Rupert Wenzel helped make us what we are today


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Rupert Wenzel died last week. Many Oak Parkers don't know the name, but he was a fine man and one of our last living links to the VMA revolution of the 1950s and '60s, which had a profound effect on this village. He was, in effect, one of modern Oak Park's founders.

Rupe, as he was called by friends, served on the village board from 1961-1969, a critical time in Oak Park history. The "good-government" types ruled, having overthrown a collection of corrupt Republican Party machine hacks in the early '50s and then selling voters on the wisdom of switching to the more progressive village manager form of government (hence the name Village Manager Association).

Today, it seems, Oak Parkers mostly complain about local government, but the VMA was a breath of fresh air in the 1950s. They laid the groundwork for policies and attitudes that have made us what we are today: Progressive, diverse, and a lot less corrupt than most other places.

Governance, however, wasn't Rupert Wenzel's passion. That would be bugs. Rupe had a long, storied career as the insect expert at the Field Museum of Natural History. He was an authority on a particular species of beetles, as I recall. The name I can't recall. He became bug savant emeritus at the museum after retiring, and continued helping out part time for many years, as long as his health allowed.

He was also one of Wednesday Journal's early investors and remained consistently encouraging, even when things looked bleak early on.

Rupert had his ups and downs with health issues over the last decade or so, but I always enjoyed seeing him out and about, and I looked for reasons to write about either insects or village history so I'd have an excuse to give him a call. He was reassuring to talk with?#34;dignified, intelligent, witty, with a velvet voice that could make any government policy sound reasonable.

And he was an important link to our past. We've lost several in recent years?#34;George Cullicott, Cy Giddings, Sandor Loevy. Men like these (and women like Hazel Hanson, for whom the League of Women Voters named an annual award) remind us of how we became a town citizens can feel considerable pride living in. Plenty of people complained about the village boards back then, too, but for different reasons. Those trustees took stands that required moral courage?#34;something Chicago-area municipalities haven't always been noted for.

And just like today, these men and women endured their share of long public hearings. During one, just before the board passed Oak Park's landmark Fair Housing Ordinance in 1968, an irate citizen gave Hazel Hanson some pretty strong public input?#34;in the form of hands around her throat. Anonymous death threats over the phone were not uncommon. You had to have a thick hide and a strong heart to be in government back then.

Rupert Wenzel was one of those who voted for the Fair Housing Ordinance. We owe those men and women a lot.

He lived a long time without his wife, Mary, who died after a long bout with a debilitating illness. He missed her though his dear friend and companion, Barbara Ballinger, helped fill that hole over the years. I visited his condo a few years back, and he told me the story. By the end of Mary's illness, she couldn't talk, but she could scrawl notes. He showed me the one found by her bedside after she died. In barely legible scratch it read, "So long, Rupe." He kept it under the glass top on his bureau all those years.

Presumably they're reunited now, and it's our turn to say it, however regretfully.

So long, Rupe.

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