Recorded on November 9, 2012. Length: 30 Minutes.
JH: Hello! Today is Friday, November 9, 2012, and I’d like to welcome you to Northbrook Voices, an oral history project sponsored by the Northbrook Historical Society and the Northbrook Public Library. My name is Judy Hughes and I am pleased to welcome Lona Louis, who has lived and worked in Northbrook since 1968. Welcome, Lona.
LL: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.
JH: Can you tell us what brought you to Northbrook?
LL: Well, after my husband graduated from Yale Law School, he got a job in Chicago, and we moved here and lived various places for a while. First, we lived in a house in Wilmette where a law professor from Northwestern was on leave-of-absence; it was furnished. Our first child was born while we were there. Then we moved to a coach house apartment in Winnetka, above a garage on an estate in Winnetka. We lived there for three years, until we realized that our first child had imaginary friends who lived under the tree in the yard. When we came in, we had to hold open the door so that they could come in also. So, she was obviously in need of friendship and socialization. So, we decided it was time to look for a house. We had friends who lived in Northbrook, a couple of different friends, so we were acquainted with the community somewhat and we started looking here. And it wasn’t long until we found the house that we moved to, which was on Ash and Peachtree, and we thought we’d live there for maybe five years, until we got really established, because we were still paying off the law school and so forth, but we stayed there for I believe it was 17 or 18 years. It was a good neighborhood.
JH: A good neighborhood to raise your daughter, your first child?
LL: Our first child, and she was so excited when we moved there because we had told her that there were children…she was three…there were children on her side of block and on the other side of the block, little girls that were three years old also, and the first morning she was out the door to see them. She was not going to waste any time making friends. And then our second child was born while we lived there also.
JH: And so, your children went to Greenbriar School?
LL: Well, yes, Amy started at Greenbriar School, that’s our oldest child, and she went there the first year in Kindergarten, and then District 28 started Open Ed, and they did not have an Open Ed class for the 1st and 2nd grade at Greenbriar, but they did have one at Westmoor. Since where we were located was almost equidistant between Greenbriar and Westmoor, I decided that she should go to the Open Ed program at Westmoor School, which she did, and that was very good for her. She was a self-motivated learner, and so she did very well in an Open Ed program. and so she continued to go to Westmoor. Our second child went to Greenbriar. So, we sort of bifurcated our school experiences.
JH: And you taught here too as well, didn’t you?
LL: No, I substituted, but only at the high school level. I did not substitute in the elementary schools. I substituted at the high school level during the first part of the time when I had little children and I was working part-time at various jobs. I had a variety of things going. I would substitute and would trade babysitting with my neighbors and friends, so that worked out very well. But I did not ever get an Illinois teaching job. I had taught in Connecticut and in Virginia before I moved here, so I did have an education background.
JH: What was Northbrook like when you moved here?
LL: Well, it was very friendly. Everybody was young, it seemed like, and they all had children that they were raising, and you became acquainted immediately with your neighbors, because you were all in the same boat. We didn’t have a lot of money. I think it’s different than the way it is now with all these big houses and everything. The houses were small, and you were just very comfortable. We socialized with our neighbors and friends. Practically every Friday and Saturday night we’d be socializing, because everybody had to make their own fun. They couldn’t afford to go downtown to the theater necessarily, so we would have our own games and fun. But it was very, very friendly.
JH: I know that you’re a Board member now at the Northbrook Historical Society, but what started your volunteering here in the community?
LL: I started really by joining the League of Women Voters. I’ve never been a very good person for joining organizations that I can’t see a direct aim or goal that they’re trying to achieve. League of Women Voters had suited me when I lived in the coach house in Winnetka and I belonged to the Winnetka League of Women Voters, and I was sort of out of my league there, but when I came to Northbrook, I was much more comfortable in the League of Women Voters that was in Northbrook at that time, and I met some very wonderful people through that organization. I volunteered to be an observer at the District 28 School Board meetings. The observers for the League of Women Voters had to keep their mouths shut and just observe. They could not speak on any subject, but they could take back their reports to the League and tell them what was happening at the School Board meetings and help to further knowledge about how the Boards were being run.
JH: Did they do this beyond schools? Village and park?
LL: I believe so; I can’t remember precisely because I wasn’t involved in those. I was only involved the District 28 one. There were open meetings, so I could go to the meetings, and I could just sit there, and I remember them looking at me, sort of “who is this woman?” And I would say, I’m the League of Women Voters observer, and they were accepting of that idea. And that was all I was allowed to say. I did not comment on anything that the Superintendent said or anything that anybody on the Board said.
JH: What did you gain by doing that?
LL: Oh, I gained knowledge of how Boards operate and the issues that come before them. I gained knowledge about the way schools are financed in the community. I gained knowledge about the issues that they have to deal with. And so at one point I thought, I believe that I can do that. And so, I applied to the Caucus to be slated for the Board of Education in District 28.
JH: And you were elected.
LL: And I was elected, yes. I became a member of the School Board in 1974. At that time, there were three-year terms. That suited me just fine. I thought, I can do this for three years and see if I like it and see if I want to go forward. Actually, I can’t remember, but I think it was that election where one of the members of the community sort of took umbrage with the idea that the Caucus slated only one person for the Board and decided to run against me, or against the slate that was up, and I took sort of umbrage at his idea, but we defeated him, so I was elected.
JH: And did you serve more than one term?
LL: Yes, I served two terms.
JH: What was it like to be a School Board member in 1974?
LL: Well, I didn’t think it was going to be like what it was!
JH: Now, that’s before computers, and before what people think of the things that the school does now.
LL: Yes, it was more like the old-fashioned school. But we did not have in District 28, a union to deal with, and I don’t believe there is a union at this time in that district, which is very, very unusual. So, we always tried to work with the teachers. The Superintendent particularly tried to work with the teachers. What got kind of dicey was that in 1976, I was elected the President of the Board, so I served four years as President. And I’d only been on the Board for two years at that time, and I thought it was a little bit premature, but I couldn’t see anybody else that I thought could do it better, so I had enough confidence in myself that I went ahead.
JH: And nobody else stood up.
LL: And nobody said, “Well, she can’t do it, she’s only been on the Board for two years”, and so I went ahead and accepted the job. Then it got more dicey, because we came to the conclusion that we had to close some schools, because we did not have increases in enrollment any longer, as had been anticipated when they built the schools and remodeled them, to the extent that they had at that time.
JH: And the decision was a very…it’s hard on families to think about their children moving schools, so it was probably a very divisive issue.
LL: Yes, but I think my view was maybe a little bit different, because I had already had my children going to two different schools. So, I could see that you could get an education at whatever school you were in. You move into a neighborhood and you think, my children are going to go to the neighborhood school. Of course, that was the feeling at that time. That’s no longer the feeling that people have, because we have seen so many changes in that, in terms of integration efforts and so forth, that bussing children from one school to another…
JH: Charter schools, and all of that…
LL: …it’s no longer a big deal. We don’t look at it that way, that you have to go to school in your own neighborhood. Obviously, you don’t. You can go to another school and still come back and live in that house. It doesn’t destroy your whole character to go to a different school. It certainly didn’t for my children. And I think that that was helpful in my understanding, so that I didn’t feel like we were breaking up the neighborhoods to do it that way.
JH: So, you made a decision to close a school?
LL: Well, after hearings, and hearings, and hearings, in which as the School Board President I had to be the Presiding Officer. We had all sorts to hearings, and I can’t even remember the details of all of them. I do remember the details of the last one, that occurred at the gymnasium at the Junior High School, where there was a huge crowd of people, and I was really kind of nervous about this, but we got through it OK. We didn’t end up the way I thought we were going to, but we ended up closing, by a majority vote of the Board, we closed Oaklane School. And that caused a firestorm, because the people who lived in the Oaklane district, which was Northbrook East, which is over on…what is the name of that road?
LL: Midway Drive – right, over on Midway and in that direction. They felt like we had taken away their neighborhood school and the whole identity for their neighborhood. And they sued us to stop, with a temporary injunction in the Circuit Court of Cook County, and that required depositions and all sorts of efforts, including I had to take the stand in Circuit Court and testify that, well, it wasn’t going to kill the neighborhood and that I thought it might work out OK. We did win that.
JH: You said it was a majority vote, so on the School Board there are seven members, so it was a 4-3 vote?
LL: I believe it was 4-3. And I was one of the three. I did not vote to close Oaklane at that time. The question was whether we would close Oaklane or Crestwood School. Later, we ended up closing Crestwood, but at that time we were planning to bring the the Oaklane students to Crestwood to go to school. And we didn’t know what we were going to do with the school at that time, with the building. Part of the reason why I believe that four people voted to close that school was that it was a very difficult building to maintain. It had been cheaply constructed with a flat roof, and we had to deal with roof leaks and all sorts of things all the time. I think that was one of the factors in closing that one.
JH: So, as a Board member who voted to keep Oakland open and would have voted to close the other school, you had to go to court to defend what the Board as a whole had done.
LL: Yes, I did. That was hard. But it wasn’t impossible because I understood the reasons. The Board was not a fighting Board. We were collaborative and we worked hard to figure out what should be done. You knew the reasons why the people voted one direction or the other. It was a non-partisan issue, where everybody was trying to do what they felt was the best thing for the community and for the school district.
JH: And after your service on the School Board, what did you do in the community?
LL: Well, after my service on the School Board ended in 1980, I decided that I needed to find a job, and I got a number of part-time jobs, which I worked at. I worked in a couple of different law offices on a part-time basis. I still had youngish children, a 10-year-old and a 15-year-old, and so we’re getting toward the idea when we might have to send a child to college and everything. And my husband had started his own law practice and was in need of somebody to do his work for him, so I did that at night and did part-time jobs in the daytime. And finally, in 1981 I got a job with the Village of Northbrook, so it was really a very short period of time that I was messing around there with different jobs. So, in ’81 I started working at the Village as a Secretary or Assistant; we’d call them Assistants, Administrative Assistants now, but it was more like a Secretary in ’81. My first job there as I remember, I was John Novinson’s Secretary, he was the Assistant Village Manager, and my first job was working with the sewer lining program and keeping up the records for that. And so, I felt like I was just dumped into the sewer. But John was a very good boss and he really helped me move up when the opportunities came along. When something would open up, he would encourage me to go forward, so pretty soon I was Robert Weidaw’s secretary, the Village Manager’s secretary, and then I became the Village Clerk when Sandy Kent, the current Clerk moved to Florida.
JH: What are the duties of a Village Clerk?
LL: To keep the records of the Village. Now, that doesn’t mean that the Village Clerk does the whole thing, but it means that you are responsible for keeping the records, and particularly of any actions of the Board of Trustees. And I felt it was important to be at each meeting I could attend, but I didn’t attend all of them. I would only attend the meetings where they took final action. Discussion meetings I would sometimes have somebody else take the minutes at those meetings, and I was very fortunate to have a wonderful person who’s still working for the Village on a part-time basis, Theresa Moll, take those minutes. And she took Plan Commission minutes as I had to see that minutes were taken of all the commission meetings, and that was part of my charge, was to see that the minutes were done for all those different meetings. Hire people to do that, if I wasn’t willing to do it, and I wasn’t. It was much.
JH: Through your years in the Village, you did some other volunteer activities as well, didn’t you?
LL: Well, I volunteered at the Methodist Church and I was Chairman of the committee that remodeled the west wing of the church, because it was falling apart, and we had to put in new windows and everything, and we had to meet with the architect and get a plan for remodeling it. And I was also working with the Fourth of July Association, so that was most it. And then as it was formed I worked with the Centennial Committee, but that was sort of an offshoot. I felt like it was a good thing to have someone from the Village on the Centennial Committee, so we could sort of pull the Village in when we needed activities coordinated with the Village.
JH: What can you tell us about volunteering for those two groups, the Fourth of July and the Centennial Committee?
LL: Well, it was a great way to get to know lots of different people, and to find out what was going on and how people thought, and I thought the volunteers were great. They had…sometimes they were difficult. I think working with volunteer organizations is sometimes hard. You don’t have the lines of command that you have in a paid organization. You can’t control volunteer organizations like you can in a business, or even a Village staff, because you just don’t have the avenues of command and reporting.
JH: Being a community volunteer, did you gain any insight on what it means to be a volunteer?
LL: Well, I’m more of a community volunteer now than I was then. But I think it means that you want to further the goals of the organization, so you should choose an organization that you are interested in. And you also have to understand that your focus, your idea of the goals may not be precisely that of every other person in the organization, and they have certain…they’re volunteers also with their stresses and commitments and things that they can’t always measure up to what your standards are. So, you have to be very forgiving and very flexible if you’re going to be a volunteer, because it won’t always work out the way you want it, or the way you think it should.
JH: And now you’re volunteering at the Historical Society?
LL: Yes, and I’m also volunteering, when I’m in town, I do travel a good bit now. But when I’m in town I volunteer at the shop here at the Library one day a week, and at the Historical Society I’m probably there two or three days a week.
JH: Tell us about what you do at the shop here. No one’s talked about the Friends of the Northbrook Library.
LL: Well, the shop is run by a cadre of people who’ve been doing it for a long, long time. And I just decided that as in most volunteer organizations, at some point they age out and so I guess I’m perceiving myself as not quite as old as some of the others, which is I think true, but I’m getting older too. So, I better get in there and help them keep going, or it wasn’t going to continue. The shop supports the Friends of the Library and the programs that they can present at the Library. The musical programs and the historical programs and so forth that the Library has to pay the people who are presenting those programs. That comes largely from the Friends of the Library, I believe. But I’ve never really gotten involved with the organization, the Friends, which is who runs the gift shop. I’ve just gotten involved with the manning the gift shop itself, or “womanning” the shop.
JH: Tell us about the gift shop.
LL: Well the gift shop has buyers, they’re very sophisticated, they have buyers and they have a fancy cash register, and I still make mistakes on that, but they also have a good group of people who have been working there for a long time. They come in and they set up the place and they establish hours when it’s going to be open and staff it. So, it isn’t hard work at all. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t even know it exists, or they don’t appreciate the fact that the purchases that they make at the gift shop are supportive of the Library programs. For example, just the other day at my church we have a program where you can buy gifts to give to children, and so I had one-year-old children I had picked out from the list of children. So, I went to the Library gift shop and bought my gifts there because then I could sort of kill two birds with one stone so to speak, by supporting the gift shop and the program at the church. I didn’t think I could find anything at the Inn Shop at the Historical Society that might be quite as appropriate for one-year-olds as I could at the Library gift shop.
JH: So, it’s a good place for people in town to come to choose gifts?
LL: Yes. Gifts or their own needs. There are beautiful scarves there now, there are purses, jewelry, and artwork that is donated by John Stamos, who is a locak artist. There are little pictures that you can get there that he painted, oils or watercolors. And they’ve got puzzles and books and all sorts of things that you can buy there.
JH: And you mentioned the Inn Shop, which is the Historical Society’s gift shop.
LL: Yes, well this is a consignment shop. This is entirely different, and you have to remember that. People come in with their treasures. It may be a Waterford crystal bowl, or it might be a paperweight, or it might be some silver,flatware of some kind. They consign it and if we sell it, they get 65% and we get 35%. This is a good way for the Historical Society to make money to support the Museum.
JH: Tell us about the work you do with the Historical Society.
LL: Well, I’m on the Board, and one of things that I do is I try to keep the Board meetings moving (laughter)…help you out! But mostly what I’ve been doing is helping with the Inn Shop by helping to take in the consignments on Wednesdays, and that’s always fun. I decided to do that aspect of it because I didn’t know very much about what is considered valuable in glass or metal wear or any antiques and by working there, I would learn a little about that, and I have and that’s been very helpful. Now of course when I travel, then I’m not there, so they have to have somebody else help. But I am not managing anything, I’m just a little soldier (laughter). I’m not being the chief.
JH: That’s sometimes really nice, not to be the chief. So, in all of the years that you’ve lived here, what has kept you in Northbrook? You could move anywhere you wanted in the country; your children are in two different areas of the country. You could move anywhere. What is it that’s keeping you here in Northbrook? What’s special about Northbrook?
LL: Well, I like to be able to go to the Library, or to the grocery store, or anywhere in town, and meet somebody I know. I do spend some days just totally at home, reading and puttering around and keeping in touch with people in other parts of the country. Since my children live in Tampa, Florida, and in Juneau, Alaska, I keep in touch with them via email or some phone calls or whatever. But when I go out, I know that I always can see somebody that I know. When I spend time in Florida or in Alaska, I don’t know anybody as well as I know these people. And I know that when I meet somebody, they know that I’ve been an active, involved person in the community, and I have some standing here that I wouldn’t have elsewhere. So, that’s part of what has kept me here. Mostly I’m here from April to November, and then I take a travel time. And that’s worked out for me so far.
JH: If you met somebody who was thinking about moving to Northbrook, what would you tell them about why they should make that move?
LL: I would tell them that that it is a grounded community. That the people here are well acquainted with themselves and not pretentious and difficult overall. There’s always some differences. And you can make friends with people. You can join organizations and get involved. And I think that that is very important because the new people need to come in and take over, because we’re not going to last forever, and we’ve got to have the younger blood get involved with things. And that’s very difficult, because for one thing, sometimes the people who are running operations don’t take kindly to not being in charge of it anymore and remain active. But you should remain active and you should be willing to turn it over to somebody else. That’s very important.
JH: What would you tell them about the schools and the parks and the library?
LL: The schools are very, very excellent. I had a friend who taught in the Winnetka schools, and she said, “That District 28, they’ve got everything!” And they have good, basic financial programs set up to run the schools, and that’s important because if you don’t have that, you can go downhill very, very quickly. You have to keep up with the new trends and new ideas.
One of the things I would like to mention that was very interesting when I was with the Village and Village Clerk was shortly after I became the Clerk was the time when we started having hearings about the annexation of Techny. Troy Miller, who was on the Board at the time and had been the Village Manager at one time, was the Board member who conducted those hearings. He was the Planning and Zoning Committee Chairman. I attended all those meetings and took the minutes for all those meetings and really got well acquainted with the staff people at Techny and the staff people at the Village who were involved in that. That was a very exciting part, because we had thought the Techny issue was resolved, until it wasn’t, and then we had to start all over again and figure out how to resolve it so it would be an annexation that would benefit the Village of Northbrook and not drain our coffers. Because as we learned as we went along and examined the situation, if you develop property totally with a residential zoning, you lose money, because you don’t get enough money in property taxes off of residential development to handle the needs that you have for fire, police, public works and schools. So, it becomes a losing proposition. People sometimes think, “Well, that’s great – all that residential development.” Well, once you’ve figured it out, you notice that it isn’t really going to work out. So, you have to have some business development. Because they are not as costly in terms of fire and police and schools and you can then finance the other things from the property taxes.
JH: Well Lona, it’s been really wonderful talking with you. I want to thank you for participating in Northbrook Voices. Your memories of life in Northbrook will add a unique and personal perspective about the history of our Village. Thank you.
LL: Thank you.