The latest installment of our series of community commentaries on anthropologist Jay Ruby’s ethnographic study, “Oak Park Stories,” focuses on DOOPers (Dear Old Oak Parkers), specifically the Gervais/McCullough/Trezevant family, which has lived here for a century.
It is written by Frank Lipo, who lives in Oak Park with his wife Theresa, a lifelong villager, and their three daughters. He is executive director of the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest and recently ended his second term as a member of the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission. Born in New York state and raised in Chicago‘s north suburbs, he is not himself a DOOPer, but he is a White Sox fan.
Anyone living in Oak Park today can call themselves an Oak Parker. No litmus test requires that we demonstrate a particular set of beliefs, values, way of life, or longevity in the community before we use that moniker. We are all Oak Parkers by virtue of buying or renting homes here, and participating, even minimally, in the community’s life as citizens of a diverse village.
But to be called a DOOPer is a different story altogether. Being labeled a Dear Old Oak Parker has long meant something deeper and more nuanced. At its most basic level it can identify a native son or daughter, but it usually implies extreme longevity. A full-fledged DOOPer usually has deep roots in the village, sometimes across two or more generations, rather than time measured in mere years. In our transient world, it amuses me when a longtime resident says: “I only have lived here 35 years-I’m not a DOOPer.” To others, being a DOOPer may mean graduating from local elementary schools and/or Oak Park and River Forest High School or being actively involved as a volunteer in multiple cultural or social service organizations or clubs.
A conservative community
Anthropologist Jay Ruby applies the term “to anyone who shared the core values of ‘old’ Oak Park-conservative, modest in their acquisition of material goods and very upper middle-class.” Of course, Oak Park residents have never been a completely homogenous group, even in the earliest days, but Ruby’s point is that the community’s leadership-the elites if you will-shaped the common values that underpinned the community’s identity.
As articulated by notable Oak Park minister William Barton in 1912, that meant “a cheerful home atmosphere, a society free from snobbery, an intellectual life inspiring but not oppressive … good schools, good churches, good music, and the joy that comes from the feeling that life is worth living.”
By the 1960s, this legendary Dear Old Oak Park was at a crossroads, struggling to decide if, and how, it might embrace a future that included an influx of African-American newcomers to the 99 percent-plus white community.
In “Dear Old Oak Parkers,” Ruby challenges us to see how one white family with deep Oak Park roots reacted to the changing society around it, and to internal changes within the family that would bring issues of race and sexual orientation to the forefront. In recent years, with the upward spiral of housing prices that has attracted wealthier newcomers to the village-most of whom are too young to have lived through the Civil Rights struggles-and the passing on of the generation that led the community through its evolution from the 1960s through the ’80s, Ruby seems to ask us, “Who will carry the torch of shared community values as the DOOPers of tomorrow?”
Ruby’s exhaustive interviews, detailed research, and incisive analysis create what he calls an ethnographic portrait of the extended family of Helena Gervais McCullough (1909-2006), a DOOPer whose personal and family stories chronicle the challenges and changes in Oak Park that spurred its evolution from a conservative community with progressive inclinations into a liberal, progressive community that engineered its own future with public policy and private action to shepherd Oak Park into a new age as a racially integrated, diverse community.
With in-depth, richly drawn portraits of Helena, her daughter Katherine Gervais Trezevant (1936-2004) and son-in-law Bob Trezevant, Ruby has created a multimedia family history in words, video, and photos that allows the viewer to develop real insight into the changing experiences of these Oak Parkers. Ruby also offers links to broader stories of Oak Park history and such institutions as the Nineteenth Century Club, Unity Temple, and dancer Doris Humphrey. Broader topics like WASP culture are also given extended treatment. A capsule summary of their fascinating, intersecting lives offered here does not do justice to their complexity, but offers insight into why these stories matter to the broader question of Oak Park’s transition into a diverse community.
A family embraces diversity
Born Helena Saxby, she was raised in Oak Park by her mother, aunt and uncle after her parents divorced. Her childhood included membership in the Unitarian church at Unity Temple, education in Oak Park public schools, and broad exposure to the culture and social world of Oak Park. After briefly attending Rockford College, she returned home to marry the boy-next-door, Paul Gervais, and raise a family. She continued to be heavily involved in all things Oak Park.
A signatory to the ad supporting Dr. Percy Julian after his home was firebombed in the early 1950s, her son Paul’s marriage to a black woman, Glynne Thomas, in the early 1960s exposed her to the hypocrisy of many in Oak Park who ostracized her. She treasured the good people who did not. Her son and daughter-in-law were not welcome to live in Oak Park, but later returned when Oak Park itself changed. Glynne Gervais would later become the first black president of the Village Manager Association.
Daughter Katherine left Oak Park to pursue higher education and work as a teacher. As a graduate student, she met and married Bob Trezevant, also a teacher. After having a son and daughter, they returned to Oak Park in 1977 to raise their family, moving to the old family home at Linden and Ontario that would remain in the family for nearly 90 years until it was recently sold.
They, too, threw themselves into the Oak Park world, in activities too numerous to mention here. Their marriage and family ties would be tested and made stronger as Bob became more open with his sexual orientation. The family’s embrace of him mirrored the broader community’s openness to the growing number of lesbian and gay Oak Parkers who were moving to the village.
While the unique dynamics of this family’s transition into the world of “new” Oak Park cannot and should not be made into a metaphor for all of the diverse experiences of white and black Oak Parkers who came together to pursue the social experiment of building a racially integrated, diverse, and welcoming Oak Park, it gives the reader and viewer of this documentary project a unique vantage point from which to draw insights about our community.
Embodied in these family ties are a tolerance and acceptance that rises above a minimal sense of merely “getting along” or “barely tolerating” a neighbor or fellow citizen. That sort of chilly indifference can kill a family’s or community’s spirit as effectively as outright hostility.
Helena Gervais McCullough’s family represents the true openness toward and respect for one another that results in stronger ties between members of an extended family-and by extension can benefit the broader family of Oak Park. This sort of tolerance is a social value much-treasured in the Oak Park of 2008, even if we sometimes fall short of the lofty goals we have set for ourselves as a community, as embodied in part by the “Diversity Statement” that has been adopted by each new village board for the past 35 years.
Lest we think that was always the case, one only has to turn to early May 1968, almost exactly 40 years ago, when 500 people gathered in the auditorium of Oak Park and River Forest High School to send a message to the village board, meeting to pass the Fair Housing ordinance that is commemorated on the Oak Park vehicle stickers this year. Trustees had received death threats and a dozen uniformed police officers watched the crowd at the May 6 meeting, as the shouting and booing attempted to drown out the trustees as they prepared to adopt an ordinance that had been hotly debated for months. In fact, village trustees rejected a referendum to decide the matter in the face of a 10,000-signature petition calling for such a referendum.
It has been my privilege for years now to assist researchers who come to the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest in search of their family roots. Poring over old newspapers, city directories, photographs, and other materials often yields forgotten family stories and stitches together the “bigger picture” that fascinates and offers insights into their own lives.
A community, too, can be researched in this way and a web of connections can be divined. Individuals, families, schools, parks, buildings, businesses, and houses of worship all somehow meld together to form a whole greater than the parts. A sense of place emerges from this blending of these “Oak Park Stories”-and perhaps some inspiration for the community’s future DOOPers.
Jay Ruby’s Oak Park Stories is available at the Oak Park Public Library and the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest. He has donated his original research materials for this project to the Historical Society.