They're Dropping Like Flies
by Peter Zelchenko May 8, 2009

And I thought I was going to rip the Star Trek movie a new black hole. Perhaps another time.

Surely you've heard the expression "lakefront liberal." It refers to the reformist political communities that began with progressive intellectuals in Hyde Park in the 1920s and 1930s, and migrated up to include big parts of the lakefront, all the way up the North Side to Howard, from the '40s through the '70s. Since the 1990s, the North Side strain has largely been usurped by Machine interests that only look progressive on the surface. This fluid nature has produced many political enigmas, like Lisa Madigan, John Fritchey, and others.

Hyde Park was the Ur of intellectual progressivism in Chicago, and it still manages to hold onto its ideals better than much of its North Side progeny. Sadly, Hyde Park's progressive backbone is far over the hill, and with that, I count five of its most important icons who have died since December.

Sam Ackerman (1934-May 1, 2009)
Early photos of veteran organizer Sam Ackerman show his ebullient face full of confidence and friendly energy. Sam co-organized Chicago's participation in the 1963 March on Washington. He was a longtime leader in the IVI-IPO. He was a close confidant and aide to Mayor Harold Washington, involved with his campaigns since the beginning. He hosted Barack Obama's very first coffee in his home. Sam was always busy doing something big. He died last Friday.

Sam was also a good friend and mentor to many younger people. When you spoke to him about your concerns, it was clear he was listening attentively. His concern for others knew no limits -- in fact, this was a problem for him. I remember, three or four years ago, stopping by his place in Hyde Park and fixing his grandson Kevin's bike. Sam was often taking care of Kevin, stepping in to watch him as often as needed. I thought to myself, "How is a 70-year-old man with back problems supposed to take care of his grandson?" But he did, and although he told me it was not easy, he just rolled up his sleeves and did it.

At the same time, Sam was busy organizing Chicago's part in World Can't Wait, the activities of his synagogue's progressive committee, and probably a half-dozen other things.

In Sam's bedroom hang not one, not two, but three fascinating boards covered with hundreds of campaign buttons spanning over 50 years of passionate idealism. Plenty of people collect campaign buttons. Sam wasn't content with just a button. When Sam saw some effort he thought was important, he would contribute the money. And yet he wouldn't stop there. He'd lick the envelopes. He'd make the phone calls of support. But he wouldn't stop there, either. He'd knock on the doors. He'd drum up the volunteers. More likely than not, he'd be on the organizing committee. Probably for half of the campaigns represented by these buttons, he was on the organizing committee.

And, finally, when the work was all done, Sam would pick up the button and add it to his cherished collection. (He also made many of these buttons. Surprised?) They should go into a museum.

Leon Despres (1908-May 6, 2009)
Speaking of which, a walking museum left us last week. Former 5th Ward Alderman Leon Despres died Wednesday, less than a week after his old friend and co-conspirator Sam Ackerman. There is so much already said about this gentleman, and not much that I could add to enrich it. It is difficult to see him go, but it was inevitable. He was 101. I had a letter about Sam Ackerman en route to him when he died. It's probably in his mailbox now. How strange.

I last visited Mr. Despres sometime in February at his Hyde Park apartment. His memory was sharp, his thoughts lucid. I knew he enjoyed my reading to him, because his eyesight was bad and he had been a voracious reader. He particularly loved French literature. Mr. Despres spent part of his childhood in France and still spoke it quite well. One of the poems we read was Victor Hugo's L'Expiation. He would generously correct my delivery and pronunciation problems: "des héros" means "of the heroes" -- not "of the zeros," which is how I pronounced it. Even Despres' greatest foe, Daley the Elder, knew he was a hero, not a zero.

Despres lived long enough to witness the birth and frustrating death of the Hyde Park Co-op, which he co-founded. It was tough for him to see that institution die, but his ears perked up when I told him that its ethic and roots lived on in Logan Square, in the form of the nascent Dill Pickle Food Co-op. In fact, two of Dill Pickle's earliest participants -- Mike Burton and Josh Deth -- worked for Hyde Park Co-op as organizers. (If you're not yet a member, you need to join.)

I called Mr. Despres on the phone last week. He seemed okay, said he'd call back soon about a visit. I wanted to give something back to him, because I knew he'd given Chicago something. Visiting, reading to him, seemed like a way to do that. It would have been nice to do that again.

Mr. Despres certainly moved many people. He never showed any fear of speaking out about what he felt was right. In a world filled with chickenhearted politicians, Despres was a breath of fresh air. Chicago needs him today more than we ever did.

Other very recently fallen Hyde Parkers:

Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf (1924-Dec. 23, 2008)
Rabbi Wolf, who for 20 years led Hyde Park's KAM Isaiah Israel congregation and was "literally at Selma," was one of Judaism's most outspoken rabbis for progressive change. According to the Jewish Daily Forward, "Rabbi Wolf’s name is synonymous with service, social action, and the possibility of change." He embodied the Jewish notion of tikkun olam, "repair the world."

Dr. Larry Hawkins (1931-Jan. 30, 2009)
Dr. Hawkins started as a basketball coach on Chicago's South Side. Mayor Richard J. Daley once said "Hawkins not only builds great basketball teams, he builds character in men." That's one thing Daddy Daley got right. Hawkins himself had been a Chicago Brown Bomber (a spinoff of the Harlem Globetrotters, in the Negro League). He really understood how to use sports to improve the futures of at-risk kids, and he did this for thousands of Chicago boys and girls. To him, organized sports were just a way to prepare young people for a steady and prosperous life outside of sports; this was an entirely new concept in the 1950s and 1960s. Dr. Hawkins served as longtime head of the University of Chicago's Office of Special Programs and of Big Buddies Youth Services, and founded the Institute for Educational Athletics in the 1970s. Steven Wilkins, a Hyde Park native and sports administrator for the Chicago Public Schools, told me he remembers Dr. Hawkins as a "remarkably powerful advocate" for building academics and leadership in Chicago's black community, using team sports as the medium.

Winston Kennedy (1926-Feb. 1, 2009)
Win Kennedy died the day after Larry Hawkins. A major Hyde Park real estate broker, Kennedy nevertheless maintained his ties to progressive thought, toiling for several decades to redevelop his community with a mind toward preserving its socioeconomic diversity. He was also active in the Hyde Park Co-op and many other organizations. If the area survived Urban Renewal with minimal displacement and gentrification despite its proclivities, much of that can be credited to Mr. Kennedy.

# ~ #

These were not merely Hyde Park fixtures -- these were five major players who helped define what it means to be liberal, to be involved in one's community, to not only express concern for others but to take big action, to make big plans. If you want to understand the liberal motivation, you should study the thoughts and service of these people.

Barack Obama's McMansion sits on a sprawling lot across from KAM Isaiah Israel synagogue, where Sam's service was held last Sunday and where Leon Despres' will be held on May 31 at 1 p.m. To get into the temple, you have to get through the new Secret Service barricades.

It's my sincere hope that these men's dreams of a just society are interpreted more carefully by our new president, who we know proudly counts Hyde Park as his training grounds for social change, and these people as his mentors. However, the people the president lately has assembled around him have attitudes that lean even to the right of center.

Rabbi Wolf was one of the earlest supporters of Barack Obama, who wrote to Wolf's family: "My conversations with him were always lively. You knew that if he disagreed with you, he would let you know in no uncertain terms -- especially if he thought you were overlooking the moral dimensions of an issue, or rationalizing your own failure to live up to the highest moral principles." One wonders how many times Barack needed such a reprimand from Rabbi Wolf that it stood out in his mind.

Whenever Barack gets Rahm Emanuel, the Daleys, Arne Duncan, Valerie Jarrett and other Machine fixtures breathing down his neck, I hope to high heaven he thinks hard about where he came from. These people have repurposed the "lakefront liberal" brand in disturbing ways.

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