Tag Archives: Hyde Park

Chicago Mourns

One of the greatest moments I have had as a writer was getting a chance to interview Leon Despres. The notable Chicago statesman was turning 100 years old and I was on assignment for the Hyde Park Herald.

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I had become an instant fan of Mr. Despres after reading his memoir, “Challenging the Daley Machine.” As a new transplant to the Chicago area it was this book that served as my history primer. Leon Despres’ history is Chicago‚Äôs history.

Leon, a lawyer and alderman from 1955 to 1975 of the historic Hyde Park neighborhood, spent his entire life fighting for justice. Fighting for civil rights (although he is white he was called on more than one occasion “the lone Negro on the city council”), fighting for women’s rights, workers rights and fighting to keep parks assessable to all people and children safe from lead paint. He rode his bike miles to work long before it was fashionable to do so.

I visited Leon, called “Len” by his friends, in his home that overlooks Jackson Park and Lake Michigan. I tried to take in all there was to see in this Stoney Island apartment; the impressive artwork, stacks of eclectic books on the coffee table one happened to be about Frida Khalo, even a piece from a historic Chicago building that he failed to save from the wrecking ball hung on the wall. All artifacts of a colorful life.

During the course of our interview his phone rang a half a dozen times. Each time he politely took the call. And each time he was discussing either a newspaper article, a book or a new restaurant that had opened. This was truly a man who was living in the present and looking to the future.

Untitled-1_largeIn 2007, Kenan Heise wrote the book, “Chicago Afternoons with Leon: 99 1/2 years old and looking forward.” Heise describes outings he took with Leon around Chicago and what he thought about the schools, gentrification on the near South Side, the libraries and the parks. The book was a memoir but it was also a commentary on what should be done (or not done) in Leon’s beloved hometown.

I was saddened to hear that Mr. Despres died Wednesday at 101 years old. He was someone who lived his life to the fullest. Accomplishing more than most could in several lifetimes. I wasn’t sad for Leon. I can picture him now with his arm around the love of his life, his wife Marion, sipping a cocktail with his good friend Studs Terkel. No, I am mostly sad for Chicago, a place that still had a lot to learn from him.