Recorded on January 13, 2012. Length: 30 Minutes.
JN: Good Morning, today is January 13, 2012. Welcome to Northbrook Voices, an oral history project sponsored by the Northbrook Historical Society and the Northbrook Public Library. I am John Novinson and I am pleased to welcome Gerald Friedman who has lived and worked in Northbrook for 61 years and a person I first met when I became an employee of the Village of Northbrook and Mr. Friedman was the sitting Village President. Let’s go back a little bit and I ask what attracted you to Northbrook in the first place, Gerry?
GF: Well, I always wanted to live in a small town. One weekend my wife had to go to a wedding shower in Highland Park. We only had one automobile so I drove her up there and while driving around to kill some time, I came to Northbrook and it looked like a nice little community. I told my wife about it and the next weekend we came to Northbrook and bought a home.
JN: Wow! Just like that. Where was that home?
GF: It was on Church Street, right across the street from where the Christian Science Church is now.
JN: Over in the area where Trustee Jaeger lives. Why don’t you tell us a little about your family?
GF: We had three children – a daughter who lives in Ipswich, Mass., our older son who lives in Chicago and our younger son who lives in Buffalo Grove. Our younger son has three daughters, one is 16 and twin girls who are 12. My daughter has twin girls who are 18 ½.
JN: It is nice to have some of your family in the area. So what did you do for a day job? I know you were very involved in the Village.
GF: I was one of three principals in a packaging company. We made packaging materials primarily for the food industry. We started out buying a plant from a company we worked for and eventually when we finally sold our company we had 14 plants, 10 in the USA and four in Canada. So I was quite busy traveling.
JN: What was Northbrook like when you arrived?
GF: We moved in December 31, 1950, and the 1950 census had 3,100 people but I think they counted the dogs and cats. Everybody knew everybody. You could walk down the street and you would know everyone.
JN: Were there still horses around?
GF: There were some. When I first got on the Village Board we got a complaint about the odor of horse manure and the village president, Bert Pollak , asked me to go see what it was all about. This woman had a rather small lot and had three horses in the back yard. There was no ordinance preventing it. That caused passage or an ordinance requiring two-acre lots for keeping horses though she was grandfathered in.
JN: How did you go about becoming involved in the community? You did a lot of public service over the years.
GF: A group of people were upset about an matter that was being discussed at the Plan Commission and asked me to go along to the meeting. It is customary at the plan commission after the petitioner presents his case, that they ask the audience if they have any comments to make and none of us got up. Everybody was looking at each other and finally I got up and started talking. The next day Village President Pollak, who I did not know, called me and said he had been in the audience when I spoke and was impressed. He asked how I would like to go on the plan commission as there was an opening.
JN: I can say that most people would love to be on the plan commission. It is harder to get people for many of our other commissions. That is quite a coup – one meeting and you are on. So what was it like serving on the plan commission back then? What year was that?
GF: That was in 1959. There wasn’t much activity on the commission at that time. The Village was just beginning to expand but nothing like it was later on in the 60s.
JN: What were the rough boundaries of the Village back then?
GF: Western Avenue was the west boundary. There were homes west of Western but farmland in between. It was all farmland west of Western Avenue.
JN: No golf courses?
GF: Oh, yes, Sportsman’s was there. At the time they had two 18-hole courses and a nine-hole course. Mission Hills was also there; not the same layout as it is today.
JN: And there was an airport?
GF: Oh, yes, we had Sky Harbor Airport and it was quite active at that time.
JN: A very famous magazine cover from Chicago Magazine of that time shows a plane with an empty fuel tank trying to land and there was a development sign in the way. That is a big part of our growth. Northbrook is very famous for having developed based on a “plan.” Was there a plan” back then?
GF: When I first got on the Board there was not. We discussed a master plan and Bert Pollak, village president, asked me to chair a meeting of various people on the board and plan commission to develop a plan and eventually that became the master plan of 1964. That included a lot of other things – building codes, electrical ordinances, etc.
JN: Who all was helping you do all this?
GF: The zoning part we did ourselves. For the rest of it we had various consultants hired to help us with it.
JN: It seems like you were building a business, you obviously had a very lively family environment and you are deeply involved in planning the future of your community – how did you manage to expand the day to more than 24 hours?
GF: Fortunately, as CEO of my company, I could take time off when I wanted to. It helped a great deal.
JN: You must have acquired or attracted talented people to help you get all this done. None less than your wife who I’m sure was helpful in helping you to escape the house to get all these meetings in.
GF: At the this time, we were going through a rapid expansion in the Village, meeting two evenings a week and every Saturday morning. Saturday morning was not a work session. We met at the Village Hall with coffee and donuts to talk with anyone who wanted to talk with us from 8-12 every Saturday morning.
JN: Did you get much traffic then?
GF: We did. Mostly people who stopped in to pay a bill and then would chat with us.
JN: I was always impressed with the general civility of Northbrook residents. They complained very politely about most things most of the time. Was that the case back then?
GF: Oh, yes. Whenever we had a large audience in front of us at a board meeting, we knew that they had a complaint. Otherwise there were very few there. I’m sure it is that way today too.
JN: So when did you actually run for the Board?
GF: A year after I was on the plan commission, the caucus asked me to fill a spot on the village board.
JN: Can you just elaborate on what the caucus is for those who might be listening to this?
GF: In Northbrook we have the caucus system which is made up of two people from every voting precinct. I believe the rules still state that you can’t serve on the caucus more than two years and you have to rotate out. The goal of the caucus is to find people to serve on the various elected boards. They interview candidates and make a selection for the town meeting. If approved by the town meeting, you go on the ballot but that doesn’t prevent people from running as independents as has happened on occasion.
JN: What year did you go on the village board?
GF: 1960 is when I went on the board.
JN: So what were some of the issues back then?
GF: The biggest issue was water. We were buying water from the Village of Glencoe. Every time we expanded the village, Glencoe raised our rates because they said they had to expand their water plant. So finally, in 1961 or 62, Mark Dalin who was on the Board at the time suggested we explore the possibility of building our own filtration plant and taking water from Lake Michigan ourselves.
JN: And Northbrook isn’t on the Lake.
GF: We are off the lake and no one had ever done that. When Glencoe found out we were planning to draw from the lake, they knew they were going to lose a source of revenue so they went to all the people along the shore with riparian rights where they own approximately 25 feet out into the water. They asked them to deny us permission to get into the lake from their property. We were just about to give up on the idea when I always say, “God came to our rescue.” What happened was that we discovered that a Jewish congregation in Glencoe – North Shore Congregation Israel – located in downtown Glencoe had just purchased property on the lake front off Sheridan Road and they were going to build a larger temple there. We prevailed on their board of directors to allow us to get into the lake on their property where we now have a pumping station that allows us to draw water from the lake.
JN: That makes us a North Shore town, right? We have a couple of hundred feet there. What was the arrangement with the temple?
GF: There is a road that goes down the cliff behind the temple building. We maintain that road and we maintain their parking lot in case anything happens there due to our truck traffic going across their parking lot. It is a small price to pay.
JN: It certainly seems to be. Later that system was expanded right from the same location. Originally, I believe the Village built the pipeline in public rights-of-way to get to the filtration plant on Dundee Road from the lake.
GF: Yes, we went down the south side of Lake-Cook Road to where the Botanic Garden is today. It wasn’t there at that time. Then we crossed over on an angle underneath the lagoons and under the Edens Highway.
JN: That must have required a large financing for the size of the Village.
GF: Yes, and that financing is part of what helped us preserve what we have today. As part of the bond indenture, we inserted that we could not sell water outside the Village limits. Therefore, if a developer wanted to obtain water from us, they had to incorporate and then abide by our zoning and other codes. Thus, we were able to control to a large extent the development in the area.
JN: Do you happen to recall the term of the bonds?
GF: I believe they were 20-year bonds. There were some bonds issued later for the expansion of the filtration plant. Those bonds also included that provision.
JN: That provision has now expired and the village does sell water but only to municipalities not to individual property owners. Was there any resistance to the investment?
GF: No. I can’t say for certain. At the time the Village was paying something like .55/1,000 gals. to Glencoe.
JN: That seems ridiculously low.
GF: When we first opened the plant, we had it at .55, the same as we were paying to Glencoe which was a reduction of the rate to the residents.
JN: With that success, Northbrook had its own waterhole and could pretty much dictate terms of development – an incredible accomplishment. What was it like to be a trustee? You have told us a little bit.
GF: It was quite hectic with the expansion of the village there were developers coming in. Every week we would see another developer. That was primarily why we were meeting two evenings a week.
JN: A lot of the town was built in the 1960s. I remember once you told me that you would have so many resolutions to read aloud that you would lose your voice during the meeting.
GF: At the time I was chair of the Real Estate and Zoning Committee. We read the ordinances at the meeting before we adopted them. We didn’t read the legal descriptions.
JN: You obviously had challenges. It is always a challenge to attract really good people to public service in that kind of a role. How do you think things have changed between the time you went on the Board and today?
GF: Well, I think people still like to live here. I haven’t heard anybody say something bad about our community. We have changed. When I first went on the board we had a volunteer Fire Department. One of the jobs was to convert from the volunteer to a full paid staff. Some objections were raised to that. Some had friends who were volunteers and wanted that to continue. Others were convinced they would have better fire protection and insurance rates would come down. However, we did maintain the volunteer staff even after we had full paid staff. The volunteers served as reserves when the paid staff was fully occupied.
JN: That continues today except that they are now called “paid on call.” The volunteer part has sort of gone by the wayside. So what made you decide to be Village President?
GF: Again, Bert Pollak after three terms decided to call it quits and the caucus asked me to take over. It was not that I asked to be president but I couldn’t say “no.”
JN: What were the big issues after you became president?
GF: Converting the fire department was the first order of business in 1966 or 1967.
JN: Northbrook at the time didn’t have a real ambulance service, right?
GF: As soon as we had a full paid staff, Auggie Bennett who we had hired to be the fire chief, came to us and suggested a paramedic staff be developed. The Northbrook Civic Foundation paid for our first ambulance.
JN: As you mention the Northbrook Civic, are there other organizations that have also helped to make the Village the success that it is?
GF: We are meeting here in the Library – the Friends of the Library have played an important role in the expansion of the library. In fact, they brought the first library to Northbrook. This site was the location of our early Village Hall building that replaced the building where the chamber of commerce is now. That was the village hall and fire station – the back meeting rooms housed the fire trucks. We also rapidly outgrew the building that was built on this site.
JN: The building on this site had some problems also. I recall that when I first came to work for the village, the police department was in the lower level.
GF: Yes, they were in the basement.
JN: They experienced flooding problems and had to declare a “no wake zone” for cars in the lot to keep water from coming into the building. It was a challenged site. How did the Village acquire the library and village hall site?
GF: This site became available some time before we decided to use it for buildings.
JN: I had heard it had something to do with the development of the Highlands.
GF: No, the Highlands had been developed before we acquired this site.
JN: So you had the fire department, you had introducing the ambulance. Any other major issues while you were president?
GF: No, just the development of the Village.
JN: Development after development. Are there some major ones which would stand out? Northbrook Court had a little litigation involved?
GF: Northbrook Court. Sears Roebuck the original developers went first to Highland Park and they were turned down so they came to Northbrook. Then Highland Park decided it was right on their border and they ought to have Northbrook Court. They tried to get Sears to change their mind but they would not. Then Highland Park started suing us, challenging traffic issues, pollution, etc.
JN: I understand there were seven lawsuits and Northbrook prevailed in each one. Northbrook Court has certainly become an important asset to the community. Underwriter’s Lab is another asset.
GF: Underwriter’s Lab has been here for some time. They were here when I moved into Northbrook.
JN: What would you say you are most proud of during your years of service?
GF: The way the Village has turned out. Every time we have considered moving, we have moved right here in Northbrook. We are in our fourth home in Northbrook.
JN: You have moved more than I have but I know the exact experience. When I retired, we looked around and decided there was really no better place to be. What are you doing now? What are your plans for the future?
GF: Well, I am retired but my wife says I am still active.
JN: You are active with the symphony aren’t you?
GF: I was active with the symphony, active in getting it started but I am no longer on the board. I still have my hand in some business matters – one of the banks I used to deal with in business occasionally calls me to get involved with one of their troubled companies.
JN: That’s interesting – keeps you engaged. Do you have any plans for the future that you would care to memorialize here?
GF: At my age I am happy to greet every morning.
JN: We are right at the end of our session. Can you think of something I have forgotten to ask you? If not, thank you very much for participating in Northbrook Voices. Your memories of life in Northbrook will add a unique and personal perspective. We are grateful that you would take the time to be interviewed.