Ginie Cassin was a hard person to say no to. That’s what people said, all those people she “recruited” as helpers in her various visions for civic improvement. Once she slid her arm through yours, you were a goner.
But she was also a person who hardly said no. Her working motto as village clerk for 20 years was “I can do that.” And mostly she did, everything from the logistics for Farmers Market and A Day in Our Village to helping write Oak Park’s landmark Fair Housing Ordinance.
Virginia “Ginie” Cassin died on Oct. 16, 2020 from complications of a very long, very full, well-lived life in Oak Park, then Baxter, Minnesota, where her family mostly migrated and, last Friday, gathered to surround her with love as she expired at the age of 96. In other words, she died as she lived, bringing people together for the betterment of her community.
She was happiest when she was useful, so the last few years might have been mildly frustrating for her, but there was no way around it. A nonagenarian has to make a few concessions. She hated leaving Oak Park, but family closeness was her consolation.
While she was here, though, for the better part of a century, Ginie made her mark. She was in the first wave of Catholics who got involved in local politics, back in the day when that ruffled some Protestant feathers. She and her life partner Bill got involved in the Archdiocese’s Cana Conference like many couples, including my parents, in the early ’60s. That led to joining the League of Women Voters, which led to the village’s Community Relations Commission in 1963, and boosting the Fair Housing movement, which led to becoming Oak Park’s first female village clerk, which led to chairing the Hemingway Foundation board until age finally coaxed her into retirement ever so gently.
Twenty years ago next month, I found myself on a Hemingway Foundation-sponsored trip to Cuba with Ginie and Bill, and I let it slip that she reminded me of my mother. Well, she knew my mom from Cana, so she understood what a high compliment that was, which meant my cover as an objective, hard-edged word-slinger was blown to bits. From then on, we bonded. But she actually was like my mom: warm, welcoming, gracious and hospitable on the outside, tough inside — and very short.
I wasn’t the only one who had a hard time saying no to her. Actually, it wasn’t that difficult. All you had to do was surrender. She made it easy. It also helped that I believed in her cause — convincing a clueless village of the mind-boggling treasure in its lap, the legacy of writer Ernest Hemingway, born and raised here. We’re still largely clueless about it, despite the efforts of Ginie and so many other Papaficionados over the past 40 years.
But they accomplished a lot and greatly enriched Oak Park’s historical legacy, unique among metropolitan suburbs. Along with Frank Lloyd Wright and Edgar Rice Burroughs (creator of Tarzan) this village launched three of the major cultural figures of the 20th century. A fitting memorial to Ginie Cassin, would be to build a Hemingway/Wright/Burroughs Wing onto the Oak Park River Forest Museum and provide exhibit space for the underappreciated Hemingway Museum, whose materials are now largely gathering dust in storage.
As I wrote in 2018 when Ginie was preparing to leave her beloved village, “Great people produce great towns. Or is it great towns produce great people? Maybe it works both ways. Special towns make it possible for people with great potential to fulfill it. That has certainly been true in Ginie Cassin’s case.”
Ginie seemed to agree with that assessment.
“I’ll miss the good feeling of being from Oak Park and being a part of Oak Park,” she said in 2018. “I feel it has been an honorable place to live, representing a good community with a lot of good people in it.
“Most of my adult life, I have lived under very good government, which has espoused policies that are very much in line with the way I feel about things, whether it was racial diversity or the openness of the board and commission system where there are hearings and opportunities for people to put in their thoughts.
“I think people rise to the occasion of being an Oak Park resident or business owner. And this might sound a little funny, but I’m happy to have generally been on the right side of things. It means that you match the place where you live.”
Oak Park and Ginie Cassin were, indeed, a perfect match.
The family is planning a memorial in Oak Park in the future. In the meantime, if you want to send a card, the address is 8182 Excelsior Road, Apt. 306. Baxter, Minn. 56425.