Mark Damisch

Mark Damsich served as Village President for 12 years. He and Judy discuss his career on the Village Cable Commission, before becoming president and his work with that entity. Mark discusses his career as president and what he accomplished. Mark talks about his accomplished career as a pianist and his touring of the world. He…

Recorded on January 10, 2014. Length: 28 Minutes.


JH: Good morning. Today is Friday, January 10th 2014 and welcome 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’m pleased to welcome Mark Damisch who has lived and worked, volunteered and worked in Northbrook since 1981. Welcome Mark.

MD: Thank you for having me.

JH: What is it that brought you to Northbrook?

MD: Well, I think it is the same thing that brought a lot of people to Northbrook. The great schools, it’s relatively close to the city of Chicago, where I was going to go work, we like the trees, we like the housing stock and actually there was political element to it too because my wife and I were always interested in politics from the time we were in college together. We had an idea that there might be a time when I might run for office and so we were looking around for a state legislative district that would fit our future lifestyle.

JH: So you moved here in 1981?

MD: Yeah, ’81.

JH: How long did it take you to get involved in the village?

MD: [Laughs]. Well, I think it only took about a year or two before I talked to then president Lucinda Kasperson about getting involved in the Cable Commission.

JH: Why the Cable Commission?

MD: I had been a Radio, TV, Film major in undergraduate school because what I really wanted to be in life, is that I wanted to Bill Curtis. I wanted to be a news-broadcaster. I wanted to be a news-broadcaster all the way up to the time I went to work in Washington DC in 1974 for a congressman from the South-west suburbs of Chicago named Bob Henry and that happened to be the summer that the Watergate Hearings were going on and then Nixon resigned. When I went to Capital Hill at the ripe old age of 18-19 years of age, I certainly realized that radio and TV broadcasters they announce the news but it was the lawyers of the world that made the news, and the politicians that made the news. I decided that I’d rather make the news than to report on it. So I got my degree in Radio, TV , Film and I did a hundred plus page thesis on cable television regulation and that got me involved in cable television regulation before cable was even laid in the ground in Northbrook.

JH: Then you went on to became the attorney?

MD: Yes I did. I worked the US Attorney’s office in the late ’70s while going to Northwestern and then I tried my first felony public corruption case at the ripe old age of 25. I had had my law license a month and so the first 5 years of my career I was working as a lawyer by day and going to Northwestern’s MBA school at night and then getting a CPA. It was a busy time of life.

JH: Absolutely. What was it like on the Cable Commission before there was cable here?

MD: It was fun, first of all. The group of people that we worked together we all got along with one another. The kind of thing where we would have a meeting at 7:00 and go out and have a beer at 8:00 or 8:30, and talk about life, and family, and kids and the future. There were some remarkable people on that commission. Linda Witt was one. She is a very bright community person from Glenview and the guy who was the producer of the Bozo Circus Show, Al Hall was on the cable commission. Another bright lawyer Bruce Porzak was up in Deerfield, he was on it as well. We all became not only commission members but we became friends. It was during a time when everybody was trying to sort out what the relationship was going to be between cable corporations and local municipalities. This was pre-1986 when the Congress of the United States decided to take all regulations of cable companies away from the local municipalities and give it to the FCC. Before that, hard as it might be to believe these days, local municipalities were able to help set cable rates as part of the contract.

JH: So then you were actually on the ground floor of bringing cable here to Northbrook?

MD: We oversaw the laying of the cable in Northbrook and ultimately sued the company for destroying Northbrook citizens lawns and effectuated a settlement with the company. That was a good thing… It was a contentious time we had a lot of public hearings and in conjunction with other communities. Some other communities were more favorable towards the cable company’s interests than Northbrook was. We were a little bit more persnickety about how we handled things because we felt we were there, first and foremost, to protect the citizens.

JH: How long did you serve on the cable committee?

MD: I don’t know, maybe three years or so. Something like that and then a spot opened up on the Plan Commission. Dick Falcon was the Village President. I put my name in thinking there wasn’t a chance in heaven that I was ever going to get appointed because I had opposed Dick Falcon. I had been for Lucinda Kasperson for Village President when she ran against president Falcon because I figured she appointed me to the Cable Commission I had to support her for heaven’ssakes. So I put my in for the Plan commission and lo and behold the next thing I knew I get a call from Dick Falcon saying, “If you want this spot it’s yours.”I was flabbergasted but it taught me a lot about the normally non-partisan nature of Northbrook’s Municipal government.

JH: What kind of plans were coming before you at that time on the Planning Commission?

MD: An awful lot of subdivision plans, where people wanted to take one lot and divide it into two lots and build big houses. That was the trend that occurred in Northbrook maybe not in the last 5 or 6 years but for about 20 years we saw a lot of that, a lot of infill. Not so much of Northbrook Court but mostly residential infill type stuff I’d say would be the biggest petitions that came for us. Also there was also this other petitions that historically minded people in this time might have heard called Techny. Techny was the largest annexation of piece of property left in the entire County of Cook. When I was first on the Planning Commission we would have joint Planning Commission … we had one or two joint Planning Commission Village Board meetings in order to be able to make the whole thing go through as fast as we possibly can. If I seem to recall, at the very, very, very beginning of my time on the Planning Commission when I was still at my probably late 20’s there was a woman serving on there and she too was an uppity-girl from district 28 named Judy Hughes [laughter].

JH: I didn’t serve with you on the Planning Commission.

MD: It wasn’t for long but it was for- was it a year or two?

JH: It was a year. The schools were given a year and then the decision was made to remove schools and parks from the plan commission.

MD: Yeah. I never really totally understood that decision but I was a young pup and when I came time to put together a revised economic development commission from my time on the village board, I made sure that the schools and the parks were all re-represented again. I thought that was important.

JH: We can talk about economic development a little latter but in the mean time, you and your wife moved to town and you had a family?

MD: Yes, three girls.

JH: After your time on the Plan Commission, what did you do?

MD: Well, from the village standpoint, president Falcon decided that two terms was enough for any sane human being and his spot opened up. I think I had been on the board a year when he decided to announce his retirement and I figured I’d throw my name in and run. I mean it can’t hurt. It’s a small town, anything can happen and I was all of 33, 34 years old at the time. I worked one solid year, 14 months actually and I guess I was as surprised as probably most other people were that ultimately I won. So all I knew was that I was 35 years old and that I was sitting in a chair having been on a board only a year with an awful lot of people wondering what’s this guy going to do next. I remember very distinctly that one person asked me, right at the time I got elected, “How long is it going to be before you fire the village manager?” I said, “Well, first of all its not my decision to fire the village manager, that’s a board decision. Second of all, I think he is doing a pretty good job I wouldn’t fire him anyway.”

JH: I think that that’s something that most people don’t understand, that a Village President doesn’t control everything. That it is a board decision.

MD: Although, it’s like anything else, something’s go well and everybody gets the credit, if things go bad it lands at right your feet. People have to blame somebody, so they generally blame the person at the top of what they believe to be the hierarchy.

JH: During your time how many terms did you serve as Village President?

MD: Three.

JH: You served three?

MD: Yes.

JH: So they are how many year terms?

MD: Four years terms.

JH: So, during your 12 years as a Village President, what changes did you see in our community?

MD: Well, we certainly had some good economic development projects that came in. We helped keep “Crate n Barrel” in town for example. From a financial stand-point one of the things that I found curious before I became Village President, is that people always touted the financial strength of the village and yet we didn’t have a triple A bond rating. I started out the first year trying to work with the village manager and the finance director about what policies can we enforce in order to bring that about. Within a year we became one of seven or eight communities out of 8000 or something in the state of Illinois to get a triple A bond rating which continues on to this day. That was something that I was and still I’m very proud of. Lake-Cook Road widened right away. The infills continued. We put together an Economic Development Commission which we changed it and expanded it so that when somebody came in as it increasingly happened and they wanted some kind of a discount off their taxes, we could try to include everybody in the discussion as quickly as possible. We’ve cleaned up the river for the first time in 40 or 50 years. I thought that was a pretty good thing. Most important thing I think of all was just to run the villages openly and honestly and above board as possibly as we could. I think that’s the first responsibility of any manager in any governmental unit of all and I think on that scored a pretty good job. I think the town became much more diverse in the 12 years that I was Village President. The last time that I ran in 2009, I walked every street in the village and I knocked on every door in the village. I think that the general perception of people, certainly outside the village and to some large extent inside the village, is that there’s a large Christian population, there is a large population of people who are Jewish. I found that the village is much more complicated and diverse than just those two groups. You could go up to a door and see people from Bulgaria or Romania or Pakistan or Bangladesh or Laos. I mean there are people of literally, that live in Northbrook from all over the world many of whom continue to have contact with their original familial language. Much more so than I would have ever guessed starting out. I found that to be kind of something fascinating as time went along.

JH: That’s very true. Besides your volunteer work which you have given your heart and soul to, there is something else that you give your heart and soul to …

MD: Other than my kids?

JH: Other than your kids, your family, absolutely and that’s the piano? You want to tell us a little bit about that?

MD: I started playing the organ when I was four and when my grandmother passed away in a fire in Glenview, when I was seven. We inherited her Steinway Piano. So I changed from the organ to the piano at seven. When I was 17, our high school choir went a tour of Europe and we sang for a week or 10 days in Germany, in Austria staying with the Vienna Choir Boys which is an exciting thing to have happened. I was standing in a garden in Salzburg Austria, the Mirabell Gardens, where Do-Re-Mi was filmed from Sound of Music. I am standing at the garden looking at the hills being alive and while I was standing there I thought, “Gosh! If our high school choir can tour all over Europe, why can’t I?” I got on my electric typewriter, I’m not even sure it was electric it might have been a manual, but I got on a typewriter with a piece of paper and a carbon paper and in a year, I pounded out about 850 letters overseas to every university, church, military base, any place that I could get my hands on to try and go ahead and play concerts.

JH: This is all pre-internet so you couldn’t just…

MD: This was you put a 39 cent airmail stamp on it. It took six weeks to get over there and six weeks to get back and that guy would say, “No, I’m not interested but there’s a guy down the street who might be.”  It was six weeks over and six weeks back. Of the 850 letters, 825 of them were ‘No’ and 25 of them were ‘we’d love to have you.’ By the time I was 18, I spent my 19th birthday in Berlin on tour. I toured till I was 22 or 23 years old. Then I quit and I didn’t play the piano once for anybody until the year 2000, 18 years later. In the year 2000, everybody else was doing something cool for the millennium, the only thing I really knew how to do was play the piano. I did 12 concerts that year. In last year, I did 80 concerts in 140 nights and play like Forrest Gump. I’m not that smart but I keep showing up. We still sell out 1000, 1100, 1200 seat theaters and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for a lot of different charities. I think in the last 15 years we’ve realized maybe 1000 concerts and over a million bucks raised. So…

JH: What does the money go for, towards?

MD: Oh my Gosh! Well let’s see. We did 125,000 dollars for American Cancer Society, we did 250,000 for the Red Cross this last summer, played in Russia for a kid that needed stomach saving surgery. It’s different causes, different years, different times kind of depending on where I am, who I’m dealing with as a promoter and… Last year we did two year [inaudible 15:55] we were in Taiwan. All the money went for human trafficking. What happens is that the Taiwan’s equivalent of CNN will pick up the story, the next thing you know you’re being taken to the airport and the driver is telling you, “You realize you’re a nationwide story here in Taiwan because of your concerts for human trafficking.” We’ve been on national television in Vietnam, national television in India, we’ve been all over the newspapers in multiple cities all over the world. I just finished an interview with a gentleman from Warsaw yesterday and remembering that when we did our concert in Warsaw a couple of years ago, I left the concert, I went home, I turned on the ten o’clock news and there we were, top of the ten o’clock news. It’s been an unusual ride.

JH: You keep saying, we. We traveled, who’s we?

MD: Well, my wife and kids have all been with me. All three of my kids have toured and performed and particularly my middle child, Catherine, and my youngest child Alexander, the last 12 or 13 years particularly have been pretty much at every concert. We’ve had all the highs from being on multiple national television broadcasts all the way to being arrested in Biala, Russia for not having a proper visa.  We’ve seen both ends of the spectrum.

JH: That must have been very scary.

MD: Well, it was and I knew when the guy pulled the window shade down and it was only he and I present and he had a machine gun and he was looking for money to get out of the country that I knew that we were in a jam.

JH: Oh my goodness! So, how many countries have you performed in?

MD: I was thinking about that question this week, since I’m getting ready for both my 2014 tour and my 2015 tour, I want to say it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 or something like that. I’m starting to look at trying to go to new places.

JH: How long do you… when you tour, how long is the tour?

MD: It started… it’s kind of like an infection. It starts small and grows. It started at about 12 days. Last summer I did 21 concerts in 35 nights in 6 or 7 countries so the tours are getting longer. In 2015, although it hasn’t been announced yet at home but it is my 40th anniversary tour and so I am going to go back and perform in the places where I’ve had the biggest success and raised the most amount of money for different causes. That’s a very exciting preposition for me because that will be not a vacation. That will be a tour so that number of countries would be probably north of twenty in one tour.

JH: My goodness, that is ambitious.

MD: What’s been really quite rewarding and I guess it’s the first time I’ve really sat back and looked backwards at this. I usually only try to look forwards but it’s been very rewarding in the last two or three weeks starting to work on that tour and having so many people say, “Oh yes, I remember when you were here before, it was a great concert. We did a lot of good things for some people and we’d love to have you come back.” That is a nice thing to hear especially because I’m an amateur. I don’t take any money for…we pay our own airfare, we pay our own hotel so I never take any money. That’s why I am a true amateur which is why it’s such an unusual gig.

JH: It’s the money you raise, you work with the host country or host city in order for a cause they come up with?

MD: Yes. Over time, more frequently over a period of time, I’ve worked with US embassies because they’re there, they’re on the ground, they know the venues, they know the charities that ought, they’ve got the context ready-made so I’ve worked increasingly with embassies and that’s been a tremendous, they’ve been like agents, they’ve been tremendously helpful.

JH: I know that you have continued also to play here in your hometown.

MD: Yeah, I always do at least one Habitat for Humanity concert every year and that’s also kind of rewarding. In the last couple of years, it’s been like this is your life because I’ve had old piano teachers come back, give them flowers or to reward them or give them a nod for the part that they’ve played in putting me up there because no person is up on that stage by themselves for sure.

JH: You’ve also have sung with a local choir?

MD: Yeah, we (him and Judy) both have. It’s kind of ironic for me to admit that I’ve sung to anything because when I was in high school, we had eight tenors in our high school choir. I was the eighth best tenor in an eight tenor choir. Overseas, I’ve always sung, “You’ve Got a Friend,” as our anchor piece. I just changed it here two years ago to, “All You Need is Love.” If you go on YouTube, you go home tonight and you go on YouTube and you put my name in, audience members in Hanoi, Vietnam in a sold out concert in the National Academy of Music, they have on us all singing together, “All You Need is Love,” which is pretty cool because I think I’m going to go back to Vietnam in 2015 in the 20th anniversary of the establishment of US-Vietnamese relationships. It’s been kind of interesting gig and the All Community Choir is a marvelous organization. I haven’t gone the last year or two because the pieces that I’ve been starting to play are increasingly difficult and every night that I can get to practice, I use it. Not only that, but my voice gets worse as time goes on so I had to bow out.

JH: Well, it’s now called the Northbrook Community Choir.

MD: Right, I saw, I see that.

JH: They’re still singing strong.

MD: Oh, there’s some fabulous vocalists in that choir and some great tenors too. I sat next to some guys, I couldn’t hold a candle to any of them, wonderful human beings.

JH: How do you juggle family, work, because through all of this you’re still working? You’re still a practicing attorney. How do you juggle it all?

MD: It was particularly hard when you’re… the last five years of being Village President because you’re Village President, you’re working, you’re doing family and you’re touring all at the same time. The answer really is that you have to have a good sense of time management. You have to understand how much time you’re capable and should be spending on each one of those things and divide it up appropriately. I happen to e fortunate enough to be both my own boss in the legal profession and also in a contingent fee practice so that if win enough cases in the first six months of the year, you can go away for 35 days on tour and not think twice about.  Also with the advent of email, and internet and so forth, you can be in the deepest reaches of Siberia and still be able to get a hold of your office at no problem at all. The world has changed now. From the first days when I was sending out those letters that we talked about before, now to be able to go ahead, copy, paste, send and you get a response back. I sent a request off to Iceland yesterday and I wake up this morning, “Yeah, sure the date, here’s the place…”One day, didn’t cost a penny, instantaneous and serious. It’s marvelous, wonderful.

JH: Absolutely. Really in our interview, you mentioned that both you and your wife were interested in politics.  You want to tell me a little bit about your wife and her political…

MD: She’s the longest serving politician I think in the northern half of Illinois right now, I think. Pretty close to it. She’s been the assessor of the township for at least 20 years and she’s going to get sworn in I think next week for her next term. She’s awfully proud of the job that she does in trying to help people. I think that kind of defines what our family is all about. We try to give the best that we can to help out other people. I think she gloats over the fact, a little bit, that she’s served longer than I have, which is fine. She does a good job at it and people are very appreciative of it regardless of anybody’s political affiliation.

JH: You mentioned when we talked before the interview, when you, I think it’s when you were thinking of running or when you were running for president, you did some study about the Village of Northbrook.

MD: I did. I always took a lot of pride, as you know because you heard enough of them, of writing the speeches. One of the most important speeches I gave the time I was in office was on the one year anniversary of 9/11. I worked hard on that speech and I worked hard on all the memorial speeches because I thought that the veterans deserved a Village President taking serious note of what it was all about. I took my inauguration speech very seriously because I thought it was one of the few times during my time in office, where I could go ahead and try to set a chorus for the village and for the board itself and for myself. So I can have something to act as a marker by which you could then measure yourself in the following four years. I did some research, should’ve covered the historicals because I doubt, when I think back about it. I did some research of the village and I realized that the year that I was born in 1956 that Lake-Cook Road was a two lane road, one lane in each direction and that people still had to go ahead and dial their telephone number through a village operator. I thought, “Well Gosh! It’s 1993. We’ve come a long way in that period of time for sure.” Not just Northbrook but the whole suburban area around Chicago has certainly changed a great deal with the outflow of people from the central city.

JH: Absolutely. We’re getting very close to the end of our interview but I did want to ask you, if someone came to you today and said, “So tell me, I’m looking for a new house. I want to move somewhere. Why should I move to Northbrook?” What would you say?

MD: I think the diversity of the village is a great strength. Much like the diversity of people living in Evanston is a strength for Evanston. We’re not a cookie cutter kind of a village, we have a lot of different views. It’s a very vibrant community. People care very deeply about what happens in their village. Certainly the fact that Northbrook Court brings in so much sales tax road, it keeps your taxes down, the schools of course are non-proud, the transportation’s close. All the things that have traditionally made Northbrook a great town continue to make it a great town and that’s not going to change any time in the near future. We don’t have a large gang problem, we’re closer tied I think to the suburbs to the east of us than to the west of us but we’re not as snooty as some of the ones to the east of us as well. It’s a very down to earth community and they’re perfectly capable of letting somebody know when they’re not moving in the right direction, but very caring as well. That’s what I would say.

JH: Given your volunteerism here in the community, do you feel Northbrook is a very open and welcome community for people to give back to their community?

MD: I think so. Anybody who is interested in taking the village from point A to point B in an upward fashion has the opportunity to be able to participate. The most important part of the participation is the want to part. So many people, not just in Northbrook but increasingly as life goes on, there’re fewer and fewer people that want to participate in their church or their synagogue or their rotary or whatever. If anybody were listening to this and they wanted to be part of the fabric of Northbrook, good book by the way, they certainly … I have no doubt that whomever is running the village during their time period, would love to have them participate. All you need is some brains and thought and caring and love and get out there and get your hands dirty.

JH: Okay, well Mark, thank you so very much for participating in Northbrook Voices. Your memories of life in Northbrook will add a unique and personal perspective about the history of our village.

MD: Thank you.