Oak Park's fierce and feisty advocate

Bobbie Raymond worked to make the village 'all it could be'

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Inevitably with Bobbie Raymond, the stature thing comes up, so we might as well get that out of the way. She was short but seldom came up short. She was small in stature but left an outsized imprint. She was larger than life. She went by a young-sounding name and had a young-sounding voice, but no one ever looked down on her (not for long, anyway) or took her anything but seriously.

And she was always, right up till the end, Oak Park's fiercest advocate.

For a while though early on, it looked like she might end up on Broadway or in Hollywood instead. Born in 1938 to William and Rosemary Wolin, she was a hard-working child actor in Chicago, 1945-52, and then, using the stage name Roberta Alden, appeared in NBC Radio shows like Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy and Cricket on the Hearth. She did commercials, trade shows and television, including the soap operas Search for Tomorrow and Love of Life. You can check her out on YouTube in the educational film "Parties are Fun" from 1950.

After graduating from Oak Park and River Forest High School in 1955, she toured the Catskills with the Stanley Woolf Players in 1958 and had a lead role in the pre-Broadway cast of Tender Loving Care with John Payne in 1960.

But she answered the figurative question, "How you gonna keep her down on the farm after she's seen the Great White Way?" by bringing her brand of show biz back to Oak Park. Never one to shy from the spotlight, she turned her attention to a different stage back home. 

After studying sociology at Drake University, The New School for Social Research, and Hunter College, she focused on racial integration and the Fair Housing Movement, joining the Citizens Commission for Human Rights, which spearheaded the effort to pass Oak Park's landmark Fair Housing Ordinance in 1968. That led to Roosevelt University, where she wrote her master's thesis, "The Challenge to Oak Park: A Suburban Community Faces Racial Change" as a prelude to founding the Oak Park Housing Center in office space provided by First Congregational Church (now First United Church of Oak Park) in 1972. 

Based on the notion that "a community attempting to maintain integration had a better chance than a community that resisted" (a phrase that could serve as the village motto), the Housing Center, as stated on her Wikipedia page, "worked to encourage continuing demand from whites while opening new opportunities for minorities by counseling housing seekers to promote neighborhood diversity and integration."

Ever the advocate, in addition to welcoming racial minorities, Raymond and the Housing Center also actively marketed Oak Park to the LGBTQ community. 

Her comfort in front of the camera paid dividends. She was featured in the documentary, As Time Goes By: Oak Park, Illinois, which premiered at the Lake Theatre in 1974 and was later shown on WTTW, the Chicago PBS affiliate. She wrote the winning presentation script for Oak Park's All-America City Award in 1976, was featured on CBS' 60 Minutes in 1978, and appeared on the last Phil Donahue Show filmed in Chicago in the early '80s. All these and more gave Oak Park a higher profile and positive publicity nationwide.

In 1977, she was one of the founders of the Oak Park Exchange Congress, a national organization made up of member municipalities that met annually for 15 years to discuss ideas for maintaining stable diversity, including what came to be called the "Oak Park Strategy." 

That strategy was based on the understanding that Oak Park could not succeed if it remained an isolated island of integration, so she worked to build bridges across Austin Boulevard by collaborating with the Austin Shock Historical Association to create the Austin Village House Tour, promoting the West Side neighborhood's historic homes. She also organized the Boulevard Run, a 10K race whose course ran through both Oak Park and Austin (including Columbus Park), an annual event that lasted 10 years.

She retired in 1996 as executive director of the Housing Center, which by then was called the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, reflecting the wider scope and focus of their efforts.

But retirement didn't slow her down much, if at all. She served on the boards of the Oak Park Development Corporation, the Doris Humphrey Foundation, the Ernest Hemingway Foundation, and the Oak Park Art League, to name a few.

She established and ran the Oak Park and River Forest High School Alumni Association, which raised scholarship funds for educational travel.

But many of her causes did not put her center stage. In 1996, she connected with a 1937 OPRF grad named Lewis Pope, a star running back for the nationally ranked OPRF High School football team that year. When OPRF was invited to play another powerhouse, Miami High, in the Orange Bowl, Pope was prohibited from playing because of his race. Raymond brought him back to Oak Park and interviewed him for the oral history project, "Legends of Our Time," where he was also honored with the high school's Tradition of Excellence Award (which Raymond herself was awarded in 1990).

More recently, she discovered a painting by a forgotten French artist and championed her story, telling it in a one-act play, An Imaginary Interview with Elizabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun, which was performed at the 19th Century Club.

In a series of articles in the Oak Leaves, she published the first oral history of early black history in Oak Park, dating back to the 1870s. And she was integral in the establishment of the annual Day in Our Village event on the first Sunday of June.

An avid painter and gardener, she combined those passions with her prolific, nature-based watercolors, some inspired by her backyard, some by the Oak Park Conservatory, and some by her frequent trips to Door County in Wisconsin, which led to the publication of two children's books, Amy and the Amaryllis and Three Sea Tales. She was a longtime member of the OP-RF Garden Club.

At the Oak Park Art League, she led the Sunday figure-drawing class for years and was one of the founders of Expressions Graphics on Harrison Street. A Francophile, she organized a long-running French Club conversation class at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Oak Park. And she was one of the originators of the First Tuesday Club, bringing independent and art films to the Lake Theatre.

In 2012, when a friend and former colleague, Charles "Corky" Troy, began a series of one-man, multimedia presentations at Open Door Theater about the history of American musicals and songwriters, Bobbie actively promoted them, inviting a group to lunch to celebrate her birthday, then treating them to the show. As a result, I will always associate George and Ira Gershwin's "Love is Here to Stay" with brotherly love, and whenever I hear Mel Torme's "Christmas Song," I think of him writing it on the hottest day of July in L.A.

Bobbie was a loyal friend, said Sandra and David Sokol, who moved to Oak Park in 1972. "A lot was going on," Sandra recalls, so they soon got involved. And if you got involved, you inevitably crossed paths with Bobbie Raymond. Sandra volunteered with the Community Relations Department. David served as a village trustee from 1977 to 1981. Sandra joined the Oak Park Exchange Congress in 1977. 

"Bobbie was a major force in the success of that," she recalled.

Their relationship started off as professional but quickly became social. 

"Bobbie didn't have a car back then," David said. "She rode her bike everywhere. There was that meeting and that meeting and that meeting. She was a small, feisty person who spoke her mind."

But she was more than that. 

"She grew up here," said Sandra, "a real DOOPer. Education was very important to her. She said OPRF was the best education she had. We became particularly close in the last six years or so. She remembered so much. I did a lot of listening. She would say, 'You agree with this, right?' I did, mostly. I miss that. She had a brilliant brain."

She was opinionated and could be blunt, but she was also very generous.

"All those years, she was very supportive," David said. "People didn't know about it. She did things without any hope of reward. She was happy to give money anonymously. She went way beyond the 'feisty redhead.'"

To honor her, David and former village president Larry Christmas, another close friend, are working on a plan to commission a public sculpture. 

Which is only fair, noted Sandra, "There are none for women, just men so far."

It's only appropriate to honor her, she added, because "wherever things were happening, she was there."

"She leaves a big void for us and the community," David said.

Bobbie's son, Charles Raymond, remembers that, growing up, his mom seemed to be at a meeting every night. And not just when he was growing up.

"She would bake cookies and brownies for all these meetings. I would say, 'Come on, Mom, you're 80!'" She had enormous energy — until the end. "She would say, 'The meetings keep me going.'"

It wasn't until high school that he realized how unusual his mother was. "Until then, I just thought it was normal." She would usually take him along to the meetings.

Bobbie, Charles, and her grandson, Trevor, who is 13, were only children.

"Her whole life revolved around him," Charles said. "They always had fun, making crepes, playing a lot of Scrabble. He turned into a good player and beat her about half the time."

She tried to expose him to the arts. They traveled to New York City last June to see the museums and shows, Charles recalled. But she would tire by the afternoon.

"It's sad," he said, "because she really wanted to see him play tennis for OPRF."

Trevor, he noted, says he's planning to use his grandmother as motivation to do well in school and on the court when he enters OPRF next year.

"I miss talking to her," Charles said, "being able to call her. She had a great sense of humor."

He'll also miss seeing her honored by her alma mater, Roosevelt University, which was planning to give Bobbie an honorary doctorate at their upcoming graduation ceremony.

She was really looking forward to it, Charles said, but she knew she'd had 80 good years.

"She was somewhat at peace."

Roberta Larson Raymond, always of Oak Park, died on May 7, 2019 of complications from congestive heart failure at the age of 80. In addition to her son and grandson, she is survived by her husband, Richard Larson; her daughter-in-law, Christi Ausland-Raymond; and her ex-husband, Geoffrey Raymond. She was preceded in death by her ex-husband, Wallace Kirkland.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, June 12 at the Oak Park Arts Center, 200 N. Oak Park Ave. 

Charles said they considered a number of venues, but it could have been held anywhere. 

"She loved everything about Oak Park," he said, "its diversity, how beautiful it was. She was a huge fan."

How would he like his mother to be remembered?

"As somebody who devoted her whole life to making Oak Park the best it could be."

Just recently, he said, she got on a kick about canned firestone peaches and how none of the local grocery stores seemed to carry them. She wrote a letter to the editor about it, and then another when she finally found them at Carnival Foods. Soon after, a large can of peaches appeared on my desk with a note attached, thanking me for publishing her letters.

Bobbie Raymond was an advocate right to the very end, even for canned peaches — which were good, by the way. She was right … about so many things.

Thanks, Bobbie.

Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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Elizabeth Titus Rexford  

Posted: May 17th, 2019 1:39 PM

Thanks, Dan, for your interesting column about Bobbie Raymond! I was going to say "thanks for your comprehensive remarks", but that would not be possible. Bobbie had so many interests, for example. Not only did Bobbie help me find a house here in 1972, but I ran into her at many places - - for example, French Club at the Maze Library, which we both belonged to. She remained passionate about learning French throughout her life. Also, she had met my parents, who lived in Connecticut, because they had hosted Bobbie at their home when she was there for the "Oak Park Exchange Congress", giving tips to Bloomfield CT about how to best integrate their town. Firey and feisty! The best adjectives. She was my idol.

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