, many living rooms, where he listened to neighbors tell him why he was all wrong about an issue. He listened more than he argued, knowing he was less likely to persuade people on the facts of the issue than to persuade them that they were heard and respected.
On Sunday afternoon at Trattoria 225 down on Harrison Street, Ray Johnson rented the restaurant and tossed a thank-you party. And when he talked, briefly, to those assembled he spoke more about how Oak Park had changed him than listing off the ways he had changed Oak Park.
He talked then, and again in his closing comments at the board table Monday, about the ways in which Oak Park allowed him, and then expected him, to bring his whole self to the effort. Surely that reference is, in part, to his being gay, but mainly it is about how he integrated being gay into being a more complete public servant.
Oak Park, he said, made him a better person. Not a line you expect from most electeds, who see their virtue rubbing off on the town more than the reverse. And as he wrapped up, there were sidelong references to controversies such as Whiteco and development generally, but mainly Ray Johnson talked about what he learned from his parents about doing right, about the power of listening, about taking joy in the moment.
Village President Anan Abu-Taleb opened his comments about Johnson by acknowledging the obvious. A year ago at this time, Johnson was furiously opposed to his candidacy — and, said Abu-Taleb, for maybe 45 days after the election the friction was real between them.
In those post-election days, I was worried about and frustrated with Ray Johnson and his self-declared "kitchen cabinet." They were bitter and were acting small after an election where voters had spoken clearly for change. It did, I suppose, feel like a repudiation to them. To me it was an urgent call to action on a range of issues that people mostly agreed about — growth, collaboration, parking.
The cloud gradually lifted, and for that Ray Johnson gets credit. He came back to himself and what had made him so good in this difficult role over a decade. It wasn't about him. It was about the virtues that he loved in this village. Now he leaves for New York City and a job so perfect he couldn't have dreamt it up.
We are in his debt and he is in our collective debt. A fine and joyful balance.