For the first time in 16 years, Sandra Sokol is no longer village clerk.

The popular public figure passed the proverbial baton to her successor, Teresa Powell, at a ceremony Monday, ending her run at the board table.

Sokol, 67, a New York native, came to Oak Park in the 1970s, first working at village hall in the Community Relations Department, fielding calls on racism and fair housing issues. She worked there eight years before starting her 16-year run as village clerk.

Some of her fondest accomplishments include helping to establish a domestic partnership registry at village hall in 1998, getting village codes online, and the relationships she’s built with her staff and the community.

But she remains modest and heaps praise on her staff and others at village hall.

 
Appreciation: A big crowd showed their appreciation for Sandra Sokol at the Carleton Hotel on April 29.
Courtesy JOE KREML

“I’m very proud that the office of the village clerk doesn’t get a lot of complaints that you don’t answer the phone and you don’t respond, but I attribute that to the staff out there and not to me,” she said.

Supporters praised her on Monday, her last day in office, and mourned the encyclopedic institutional knowledge they’ll lose with her departure.

“She’s a wonderful woman, a wealth of information,” Police Chief Rick Tanksley said Monday by phone. “She has a servant’s heart. I am really going to miss her, but I know that I’ll be reaching out to her.”

Friends reflect

Tanksley can’t remember Sokol missing a new police officer’s swearing in. Last Friday, he presented her with a citizen commendation as thanks for her commitment to the law.

“Her relationship with the police department runs deep, and we all love her,” Tanksley said.

Communications Director David Powers said you’d often see Sokol working the counter at the clerk’s office, helping people who approached. She preferred working face to face, which made her a first-class clerk.

“Many times, you would see her out at the counter helping people, maybe with something entirely unrelated to the office of village clerk,” Powers said. “She just had this wealth of knowledge where, if she couldn’t help someone, she probably knew who could.”

“The community relied on her, and her staff followed her lead by going the extra mile to assist residents, businesses and anyone else,” said Marijo Lopez, a senior administrative clerk in Sokol’s office. “She’s extremely dedicated to the community and her staff.”

Linda Barajas, also a senior administrative clerk, said she was more like a sister than a boss. Sokol, she said, always encouraged openness and respect.

“I think it’s going to be hard for her to get used to this, being outside the government office every day,” Barajas said.

At a packed retirement party for Sokol at the Carleton Hotel last week, U.S. Rep. Danny Davis lionized Oak Park’s outgoing clerk in a recorded video message.

“Oak Park, Ill., is the only place in the whole world that I know where the village clerk has become an institution, where it’s hard to think or imagine what village hall would be like without Sandy Sokol there,” Davis said.

Even when the Village Manager Association was beaten badly in the 2005 election, getting swept for all three open trustee spots, Sokol still won her fourth and final term.

Former trustee Greg Marsey, who left office Monday after one term, said Sokol had the biggest heart on the village board.

“I remember many occasions, getting red-faced at this table, going home and being concerned about something or upset,” he said to Sokol. “You would call and check in with me the next day, and that says a lot about how much you care about everyone around the table and in the community.”

Jim Kelly, at Monday’s meeting, said the gay and lesbian community owes Sokol for all the work she did to help Oak Park establish a domestic partnership registry in 1998.

“We owe you a huge debt of gratitude,” Kelly said.

A little background

Sokol was born in New York in the South Bronx, the oldest of three girls. Her mother was a homemaker while her father was a women’s garment cutter. Neither parent attended college, which motivated her to get a degree and pursue teaching.

She’s been married to her husband, David, for almost 46 years. The couple met while attending Hunter College in New York, and they married shortly after graduating.

Sandra Sokol recalled the two met when she shared her umbrella in the rain while walking from the bus to the campus. They’d often spot each other in line waiting to register for classes. Sandra was a goody-two-shoe, always showing up early, David said, and once he cut in line and asked her out.

“She was so shocked, she said yes,” David recalled.

The couple has two sons, Adam (41) and Andrew (39), both whom live in Chicago.

She taught elementary school in New York for a spell before they moved to Macomb, where David got a job teaching at Western Illinois University. Going from the biggest city in the country to a small, rural town in Illinois was a bit jarring, Sandra said.

“It was an interesting and a good experience,” she said. “It was like a foreign place.”

David later landed a job at UIC, which brought the couple to Oak Park in 1972. At the time, Sandra was a stay-at-home mom. She started getting involved in the community then, volunteering, substitute teaching for District 97 and helping with political campaigns.

In 1984, she went back to school for her master’s degree, and in 1985, she got a fulltime job as a community relations rep with the Village of Oak Park. There, she helped counsel residents on housing issues, worked tenant-landlord relations and was a liaison to the police department. She also worked with local organizations to assure that redlining wasn’t happening in the village.

When Virginia Cassin retired in the early ’90s after 24 years as village clerk, some suggested that Sandra run for village clerk. She discussed the idea with her husband and decided to run in 1993, winning her first term.

David said it was an unexpected step at the time, but Sokol has grown into the role over the years.

“She’s come a long way in being reasonably comfortable in handling herself in the public sphere,” he said.

What’s next?

Sandra said it was a tough decision to retire from clerk, but the time was right. She’s looking to take some trips to New Zealand, Australia, Wisconsin and to visit family in New York. She also wants to relax and enjoy cultural activities in the city, along with keeping in touch with her staff.

Sokol has had several offers to serve on local boards and commissions, which she’ll think about. In this past election, she heard suggestions about running for president or trustee, and she wouldn’t dismiss the possibility of elected office in the future.

“I might; I wouldn’t rule it out,” she said. “I’m not a big planner. I kind of take every day at a time. You don’t know what the future brings.”

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