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Almost 40 years ago, Ray Heise took a ride downtown to meet Oak Park's then-village attorney, Art Thorpe. Back then, Heise was just a young-gun in law school who sported an afro and a pair of bell bottoms.
With Oak Park's other legal staffer, Dick Martens, in the passenger seat, Heise was so nervous he proceeded to scrape the side of his Buick LeSabre against the bumper of another parked car.
"Very impressive," Heise said, looking back with a long laugh.
They went up to his office and shook hands with the legendary Thorpe, who drafted some of Oak Park's landmark fair housing laws. Thorpe didn't seem to give glowing approval of Heise's interest.
"He said you're lucky the village has anti-nepotism laws. Otherwise my son would have this job," Heise recalled. "I said, 'Thank you.'"
Thirty-six years later, Heise, 62, is on the other side of that handshake. He announced Friday that he's retiring from village hall after 27 years as village attorney. During his time in Oak Park, he has drafted his own set of landmark local laws, such as the community's ban on handguns (since overturned by the Supreme Court), the domestic partnership registry for gay couples, and a program that gave owners incentive to diversify their buildings.
Through it all, Heise built a reputation for working all hours of the night, telling funny stories and sometimes taking a little longer than expected to finish wording a new ordinance.
He started with Oak Park as an intern while finishing up at the Chicago-Kent College of Law. He grew up in Maywood as an only child in a blue-collar family.
One of his first memories on the job was the review of a draft of the "diversity assurance program" (which helped insure property values against decline as the village integrated). He learned, mostly by listening to the former village attorney of 30 years, and said more than anything he remembers being afraid of Thorpe.
If you walked in his office and started talking too much, Thorpe's knee would start bobbing up and down impatiently. Thorpe perfected the art of speaking succinctly so he could get back to work, something Heise admits he's not always good at.
"He scared me," Heise said with a laugh. "He was just this all-knowing fellow who wanted to get things done."
Heise quickly rose in the ranks at village hall, eventually becoming village attorney in 1984 after less than 10 years on the job. Virginia Cassin, 87, the village clerk from 1973 to 1993, said Heise had a propensity for working late hours. She often stayed late with him, gabbing about the workday and a "whole world of different things."
Sometimes Heise would get ribbed for the big piles of stuff in his office though he always seemed to know where to find every file, according to Cassin.
"He had to have things at his fingertips, organized in a manner that would be useful for him," she said. "I think those people who kidded him did it with affection. It wasn't critical as much as they were surprised Ray knew where everything was, but he did."
Heise admits he would often burn the midnight oil though it isn't as easy as it used to be. The long hours would sometimes get him in trouble. He recalls pulling an all-nighter to finish Oak Park's Historic Preservation Ordinance in the 1990s. He was so excited to have it done that he delivered it to each trustee's house "not realizing how bad I looked."
Village Manager Tom Barwin said Heise is often the first guy in the door at village hall and the last guy out. He described him as "tenacious," and he'd often tell funny stories that had a point, often whispered in his ear during long board meetings.
Barwin gave Heise credit for working to get pro-bono lawyers to defend Oak Park's handgun ban before it was ultimately struck down whereas most other communities just gave in.
"We didn't win the case, but we came probably as close as you could possibly come, and that partnership at least got us in the ballpark," Barwin said.
Local gay activist Alan Amato was struck by the amount of research Heise did in crafting Oak Park's domestic partnership registry. The village attorney was willing to listen to suggestions from residents on how to fashion the new law, and it showed in the results.
"The ordinance that was ultimately passed was exactly what we wanted," he said.
Village President David Pope calls Heise the "dean of municipal attorneys" in the state, and his peers looked to him for advice.
He wasn't without his occasional critic. Former Village Trustee Greg Marsey said he would occasionally get frustrated with how long it took for Heise to finish something, but "I never doubted the quality of his work or his commitment to the village," he added.
Assistant Village Attorney Simone Boutet will serve as interim village attorney in the coming months until Oak Park figures out what it wants to do with the position, according to Barwin. Heise's last day is June 30, but he expects to be available to give advice to the village whenever it's needed.
In his retirement, Heise said he expects to take some golf lessons, learn about oil painting and spend time with his wife Lynn. He doesn't have the "juice" he had that kept him up all night when he was a young gun, but he's learned to adapt.
"You get older and, hopefully, wisdom and forethought replaces enthusiasm and energy," he said. "It's kind of a tradeoff that happens."
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