The VMA officially ended last week, going out, not with a bang, not even with a whimper. More of a whisper. The VMA has been in decline long enough that many Oak Parkers no longer even know what it stood for — the initials as well as the convictions.

The Village Manager Association officially came into existence in 1953 when their first slate of candidates swept into office, and they dominated local politics for the next half-century, but that wouldn’t have happened without a group calling itself Education for Democracy and “the revolution of 1949.” 

Prominent citizens, such as banker Wallis Austin (after whom Austin Gardens is named) and textbook publisher Dwight Follett were fed up with the corrupt and ineffective Republican machine that had been governing Oak Park for far too long. Also fed up were the members of a local Great Books discussion group, which included Jean Moore, daughter of Oak Leaves editor Otto McFeely; her husband, Gene; Chuck Seabury; and Cy Giddings.

When I interviewed Giddings in 2000, near the end of his life (he died in December of 2002), he recalled that the group was inspired by Aristotle and Plato’s ideas about the nature of power and how it corrupts. They talked about the concept of good government and how Oak Park’s came up short. Those discussions led to founding Education for Democracy, and the new organization decided to challenge the village hall incumbents in the 1949 election. 

Because they had never run for office, one of their members, Robert Kubicek, campaigned for state representative in 1948 to learn how it was done. In 1949, they had learned enough to form the Village Independent Party and ran a slate that included Stuart Cochran for president and Bruce Bell, Timothy Durkin, Giddings, Lyle Hicks, Kubicek, and Kathryn McDaniel (daughter of OPRF High School Supt. Marion McDaniel) for commissioner.

The establishment Non-Partisan Civic Party, whose slogan, believe it or not, was “Keep Oak Park As It Has Been,” beat them handily, but during the campaign, the upstarts pioneered a number of innovative grassroots techniques that generated coverage in the Chicago papers: Home meetings, which branched out pyramid style (each attendee asked to hold similar meetings with their friends); a babysitter corps so couples with kids could attend (one of the babysitters, Sara Giddings, later as Sara Bode, became Oak Park’s first female village president in the early ’80s); a dishwashing brigade to relieve attendees of that chore on the night of the meetings; and Operation Phone Book, with 300 volunteers each taking a column so that every name in the book was contacted. 

Here’s a sample of their rhetoric: “A little over a year ago, a group of Oak Park men and women, facing another decision in another election, resolved to make democracy work right here at home by challenging the rule of political bosses and supplanting it with active participation of rank-and-file citizens in government. … They awakened a new interest in affairs of government in thousands of people. They exploded a heavy charge beneath the decaying structure of the local political machine, from which it is still tottering. … Will you exercise your priceless heritage as a citizen of a democracy — where ultimately everything depends on you? … Will you, as voter and citizen make the positive, active choice, investigating candidates and issues thoroughly and voicing your wishes strongly for the guidance of those you elect? Or will you make the passive, inactive choice which permits lesser men to rule by default? You, your friends and neighbors hold the real balance of power. It’s up to you to say what you want, and you will get it.”

They lost, but took a big step, positioning themselves for the next election. That came in 1952 when Education for Democracy put a referendum on the ballot calling for a village manager form of government, a recent innovation, pioneered in Cincinnati, that was, as Cy Giddings put it, “rising from the soil” in Illinois. It took the nuts and bolts of political governance out of the hands of machine politicians and put it in the hands of a professional administrator. Evanston adopted it in 1952. Fed up with political cronyism, so did Oak Park voters. They did not choose to “keep Oak Park as it has been.”

Education for Democracy renamed itself the Village Manager Association, and, with Dwight Follett and Arthur Kaiser as co-presidents, slated Homer Brown, Whitney Campbell, R. Emmett Hanley, Edwin Rittmeyer, Leo Shea, and Clifford Westcott for trustee — and for village president, Herb Knight, a capable, respectable, older leader, who unfortunately also had a heart condition. On doctors’ orders, he stopped campaigning midway through and J. Russell Christiansen filled in for him. After the entire slate was elected, Giddings said, Knight promptly resigned and Christiansen was appointed as his replacement.

The first thing the new board did was hire Mark Keane as the first village manager. When Oak Leaves publisher Telfer MacArthur sent over a stack of parking and traffic tickets incurred by his staff, on the assumption that Keane would “take care of them,” along with a helpful list of village hall staff from the previous regime that he felt should be retained or fired, Keane sent back a polite reply informing him that things wouldn’t be done that way anymore.

Keane went on to become head of the International City Management Association in Tucson, Arizona for many years, and returned to Oak Park in 2003 to honor the VMA’s 50th anniversary. At that time, he described Dwight Follett as “one of the greatest civic leaders I’ve ever encountered, a selfless guy with political savvy, who was dedicated to Oak Park.”

He described the early VMA as “really outstanding people. I’ve never had a better group to work with.”

Russ Christiansen ran for re-election in 1957 because “he wanted to win under his own name,” Giddings said. Then he stayed on for a third term from 1961-65, this time as a trustee.

When Keane left for another position in 1962, Harris Stevens, his financial director, was hired as village manager, and distinguished himself during the Open Housing Movement and the beginning of racial integration, leading up to and beyond the passage of the Fair Housing Ordinance in 1968.

Keane said his proudest achievement was hiring a tree expert from Michigan State as the village’s first forester and addressing the onslaught of Dutch Elm disease. Their efforts diversified and saved our frequently honored, and now taken for granted, “urban forest.”

“We changed the tone of government,” Keane said, transforming the attitude of the public from suspicion to respect. As that respect increased, so did civic involvement. Something to think about for those who so cavalierly dismiss “good government” as boring, quaint, or worse — unachievable. Keane called Oak Park “a model democratic process.”

It’s easy to write off the VMA as a staid relic whose time has passed, but before we relegate it to the trash heap of history, we should acknowledge what they brought to Oak Park: improved governance, political integrity, citizen involvement, and progressive ideals. They even saved our beautiful forest. Without their efforts and support, the Fair Housing Ordinance would never have been considered, much less approved, and this village likely would not have had the courage to take on the extraordinary challenge of embracing managed diversity, which has made us a model nationwide. Without the VMA, Oak Park would be a very different place today, and not a better one — equivalent, I believe, to the difference between Pottersville and Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life. 

We have Cy Giddings, Russ Christiansen, Dwight Follett, Mark Keane, John Gearen, Harris Stevens, and so many other civic-principled men and women over the past 65 years to thank for that.

The VMA’s time may have passed, but the need for governance with integrity is timeless. We still need good government, we need to believe it’s possible, and we need to get involved to make it happen. That is acutely obvious on the federal level where our government is in crisis, but it’s just as necessary on the local level. 

Disrespect for and disbelief in government is a self-fulfilling prophecy that we can no longer afford. 

The VMA’s demise proves that you can’t “keep Oak Park as it has been,” but its enduring legacy is that good government is possible. 

We just have to be willing to get involved and make it happen. 

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