Here in Oak Park, the good works of the late and great Elsie Jacobsen are legendary.

A community change agent, she had a hand in founding the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest, the Ernest Hemingway Foundation and the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust.

Beyond that, she was the first female District 200 school board president at Oak Park and River Forest High school, and forged the American Association for the United Nations’ School-to-School fundraising effort that annually raises and donates funds, which have led to the building of over 100 schools in developing countries around the world.

But with the 85th anniversary of the Oak Park Conservatory upon us, the focus shifts to yet another Elsie-ism: How in 1970 she formed a committee to rally everyone to resist a bulldozer moment — when the conservatory fell into great disrepair and the Park District of Oak Park planned to demolish it. 

“I remember this day when it was really cold out, and my Mom came home and said, ‘I can’t believe they want to demolish the conservatory,'” her daughter, Ellen Jacobsen-Isserman, M.D., an Urbana-based dermatologist and the youngest of Elsie’s three children, remembers. “She said there were some broken panes, and we need to get them fixed.”

To do that, Elsie organized a “Save The Conservatory” committee, and, as her mom always did, figured out an ingenius way to rally people around a cause so collectively, they could get the job done, said Jacobsen-Isserman in a recent phone interview.

“I remember standing out on Lake Street and saying, ‘Buy a button to save the conservatory!'” she says, adding that some of her earliest memories involved sitting with her mom in offices stuffing envelopes for this thing or that. 

“People were rolling down their windows, handing me dollars, so it was really an on-the-ground effort right away. She just thought, ‘What can we do to get people excited about this?’ and did it.”

Before reviving interest in the Edwardian glass house sheltering 3,000 plants, she established a highly influential civic organization with an unlikely name: the Oak Park Beautification Commission, circa 1968. It was her mom’s response to Lady Byrd Johnson’s challenge for everyone, everywhere to help beautify America.

For their efforts, the village of Oak Park, and Elsie Jacobsen, in 1971, received national recognition for beautifying Oak Park and specifically for conserving the Conservatory. 

“Back then I was a teenager,” Jacobsen-Isserman recalls, “so I was out with my mom stenciling garbage cans, making designs, and working with small kids to create anti-litter campaigns. I was also helping to water all the plants we were putting in [Austin Gardens, among other places]. So we were picking up litter, and putting posters up and this was all part of our family thing. My dad was a little removed, but he was very proud of my mom.” 

A splendid life

In the little book, A Celebration of the Splendid Life of Elsie Lunde Jacobsen, September 8, 1914 to November 21, 2003, John Seaton, former longtime manager of the Oak Park Conservatory, says he first met Elsie Jacobsen on the job, within four months after he arrived in the U.S. from England. 

She said, “I’m Elsie Jacobsen,” and he said, “I am very pleased to meet you because I have heard a lot of things about how you pulled together a team to save the conservatory, so I’m very privileged to meet you,” Seaton told audience members at Jacobsen’s memorial service. 

She then shared a few choice stories, he said, and, as a welcoming gesture, handed him a bottle of sherry.

She later related how in 1970, during the “Rhapsody in Green” grand re-opening of the newly rehabbed conservatory, a so-called disaster almost struck again.

“Elsie said, ‘Oh yes, we will make a lovely pie from the fruit of the Ponderosa Lemon Tree,'” recalled Seaton. “When she tasted it, she said it was awful, and they rushed out and got some lemon curd filling, and sort of dosed it up.” 

The Save the Conservatory Committee began in 1970, he noted. “I didn’t get there until 1984. From my perspective, the conservatory has always been a community place. It’s like a phoenix has risen out of the ashes — at least twice now.”

Inspiring others

Meanwhile, among the many other things occurring in her life, her daughter remembers how Elsie developed a passion for plants and nature. In order to become a better docent at the conservatory, she took botany and horticulture classes at Triton Community College.

“She learned all about wildflowers and all about propagation because that is just how she approached things,” Jacobsen-Isserman said. Her mom had been an Oak Park resident since age 3, and considered it her beloved hometown. “Mom thought Oak Park to be a living, breathing entity, and so she did all the political stuff with the League of Women Voters, the library stuff, the school board stuff, and [circa 1970] started thinking about what could make Oak Park special — and that was saving the conservatory,” she said.

What was clear to most who knew her, said Seaton, was that Elsie never made small plans and had an uncanny ability to mobilize a corps of volunteers to join her on almost any community-driven salvo.

 “She was the one who came up with the name ‘Earth Shelter’ for the mobile classroom we got from Longfellow School. A school board member sold it to the conservatory [in 1972] for $1,” Seaton recalls. “They put it on a flatbed truck and brought it around. Elsie actually wanted to have a helicopter fly it in. 

“Basically, if Elsie asked you to do something, you did it because she had this wonderful way of getting people to do things. She was such a force of nature for good.”

Her motto was: “Live well, inspire others, and do good work.”

Discovering Elsie’s garden

   To celebrate the Conservatory’s 85th Anniversary, and to publicize plans for the new Elsie Jacobsen Discovery Garden, everyone is invited to gather at 615 Garfield Ave. on Saturday, Sept. 13, from 1 to 3 p.m., to celebrate the life and times of Elsie Jacobsen and get a peek at the past, present and future of the local gem she helped save from demolition in 1970.

   Among the guest speakers will be Elsie’s daughter, Dr. Ellen Jacobsen-Isserman, plus others who knew the volunteer extraordinaire extraordinarily well.

   Beth Cheng, executive director of the Friends of Oak Park Conservatory (FOPCON), said the garden named after her will be in full bloom by June 2015, but in early spring of 2015 anyone will be able to pass by and discover the 3,000-square-foot outdoor space that will be installed on the east side of the Conservatory as a touch-me, smell me learning place for all.

   “The Elsie Jacobsen Sensory Garden will be an interactive garden where people can actually get their hands dirty to experience the natural world, and learn from it,” said Scott Stewart, manager of the Oak Park Conservatory, which is administered by the Park District of Oak Park. “In the coming years, I think the Conservatory will be very well positioned to become a regional destination for anyone interested in horticulture, in plants around the world, and in learning about plants and the environment, and that is how we plan to approach things in future years.” 

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....

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