Staying active, engaged and in touch with joy

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

When Harriet Hausman and Barbara Ballinger receive their Ulyssean Awards this Friday night at Brookdale Plaza (formerly Holley Court Terrace), they will join a lengthening roster of distinguished "olders" who have been honored for significant contributions to our villages. Think of it as a "lifetime achievement."

And what lifetimes. Harriet, 93, a resident of River Forest since 1954 (in the same house she and her husband built on Forest Avenue), and Barbara, 92, who came to Oak Park in 1958, personify that well-worn cliché, "living a full life" — worn well, well-earned and well-deserved.

When I heard they were this year's honorees, I took full advantage and spent a lovely Friday afternoon last interviewing my two favorite nonagenarians in the homes, where they still live independently.

Each said she was honored to be paired with the other.

"I'm just there for comic relief," Harriet said. "I'm the oldest person they could find who still had her marbles." 

Harriet grew up in Melrose Park and met her husband on a blind date. She had been engaged to a soldier who was killed in France during World War II. To ease her transition, an in-law set her up with one of her brothers — the wrong one. Fortunately, he stiffed her and she ended up going out with the other brother, Marty — for life.

Both cared about society and fought for justice. In the 1960s, when the Black Panthers were serving breakfast to neighborhood kids through the West Side Better Boys Foundation, Harriet was one of the volunteers making those breakfasts.

"I never knew the side that was supposedly so terrible," she said. "They really cared about those kids."

As a social worker, she worked at County Hospital with incarcerated women from Cook County Jail — without pay (she could afford it and didn't want to take a job away from anyone).

Not exactly the curriculum vitae of a "simple, little old lady," she says, "but I was always feisty."

Harriet and Marty joined the ACLU in the early '80s when the Nazis were threatening to march in Skokie. Though they were Jewish, they took the side of civil liberties, an unpopular position. "We believed it was better if their ugly words were aired," she said. 

To this day, Harriet remains active with the organization whose membership recently surged again, thanks to the election of our great civil un-liberator. She remains a huge fan of the "bright, interesting, knowledgeable" Barack Obama, whom she sat next to on the ACLU board before he left to become our 44th President. In spite of last November's election, she's still an optimist … "as long as we can get rid of Trump."

When Marty died in 1988, Harriet took over the business he started, selling diesel locomotive parts to the railroads. She sold the business in 1992, but not before the Department of Transportation gave her their Minority Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

"Friends used to say I should be on that old game show, What's My Line?" she said. "They would never guess." 

In 1975, the League of Women Voters asked her to write a flier summarizing the history of River Forest for the village's centennial celebration.

"It was an impossible task," she said. So she wrote a full-length book instead, titled Reflections – A History of River Forest. You can still buy copies through the Historical Society and the Visitors Center, proceeds going to those organizations.

She loves River Forest and is proud that the once-closed community that wouldn't let Jews join the Tennis Club has become so much more open. She's thrilled about the recent Welcoming Resolution on immigrants, passed by the village board.

The secret to living into your 90s, she said, is not dwelling on the past and all the sorrows that living a long life inevitably brings.

"I was in labor for 37 hours with my son," she recalls. "It was terrible, but I dwell on the terrific young man he became."

The secret to enjoying life at any age, she added, is "staying in touch with joy."

And thinking ahead.

"I'm planning my 100th birthday party," she said. "Put it on your calendar."



It doesn't take much to induce Barbara Ballinger to break into poetry. Gerard Manley Hopkins is her favorite, followed closely by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. She has committed sizable portions of their poems to memory. "In this short life that merely lasts an hour," she quotes Dickinson from her Envelope Poems, "how much — how little — is within our power." Judging by Barbara, quite a bit.

One wall of bookshelves in her condo on Kenilworth is devoted to poetry. She belongs to a book group and a separate "reading" group (at the moment, they're working their way, out loud, through James Joyce's Ulysses, appropriately enough).

Barbara gets around. When I called to arrange an interview, she had just returned from a Building & Grounds Committee meeting at First United Church. The day after our interview, I spotted her at Farmers Market. The one-on-one Pilates sessions, twice weekly at FFC, help her stay fit and mobile.

"It's a splurge," she says, "but it's the best thing I can do for my health."

She is wearing a T-shirt from the Seattle Public Library, which seems fitting since she was director of the Oak Park Public Library from 1964 to 1991. She has now been retired almost that long.

Barbara, who hails from Oklahoma, earned her library degree from the University of Illinois. One of her first jobs was driving a bookmobile for the Topeka Public Library in Kansas. Her first day, she applied the brake a little too hard and all the books flew off the shelves. She no longer rides the brake.

In 1958, she landed a job as assistant librarian at the Maze Branch Library, working under the legendary Adele Maze. Barbara didn't know much about Oak Park and back then jobs were plentiful around the country, so she told family and friends she would only be here for a couple of years.

She didn't count on Oak Park being so interesting. The open housing era was just beginning and the first meetings took place at her church. "Diversity," she said, "has been good for Oak Park."

She subscribed to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1959, making her possibly their longest subscriber, and still takes the Green Line to the Loop on Friday afternoons for concerts.

After she retired, she developed the Hemingway Archives collection at the main library, and, by coincidence, share's her birthday (July 21) with the author. She's proud of the collection, which contains some interesting materials, including the check from Ernie for $100, which he sent "for fines I might owe."

When she visited Finca Vigia, Papa's home outside Havana, during a Hemingway Foundation-sponsored trip in 2000, a Cuban guide showed her a book with the Scoville Institute nameplate inside and asked if she knew what it meant.

As a matter of fact, she did, being probably the only person left who worked in Oak Park's first library before it was demolished.

She is currently reading up on poet Jane Hirshfield, who will deliver this year's Barbara Ballinger Lecture at the current incarnation of the Oak Park Public Library on Oct. 8 at 2 p.m.

Her two-year stint in the village turned into six decades.

"I can't quite see living anyplace else," she says.

More and more Americans are living into their 90s. If you're looking for models on how to do it with grace and vitality, you can't do much better than Harriet Hausman and Barbara Ballinger, both of whom would agree 'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Barbara can probably recite the rest of Tennyson's poem for you.

The 14th Annual Ulyssean Award Dinner takes place on Friday, Sept. 22 at 6:30 p.m. (dinner at 7:45) at Brookdale Plaza Oak Park, 1111 Ontario St., 13th Floor. For reservations and/or information, call the Senior Citizens Center, 708-848-5251.


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