As the Oak Park Regional Housing Center prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Ordinance with its annual benefit on October 4 at the Nineteenth Century Club in Oak Park, one of its longtime employees quietly retired this fall after more than 45 years with the Housing Center.
After the passage of the Fair Housing Ordinance in 1968, when African-American families began to integrate Oak Park in the early 1970s, many faced discrimination in neighboring communities.
Oak Park resident Roberta “Bobbie” Raymond opened the Oak Park Housing Center to ensure equal access to housing, working initially with a small staff and a group of realtors willing to show a diverse clientele homes in Oak Park. One of those early volunteers was Louise Varnes.
Varnes recalls how she and her husband intentionally chose Oak Park as a home for their growing family.
“We deliberately moved to Oak Park because of the integration efforts,” Varnes said. “Our house had been vacated by a family who had lived there for two generations, and a lot of that was happening in Oak Park. The houses were changing over and it was a very active community.”
She and her then-husband had five children in their Elmwood Avenue house, and Varnes recalls that once the children started school, she wanted to get more involved with the community. She knew Raymond from the neighborhood, and Varnes started volunteering with Raymond’s housing efforts at First United Church on Saturdays.
“I thought, ‘This is perfect. My husband be home with the kids, and I can get out and do something significant,'” Varnes said.
As her volunteer responsibilities grew, Varnes eventually became an employee and says she learned much from watching Raymond.
“I went from one day a week to full time. I learned so much from Bobbie, how she dealt with those who were upset about what we were doing,” Varnes said. “She reasoned with people and talked them down. She was a tiny person with all this presence.”
Varnes recalls learning more and more about the issue of fair housing and the work’s reach throughout and outside of the village.
“There was no end to it,” she said. “It was a continuing issue. Other communities came to us to learn about our diversity efforts.”
Working with an office of many women was something that Varnes calls empowering and enjoyable.
“Work was fun. At the same time it was serious,” she said.
For the Housing Center’s Director of Technical Assistance and Marketing Mike Stewart, who first met Varnes at St. Giles Church, her connection to the Housing Center was an important part of the work of the center.
“I’ve been there almost 25 years, and she’s been a fixture at the Housing Center,” Stewart said. “She started on the front lines when the Housing Center was just a room at First United. She has worked Saturdays her entire life at the Housing Center.”
Stewart tried to compile statistics on how many people Varnes helped over her decades-long career and says she helped at least 1,000 people a year.
“She’s been an ambassador to many in Oak Park,” Stewart said. “She tells people about the housing available here, about parking and all the things they need to know. At least one third of them decide to move here. She’s helped at least 30,000 people find a home in Oak Park.”
With the passage of time, Varnes’ role changed as technology upended the world of housing. She started working with a paper system, changed to an electronic database and then moved into using phones to connect with clients.
“I appreciated her willingness to change with the technology,” Stewart said. “Throughout it all, she connected with others by hearing people’s stories.”
He also notes that Varnes’ demeanor was a key to her longevity at the Housing Center.
“We all know when people come in and are looking for an apartment, they are likely to be stressed,” Stewart said. “She really helped with those stress levels.”
Co-worker Jerry Ehernberger, senior rental housing advisor at the Housing Center, recalls the personal side of Varnes.
“She impressed me from the very beginning with her deep knowledge of movies, directors and actors,” Ehernberger said. “She loves Shakespeare, her cats and raising roses.”
He also recalls her love of cranes, which had the entire office running outside to look to the skies when someone reported a sighting. At the end of the day, Ehernberger credits Varnes with teaching him about his vocation.
“I knew nothing about the Housing Center when I started there,” Ehernberger said. “I really learned the ropes on the job, and she showed me how things worked.”
Now that she’s a grandmother and great grandmother, Varnes decided it was time to slow down a bit and retire from full-time work, but she says her work at the Housing Center was a defining part of her life.
“It became a part of my life,” she said. “I’m so glad that I was able to be involved with that. I’m very grateful for the opportunity that came to me.”
She notes that some things change — such as the advent of online housing searches and people moving more frequently, but she says the Housing Center is as relevant as ever.
“The people there now, they are hardworking, and looking forward to continue the basic idea that we all can live together in the same neighborhood,” Varnes said.