Stories of a well lived life

Harriet Hausman has civil rights tales, but the stories start in the city, in her parents store, during the Depression

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By Megan Dooley

Staff Reporter

Harriet Hausman is a woman of stories. As it happens, she's best known for the stories about her civil rights activism, which began almost accidentally when she was a high school student. By the time this River Forester was awarded the Edwin Rothschild Civil Liberties Award by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), for a lifetime of service, her life story included marches for equal rights, Vietnam War protests, and a partnership with the Black Panthers, serving up breakfast for needy children. To name a few.

But the fact is Hausman's stories don't end with her activism. She was also a daughter, a wife, and a mother of two, and her family life produced countless other stories in a life rich with personal tragedy and triumph.

Over coffee last week, Hausman, 86, pulled from her deep memory bank stories from her early childhood. Her parents were poor but hardworking store owners, running a menswear shop first in Chicago and then Melrose Park. She remembers her mother, each night after closing, piling up every dollar earned and walking it over to make a deposit at their local bank.

"My folks, especially my mother, worked so hard. What a marvelous woman," Hausman said. "When she'd work the hardest, and things were the toughest, she'd sing."

Hausman recalled the morning after the stock market crash, when all the banks had closed. "Of course there was no notice to anybody. The night before my mother had put whatever we had in the bank," she said. "I almost have a feeling of her hand squeezing my hand, and crying, and pounding at the door. 'Frank, open the door. You know me! Everything we have is in there!" Hausman remembered Frank, a security guard in the bank building, as a man as round as he was tall. There was nothing he could do.

They did manage. They learned the art of trade, and used the store inventory to get the necessities. The family lived in two rooms behind the shop; Hausman slept on a cot in the kitchen, her parents in a pull-out bed in the living room.

They didn't have much, but they had enough. Even when financial struggles should have made life unbearable, she remembered it quite fondly. "It was a lovely time in our lives, even though times were very bad," Hausman said.

And there were more bad things to come. In one trade, Hausman's father had gotten a pearl-handled gun. Her mother objected, but he insisted it could be worth something. One night, a pair of burglars broke in, sights set on the gun, which was locked in a safe. "My father was so frightened by these guys that he had difficulty opening the safe," she said. The burglars grew impatient, and struck him in the head.

Hausman's father survived, but the incident placed a great deal of stress on her pregnant mother. When they welcomed Harriet's younger brother, 12 years her junior, to the world, he came in with a heart condition that would later claim his life at 33. He left behind a wife and two daughters.

But her life has not been overshadowed by sadness. She had great respect for her parents, adored her younger brother, and went on to find decades of happiness within her own marriage.

"He was such a dear," she said of her late husband, Martin Hausman. "There'd never be a divorce in the world if every marriage was like ours."

There were two key factors that she said contributed to her successful marriage. She and her husband agreed early on that they'd never quarrel in front of the children, and they'd never go to bed angry. "There were some evenings when he would kiss me goodnight and I wanted to hit him instead of getting kissed," she joked.

Instead, she kissed back. They didn't agree on everything, but they talked it out. "He was a very reasonable man, and I assume I sort of am too," she said.

With her husband Hausman shared a lifelong legacy of civil rights activism, and both are well known for their contributions in their hometown of River Forest and beyond. 25 years before his wife received the award last year, Martin was also awarded the Edwin Rothschild Civil Liberties Award.

Hausman was first alerted to a problem in high school, where she saw a young black woman with a very light complexion treated far better than her darker-skinned younger sister. Hausman spoke out, despite her self-proclaimed tendency toward shyness, and actually saw a handful of teachers take heed. Her quiet voice and timid demeanor, it seemed, could still hold some weight.

Of course, social issues have evolved since then, with new problems constantly emerging. Over time, Hausman's focus has shifted. Right now, health care reform stands high on her list of priorities. Naturally, she has stories to share on the subject.

"I travel a lot," she said. "And when you travel, you realize the value of health care." Once, she was injured while traveling in England, and sought treatment at a local clinic. "It was not serious, but I hurt," she said. The woman at the front desk was terribly apologetic, for having to charge Hausman for her medication, because she wasn't an English citizen. For only the medication. The rest of the treatment was free.

Here in the states, she was in an auto accident, and sat bleeding at a local hospital for over an hour before she was treated. Abroad, her wait time was five minutes. "I mean, the difference is shocking," she said. For that reason, Hausman lobbies hard to protect President Barack Obama's health care bull. It's not perfect, she said, but a darn good start.

She's used many of her days to fight against injustice, and has seen tragedy occur on many others. But mainly, Hausman's days are marked with joy, and her stories end with a smile and an upside. "You have to have a sense of humor in your life. Without humor, life isn't worth living. And you have to love everything around you. "I think how lucky I am. I have my eyes. I can see the beautiful trees blooming now in the spring," she said.

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