From left to right: Outgoing Oak Park Police Chief Rick Tanksley, incoming chief Anthony Ambrose and former chief Joe Mendrick. The photo was taken less than a week before Mendrick's death. | File photo

Joe Mendrick died over the Labor Day weekend. Late Sunday or early Monday. Suddenly and at home we are told. Details to follow.

Mendrick was Oak Park’s police chief for a decade — 1991-2001. He also served twice as acting chief during the 1980s after a pair of chiefs hired from outside the department to bring reforms and improvements either wore out or flamed out. 

When he got the nod permanently, I had my doubts, which I expressed plainly to him and in the paper. I thought he was the ultimate insider and that necessary changes to the department were unlikely.

He proved me wrong, substantially, regularly wrong. It was Chief Mendrick who really launched community policing in the village. Newly installed Chief Anthony Ambrose told me Tuesday that Mendrick also brought police officers into our schools for the first time. 

I remembered that on a department with a number of black officers but none in command roles, it was Mendrick who went to the Chicago Police Department to hire Edward Buckney, the first black deputy chief, and Ambrose said, he quickly promoted future chief Rick Tanksley and Keenan Williams to posts as commanders.  

“When we talk about diversity, Chief Mendrick was ahead of his time. He was one who never liked the limelight,” said Ambrose. Slow-talking, always a little sleepy-eyed, Chief Mendrick did more than the brash outsiders to bring this department into a new day.

Young Elijah and the Oak Park-Austin connection

It was just a week ago that Elijah Sims, an OPRF senior, was murdered in Austin. Since then he has been mourned and eulogized, his short life celebrated and much commented on.

A few comments on Facebook were of the hectoring stereotype variety. He must have been a gang member, must have been dealing drugs to be on the street in Austin at 10 p.m. — that despite the unusually clear declarations from Chicago police that Sims and his companion were absolutely not gang affiliated.

Then there were comments from locals who recognized him from his job at Pete’s Fresh Market, one from an Oak Park woman who said that Sims had gone out of his way to help her at the store just a few days earlier.

But the comments that stood out to me were the well-meaning remarks that an Oak Park kid should steer clear of Austin entirely. And it brought me back to my much different and very much the same childhood in Oak Park where the other half of most families lived right next door in Austin. 

There was the summer night in the mid-1960s when, for reasons I don’t recall, the Haley kids were invited to join the Cullen kids and visit Grandma Cullen. She was a gracious old Irish woman, dressed better than the norm, always looked fresh from the beauty shop. And she lived in a handsome three-story apartment building at Jackson and Central.

I didn’t know much about apartments. We were single-family all the way over on South Taylor. But Mrs. Cullen’s apartment was huge, lovely and filled with windows overlooking beautiful Columbus Park.

We didn’t know it then, but Austin was about at the end of its long Irish, Italian, Greek era. Outrageous racial change was less than a half decade away, with a massive abandonment by these seemingly deeply-rooted families who buckled under fears stoked by a greedy and immoral real estate industry, whose Democratic machine, Catholic Church and social leadership failed them entirely.

The result from 1969 through the 1970s was a wholesale remaking of Austin. Middle- and working-class whites were gone. Middle-, working- and lower-income African Americans arrived, often in overpriced houses they could not afford. Retail and institutional anchors, including banks and grocers and funeral homes, fled after the King riots just to the east.

Then, just as before where an Italian family saw Oak Park as the step-up community, many new black Austin families saw Oak Park as the step up to decent schools, safer streets. Sacrifices were made, apartments in Oak Park were secured, kids were enrolled in District 97 and District 200 schools.

And just as before, the connection between Oak Park and Austin was real, familial and positive. While white Oak Parkers built a physical and psychological wall between the two communities, for many black families it was just that short pull back and forth.

This is something we need to keep in mind as we remember Elijah Sims and as we work harder to build wider connections in what is, by any definition, a dangerous time in our neighboring community.

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Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...