2009 Villager of the year – Oak Park

For the last two months, Mike Kelly has made local, regional and national headlines. The low-key, camera-shy River Forest resident who’s the face of Park National Bank has been called everything from a saint to a hands-on hero. But Villager of the Year?

Though Wednesday Journal is recognizing Kelly as Villager of the Year in Oak Park for 2009, he could have held that title anytime the past decade. But until Oct. 30, no one ever wanted to talk with us on the record about Mike Kelly. That all changed seconds after the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. seized the assets of his company: nine banks in four states, and sold them all to an out-of-state faceless banking giant.

E-mails and phone calls and hand-written letters kept arriving in our offices in steady and heavy streams.

“Mr. Kelly and Park National Bank have meant much to Oak Park – more than his being the owner of a financial institution which is among Oak Park’s largest employers,” Martin J. Noll, chairman of rival Community Bank Oak Park River Forest, said in a letter to the Journal in November. “He has been the single most-supportive person of our village’s economic health and an extremely important part of the social well being of Austin and the surrounding communities,” said Noll, himself our Villager of the Year in 1996.

Mary Anne Brown, executive director of Hephzibah Children’s Association, called Kelly a hero. “I’m sick about this. He’s not replaceable,” she told us.

“Some of our staff called him St. Michael,” Agnes Stempniak, former executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center told the Journal just after the takeover. “He was very generous with the community, but he was quiet about it. He was a true philanthropist, the way philanthropy should be. He wasn’t out to tell everyone how great he is. Everybody knows he’s a great guy.”

An intensely private man, Kelly has declined request after request for an interview with us – and with every other news organization. In a landmark profile that Crain’s Chicago Business published about him in 2005, two reporters told his story – “The billionaire next door” – with no quotes from their subject. Of the 32 Power Players in Banking on Crain’s Chicago’s last Book of Lists, Kelly’s listing is the shortest.

When Wednesday Journal editor and publisher Dan Haley pressed him for comment in October, Kelly politely shared his view about the only two times a person’s name should be in a newspaper: when he or she is born and when they die.

Knowing his devout preference for privacy, his employees felt so conflicted in telling us about the extent of his kindness – from actual eye contact in the cafeteria to legendary bonuses for years of service – they backed off from letting us use their names on each claim and instead kept calling to make sure he was all right. In our first issue after the takeover, they collectively approached us to place a full-page ad thanking him.

The pats on the back went farther though, and earlier. The very morning that the FDIC took over Kelly’s banks, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was with Kelly at a press conference on the Near West Side presenting Kelly’s Park Bank Initiatives arm with $50 million in tax credits for neighborhood development.

Despite a bottom-of-the-ninth swing by FBOP to come up with capital the feds required, the much written-about deadline was missed. A private and local deal for the capital needed was in the works, we were told, but the Oct. 30 deadline set last summer wasn’t extended.

In a letter to staff members that Kelly sent the afternoon of the takeover, he said:

“I regret that we were not able to get a deal done that would save the banks and avoid the disruption that the bank closures will cause in your lives. I know that these closures will have a lasting impact on you, your family and our communities. That said, I am so proud of organizations that you helped grow, and I will always be grateful for the work that you have done.”

Over the years, Kelly has been like a figure from the silver screen, swooping in to help anyone in need: individuals, nonprofits, businesses, large and small.

“Mr. Kelly has built a culture at FBOP centering on serving historically underserved communities because it is the right thing to do,” Village President David Pope said in an October letter to the chair of the FDIC, hoping to stop the takeover. “In the case of Park National, doing well by doing good is a genuine way of life, rather than the sort of empty sloganeering that we too often witness emanating from today’s C-suites.”

Outcry was long and loud for the loss of FBOP’s banks as community institutions – from Oak Park and River Forest to Chicago’s West Side, all the way to the small town of Teague, Texas, where one of FBOP’s smallest banks was. In a phone interview just before Veterans Day, Jim Lawrence, president of Citizens National Bank in Teague, echoed what we were hearing locally: “Mr. Kelly was good for our bank, good for our community, good for our employees,” told in November. “He went above and beyond what he had to do here.”

On Veterans Day, the largest gathering in Teague was at the veterans’ memorial park that Mike Kelly had asked Lawrence to write the first check for.

Kelly was known for opening bank branches in critically underserved neighborhoods, such as Pullman and North Lawndale. The two branches along Oak Park’s eastern line – at Madison and North Avenue – served Chicago’s Austin neighborhood.

After the seizure, Austin leaders joined with Oak Parkers to form the 25-member Coalition to Save Community Banking, which has pushed for review of how FBOP was treated by the federal government. In the latest development, the Chicago City Council recently approved a resolution, demanding that the U.S. House Financial Services Committee hold neighborhood hearings on the seizure of FBOP.

In this week’s village board meeting Monday in Oak Park, trustee Ray Johnson suggested the Village of Oak Park do the same. In December, the coalition delivered a petition with more than 1,000 signatures to Washington, urging congressional hearings on the takeover.

Oak Park Village President David Pope, a fan of Kelly’s intensity, says all Kelly’s choices go to issues bigger than anything that lands on a spreadsheet. “For Mike, it’s always been about the institution, the people who work here, the communities we serve.”

Oak Parker Terry Finnegan, who worked for Park National for seven years, was struck by how the FBOP takeover has riled up people from all walks of life.

“African-Americans in the thousands are willing to protest, agitate, and switch banks in support of a white billionaire they know and trust,” Finnegan told Wednesday Journal in November. “Find me one titan of Wall Street who can make this claim.”

FBOP Corp. still exists, now with offices in downtown Oak Park. Kelly still is its sole owner and leader. The corporation’s current holdings include a car wash company, and commercial and residential properties.

Mike Kelly, we’re told, is surviving and continuing to work.

The reporting of Terry Dean, Bill Dwyer, Dan Haley, Helen Karakoudas, Bob Skolnik and Ken Trainor contributed to this story.

Agnes Stempniak is the writer’s mother. Her quote first appeared in Wednesday Journal in a story filed by Ken Trainor.

Past Villagers of the Year

Wednesday Journal has named a Villager of the Year in Oak Park since 1985. Here are the people we’ve previously recognized:

1985 Dan Elich

, founder of the CARE political party

1986 Keith Bergstrom

, Oak Park police chief

1987 Clifford Osborn

, Oak Park village president

1988 J. Neil Nielsen

, Oak Park village manager

1989 John Fagan

, superintendent of Oak Park 
Elementary School District 97

1990 Marjorie Judith Vincent

, Oak Parker named Miss America that year

1991 Philip Rock

, Illinois Senate president

1992 Joseph Mendrick

, Oak Park police chief

1993 Allen Parker

, Oak Park village manager

1994 Crime-fighting Harrison Street residents

, organized to resist gang incursions from the West Side

1995 John FS Williams

, director of Oak Park Township Youth Services

1996 Martin Noll

, founder of Community Bank of Oak Park-River Forest

1997 Rev. M. Randolph Thompson

, pastor and founder of Fellowship Christian, Oak Park’s first predominantly black church

1998 Kathy Lamar

, active in youth concerns and outgoing District 97 school board member

1999 Susan Bridge

, superintendent and principal of Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200

2000 Carl Swenson

, Oak Park village manager

2001 Seymour Taxman

, developer of the Shops of Downtown Oak Park, River Forest Town Centers I and II, Euclid Terraces, and the Mews

2002 Nile Wendorf

and Mila Tellez, community activists

2003 Robert Milstein

, a rare trustee on the Oak Park village board who was not a member of the Village Manager Association party

2004 John Schiess

and Alex Troyanovsky, architect and developer, respectively, on numerous projects in Oak Park

2005 Citizens for Change

, group of nine who helped shift power to a new political organization

2006 Ali ElSaffar

, Oak Park Township assessor

2007 David Pope

, village president, and Tom Barwin, village manager

2008 Gary Balling

, park district executive director

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