Alice Lonoff

Alice Lonoff has lived in Northbrook for 40 years. She discusses her work with the United Methodist Church and getting politically involved. Alice is one of the founding members of RAIN (Racial Awareness in the North Shore).

Recorded on March 25, 2024. Length: 22 Minutes.


This interview was edited for clarity.

BILL PEKARA (BP): Good afternoon and welcome to Northbrook Voices, an oral history project sponsored by the Northbrook Public Library and the Northbrook Historical Society. Today is March 25th, 2024. My name is Bill Pekara, and I’m pleased to welcome Alice Lonoff, who has lived in Northbrook for 40 years. 

Our first question is what has brought you to Northbrook? 

ALICE LONOFF (AL): My husband and I were living in Lexington, Massachusetts, and he was looking for a job. The headhunter found him, and he was hired to come to a large bank in Chicago. So we were looking for a home in the Chicago area. We wanted good schools. We had a one-year-old and were hoping to have another child. My husband is Jewish, and I’m Christian, and it was very important to him to move to a community where he wouldn’t be the only Jew in town. One of the things that attracted us to Northbrook was the mix of its religious diversity. And that is something I’ve always loved about Northbrook.

BP: What were your experiences like before settling here in Northbrook? 

AL: Well, we lived in Lexington, Massachusetts, which was very similar to Northbrook. There were a lot of academics there because it was close to MIT and some great universities. I had some very good friends there. We were there for seven years. The one interesting thing about Lexington is a lot of people have lived there for many, many, many years. We were seven years on that block and we were still the new people on the block. And we were always told that we lived in the Patton’s old house. We never were the Lonoff’s house. It was always the Patton’s old house. But it was a lovely town. It just had such a historical background and it was kind of fun to be living in a place that had so much history involved with it. 

BP: So when you did move to Northbrook, how did you choose the specific neighborhood that you ended up moving to?

AL: Well, we were working with a very good broker, Joan McGowan. She knew what we wanted, that we had a little child and we had lived on a cul-de-sac in Lexington and we really were hoping to find a home that had very little traffic like we were used to. And she found us a home that had just come on the market at the end of a long cul-de-sac and that has been very special to us.

BP: How would you describe Northbrook to someone considering moving here? 

AL: I would say, as I said before, I like the religious diversity. Not only is there a diversity in the religions, but they get along well together and like when there was something in the world about Muslims, a bunch of us at church wrote a letter to them and signed it in support.

And when there was something where people were shot up at a temple, a bunch of us went to the temple in Northbrook in support that night to worship with them. I like that. That’s very important to me. 

Besides that, Northbrook has such wonderful sports facilities. The Park District is wonderful, the schools are fabulous, and I like the village board right now. I think they have a very good, committed village board that are really doing good things. So there’s a lot that I like about Northbrook. 

BP: Who were the influential figures in your life and how would you say that they had impacted your values and your beliefs? 

AL: I would say my parents. I grew up in a family where my parents, major friends, and all of their volunteer activities circled around the church. I’m a Methodist, and for much of my adult life, I was very involved. And I still am very involved at the Northbrook United Methodist Church. It’s a very important part of my life. But then I began to branch out and do things that I don’t think my parents ever would in terms of getting involved with social justice issues and LGBTQ issues. I’ve just been called to do that. My mother taught us to be kind and my father too. That’s always been a very strong family value. I can remember when my mother was dying and somebody would call and there was the A-list and the B-list because she didn’t have much energy. And so the A-list would get through and the B list – I would take a message. She heard me answering the phone once and I said, “Who is this? I’m sorry, she can’t come to the phone.” My mother said, “Turn it around. So, she can’t come to the phone right now. Who is this?” She was pointing out to me that I was making somebody aware that they might be on the B-list.

That always stayed with me. 

BP: Going back to social justice, would you be able to highlight a pivotal moment or experiences that shaped the course of your life? 

AL: Yeah. With respect to that, yes. You remember the Black Lives movement and Black Lives Matter. I was with a group of people and an acquaintance, I still remember this, he spoke up and he said, “What do you mean Black lives matter? All lives matter. Your life matters. My life matters.” I was dumbfounded. I thought to myself, I don’t have an answer for this man, but this is going to come up again and the next time I’m going to have an answer to it. 

I then took a course shortly after that called Hard Conversations run by Patti Digh. It was an online course. It went on for several weeks. You were required to watch videos, read materials, participate in discussions. As somebody described it, it was like a firehose of information hitting you. Once I learned what I learned in that course, I couldn’t shut it off. 

I needed to do something; that’s part of my political activism. I feel strongly about education and the ripple effect. Every person whose life I can touch, who I might be able to change their mind, might go on to have an effect on somebody else, and so on. Around that same time, a group of four religious leaders in Northbrook— a Bahai leader, my Methodist pastor, the pastor of the Glory Day Lutheran Church, and Rabbi Sid Helbraun—got together and did a six-week course called “White Like Me.” It was a discussion group that began in the library’s Civic Room. It was overcrowded; I mean, it was filled to the rafters. The discussions went on for six weeks, and many of us felt like we were just scratching the surface. We wanted to continue. That’s when RAIN was born, which stands for Racial Awareness in the North Shore. We spent over a year educating ourselves first, and then we were ready to start reaching out to the community and organizing programs. I guess that’s all I have to say about that for now.

BP: Looking at your career, are there specific achievements or projects that stand out to you? 

AL: Well, I’m an estate planning lawyer. I graduated from law school in ‘77, so I’ve been doing it—I don’t want to count up how many years I’ve been doing it. I’ve enjoyed working with people one on one and explaining what the law is about and helping them put together their plan.

One achievement that does stand out to me was being involved in a trust litigation matter, and it went all the way up to the Illinois Supreme Court. When Justice Simon retired about a year or two years afterwards, he was asked what were any cases that really stood out to him. And he cited the case that we were working on. He said it was like a law school final exam. Of course, we won the case. It was nice. And my name is listed in the book about having contributed to it. That was a fun, interesting case to work on.

BP: Looking back, what advice would you offer to your younger self based on your life experiences?

AL: My goodness, that’s a good question! Make more time for the children. I have trouble with boundaries and it was always demanding to be downtown, even though I negotiated a part time job and I was working part time. I was concerned because women were just getting into the law practice and being treated as equals. I had negotiated a four day workweek, and I was worried that if I dropped out or it didn’t work, it would affect women coming up. So I tried very hard to do a good job so that the firm felt good about it. But I think my time with the children suffered, and if I had it to do over, I would spend more time with the kids.

BP: What are you looking forward to in the future? 

AL: Well, I’m finally retiring. I’m going off counsel, and I’m going to keep my law license. But my daughter has been begging us to go out to California for many years now. She has a four year old and a five month old baby. I think that’s the only way I’ll actually get away from the office is to put 2,000 miles between myself and the office. I’m really looking forward to spending time outdoors where they live. It’s a lovely part of the country and I’ll be walking and I’ll be hiking and I’ll be swimming outdoors and spending time with the grandchildren because I realize life goes by pretty fast. 

BP: What was Northbrook like when you first moved here? 

AL: Not that much different, one thing that strikes me is that the churches and houses of worship were much busier, much fuller. Over the years, sports took over on Sunday mornings for church, and there became a lot more competing issues for people compared to attending church. All my life, church has been important for me, and my church, like so many others and so many other religious organizations, has shrunk over the years. And then COVID, of course, contributed to that. So that’s one big change when I think about how full the church would be on a Sunday morning, especially on an Easter morning. You’d have to get there very early to make sure you got a seat, and we’d have two services just to accommodate people. And that’s just not the case anymore.

BP: Could you recall any mentors or role models who significantly influenced your life path?

AL: As I said earlier, I think it was just my parents and how they lived their lives that affected me. I can’t think of anyone else off the top of my head. Oh, yeah—when I was a paralegal in New York, fresh out of college I became a paralegal, I worked for one of the large Wall Street firms. And there was a man, Sam Harris. Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver, and Jacobson was the name of the firm. I was one of the very first paralegals, and many of the people there would bark their orders. I remember going to one of the partners and saying, “What did you think of my projects?” and he said, “You would have heard about it if there was a problem.”

Sam Harris would come and ask me, and he would thank me. I remember him once taking me to lunch with some other people. They said, “This is a men’s-only restaurant,” and somebody else said, “Sam Harris can go wherever he wants with whomever he wants.” But his kindness, the way he treated somebody who was just very insignificant in the firm, always stayed with me.

BP: How would you describe your educational background and its influences on your personal growth? 

AL: Well, education was always important to my family. I remember my grandfather saying, “Your education is something no one can ever take away from you.” They had a farm and somebody had defrauded them and they had to pay off the mortgage twice because somebody had defrauded them. They were paying the wrong person. I remember my grandfather saying, “Whatever education you get, that pays off.” I went to college, and then my husband went on to get a Ph.D. at MIT. It was important to him, and even though I was a paralegal and might have stayed one, he said, “You can go to law school, you should go to law school.” So I decided to try, took the boards, and did okay. Then I decided to apply, and thankfully I got in. So I decided to go. I enjoyed my career; it was a good career. And then I went out and got a master’s in law because at the first firm I was at, just about everybody there had a master’s, so it was expected that you would get one too. You’d be working during the day and working on your master’s at night.

BP: How has your approach to leadership and decision making evolved over the years?

AL:  I can answer that in terms of my church work. At one point I was asked to chair that council where, you know, the leaders of the church got together and talked things through and I was so nervous the very first time I did it, I just felt I didn’t know what I was doing. Through that work, I learned how to chair a meeting, how to set a timed agenda so everyone got a chance to talk without someone dominating the meeting. I think it was through the church that I began to really get involved in things because I learned that the hierarchy of the Methodist church was very anti-gay, and I had a decision to make.

Do I stay on at Northbrook United Methodist Church, which I absolutely loved, it was my church, and I loved the people there. But here’s the stance of the United Methodist Church, which was abhorrent to me. I always felt that it was like being a member of a country club that didn’t accept blacks. You couldn’t do that. So I started to work within the church, and the Methodists have something called being a reconciling United Methodist Church. That’s where the church members take a vote to say, “We are going to accept LGBTQ people on an equal basis with anyone else. We don’t care what the hierarchy says.” So I worked really hard within the church, and through that, I learned how to work with people, how to help bring people along so they didn’t feel threatened by a vote that’s coming up too soon, how to have educational programs. We worked for close to a year on it, and finally, the chair of the council said, “Alice, I think we’re ready to take a straw poll.” So we did. And at that point, 84% of the church members were in favor. When we took the official vote, it was like 92%.

I felt really good about that. And it went so well at our church that then I was asked to go to other churches and help them become reconciling. I think at least ten within the North Shore became reconciling. I’m sure they were right there on the way to it. But they asked me to come in and just help.

One of the things I’m really pleased about is our church has a rainbow flag out, [it] hangs 24/7 outside our church. When we first hung it up, we decided maybe three by five. And then other church members came to me and said, “That’s not big enough. Let’s get a four by six.” We’ve had people walk in off the street and just give us a check and say it means so much to them to drive by a church that has a rainbow flag outside.

BP: You said earlier the United Methodist Church, right. What’s the address of that? 

AL: It’s at Cherry and Western, 1190 Western Avenue. 

BP: There’s a school– 

AL: Westmore. It’s right there. 

BP: Do you have any guiding values or principles that have shaped your life to lead you to such a spot like that? We touched on your parents earlier– 

AL: I don’t know. I don’t know. I just felt–I’m not sure where the drive came from with the LGBTQ, but the idea for me, the idea that a church of all things would discriminate against anyone, that would tell a teenage kid that there was something–I’m going to get emotional here–but would tell a teenage kid that there was something wrong with them. When LGBTQ kids try to commit suicide at such a high rate, much higher. I can remember one moment when I was talking to somebody in the church and she said, “You know, I’m in favor of that. I’m not sure how my husband feels. He was a big Boy Scout leader.” So when I heard about people who were having problems, I went up to him, I was talking to him and we had a really good chat. And I said, “Do you know that teenage kids who are gay commit suicide like two or three times the rate of regular teens?” And his eyes got big. He got one of our reconciled pins and he wore it everywhere after that. It just got to me. 

Then with the Black Lives Matter movement and RAIN, I just feel so strongly. I try to be the voice of those who don’t have a voice. What I’ve learned through my work and in racial awareness is white people have such privilege, and I’m trying to use it for good and to teach people. I was at a seminar once where somebody was talking about different types of activism and what you can do. She said, “Just because I’m doing this doesn’t mean your work is lesser. Choose your lane and go deep.” So my lane has always been education. I’m not a rabble rouser. I’m not a person who goes to demonstrations and things like that so much. I have been at some, but I’m a firm believer in education. That’s what RAIN’s core value is: to raise awareness, educate people. Some people who have been members of RAIN said, “We want more action.” They went off and started doing other things, but we’re still there for the people who don’t even know what it’s all about and trying to make an opening for them to learn.

BP: How long have you been with RAIN? 

AL: It started in about 2015, so 9 years, I guess. 

BP: What has motivated you to stay in Northbrook over the years? 

AL: We’ve always been happy here and so there was no reason for us to look to move. My husband served on the library board for many years. Much of my work has been involved through the church. Through the church I was the Northbrook United Methodist Church representative on the Northbrook Community Relations Commission. I served there for many years, seven or eight years, and I enjoyed it. I got to know people that way. It’s nice to get to know people from different aspects. I realized I think my parents were just so concentrated on church activities.

There’s a whole wider world out there. I really enjoyed getting to know more people. When the new village board came on, they decided to create a Community Commission versus the Community Relations Commission. The Community Commission involved youth and adults. I threw my name in the hat, and the next thing I knew, I was on it. I was really surprised. I think partly because of my work with RAIN. I think they wanted somebody with a RAIN connection there. 

They’ve been doing a lot of neat things. The thing I’m really excited about and I’m sad I’m leaving is because they’re putting on exactly the sort of thing I always was hoping the Community Commission would do. It’s going to be a program this fall on education, a partnership with Cook County. I think it’s an anti-racism task force of some sort. We’re still working on how to shape it and what it’s going to be. I think that’s going to be very exciting. It’s very exciting that Northbrook is willing to put on something like that through its official channels.

I’m proud of Northbrook. I’m proud of the things they’re doing, like affordable housing. RAIN helped educate people through a program at the library. They did it, and that’s so important.I’m proud of Northbrook. I’m proud to be part of it.

BP: What are your interests and hobbies that bring you joy and relaxation?

AL: (laughs) I love knitting and I’m looking forward to knitting. I also enjoy reading and I’m part of a book group at Northbrook Methodist Church, which often meets via Zoom. So I’m looking forward to continuing with Zoom meetings. I also like singing and music, and at my church, anyone can join the choir. I’m a little nervous about going out to California and finding a little choir that will accept someone like me.

Last Sunday, the chimes played and it was so much fun. We were so nervous at first because there were some syncopated parts, but we managed to get it done. It’s a joy. I sang with the Y’All Come Choir with Sue Young for one year, and singing at that level – I was glad to go back to my little church choir where the expectations and pressure weren’t as great.

Being with my grandchildren brings me joy.

BP: Are there any other things that you’d like to cover today?

AL: I don’t think so. You’ve been a good interviewer. 

BP: Thank you so much for participating in Northbrook Voices. Your memories of your life in Northbrook are going to add a very unique and personal perspective about the history of our town. Thank you. 

AL: Thank you. Thank you for having me.