By Ken Trainor
It's not easy saying goodbye to someone like Virginia Cassin. Great people produce great towns. Or is it great towns produce great people? Maybe it works both ways. Special towns make it possible for people with great potential to fulfill it.
That has certainly been true in Ginie Cassin's case.
Her family moved to Oak Park from Beloit, Wisconsin in the 1920s when she was 3. Except for three years in Dallas, Texas where her father was transferred, and three years at Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin (psychology major, year-round during WWII), Ginie has been an Oak Park resident.
That ends this Sunday when she and her daughter, Sheila, who formerly headed Oak Park's Farmers Market and whom Ginie describes as "more like me than me," drive up to her new home in Brainerd, Minnesota.
It isn't easy for her to say goodbye either, even at the age of 94.
But we gave it a shot, sitting in her kitchen on Grove Avenue for a couple of hours a few weeks ago, talking about neighbors, past and present, whose lives intersected theirs since 1952 when she and her husband, the late Bill Cassin, moved into the house where they raised eight kids.
That was typical of Catholic families then, making them perfect candidates for the Archdiocese of Chicago's Cana Conference, where they served as lay leaders, working with the legendary Msgr. Jack Egan, ministering to engaged couples throughout the Chicago area — an offshoot of the Christian Family Movement, whose three principles were "observe, judge, and act" in the life of your community.
That led to finding out how village government worked and getting involved. She joined the League of Women Voters (free babysitting), which encouraged volunteerism, as did the newly formed Village Manager Association (VMA), and she soon found herself spending Saturday mornings at the old village hall (Euclid Avenue and Lake Street) helping to reorganize the outdated building permit records, which were stored in a large binder in numerical order. Ginie and the other "League ladies" created a new system, collecting all the permits for each property in Oak Park, thereby making the information accessible and searchable.
"That was quite a revolution at village hall," she recalled, and the beginning of better government services. She made a lot of friends doing it, including Doris Hoigard, who became the first woman zoning administrator in Oak Park.
"We were always being the first woman this and the first woman that," Ginie said.
"Then we got into race relations."
Currently, Oak Park is celebrating the 50th anniversary of our Fair Housing Ordinance. But that process started in 1963 when the village formed the Community Relations Commission.
Cassin was one of two women on the 14-member commission, which included the police chief, the fire chief, Ascension pastor Msgr. John FitzGerald, and a representative from First Congregational Church (now First United Church of Oak Park). The commission was chaired by the superintendent at Oak Park and River Forest High School.
"They wanted it to represent all of Oak Park," Ginie said. "I was a woman, I was from south Oak Park (she grew up at Gunderson and Van Buren), and I was also a Catholic layperson, so I filled a lot of categories.
"We were charged with writing the ordinance," she said.
The commission talked to people from all over the country, and people representing virtually every organization and entity in Oak Park. The all-volunteer Citizens Committee for Human Rights, led by Al Belanger and Bobbie Raymond, helped the Community Relations Commission do a lot of its legwork.
"It took us five years to get that all together," she recalled.
Thanks to the connections she forged, Ginie decided to run for office in the early 1970s and was elected the first woman village clerk, beating a male candidate and former village trustee, who was stunned that he didn't win. She served from 1973 to 1993.
"I never thought of myself as a feminist," she said, but that was probably only because the term wasn't invented in fifth grade, when the annual Flag Day oration contest rolled around, and she got fed up with the boys being the only ones giving the speeches, so she entered and won with her talk about Henry Cabot Lodge titled, "The American Flag, Not the Dollar."
It was her first crack in the glass ceiling.
"My parents were always in charge of things," she recalled, "so it came naturally."
By 1973 she had become so familiar at village hall that being clerk also came naturally.
"I was a very open-office kind of person," she said, hiring staff who were "cordial, welcoming people. My office had to be a 'welcome to Oak Park' and that's what it became. People used to say I was 'the queen of village hall.'"
Village clerk was a pretty sleepy position until she arrived. That quickly changed, her mantra being, "I can do that."
She and her 10 staffers "did all the things the Building Department does now. We took on animal control and animal licensing because the police didn't like doing it." The clerk's office also supervised "citizen involvement," recruiting volunteer members for the commission system. When the idea for a Farmers Market was floated, she told them, "I can do that." Same with Day in Our Village. But the biggest change was alcohol. Oak Park had been "dry" for a century. She issued the first liquor license.
"I would do whatever it took to make things happen," she said. "We developed a lot of goodwill."
She got along with all the village managers — except Ralph DeSantis, a Napoleonic figure in stature and weight, which he liked to throw around.
"He wanted to take over my role," Ginie said. So she invited him to lunch at Captain Bob's Neptune Cove, a seafood restaurant at Ridgeland and Harrison near the expressway. Being short in stature herself, they saw eye to eye. Besides, when speaking with managers, her rule was "never break eye contact." Never afraid to stand up for herself, she laid out the boundaries as she saw them.
"It's important to understand that I have a role here and you have a role here," she told him.
It helped, she said, that Mrs. DeSantis was clearly in charge in their marriage, which was obvious every time she showed up at village hall to visit. So with Oak Park's first female village clerk and first female village president, Sara Bode, thrown into the mix, the little general was effectively triangulated by strong women.
Ginie was also not afraid to take a stand at the board table. In the early 1990s, the trustees furtively appointed John Philbin to fill a board vacancy, despite a looming election, and they slipped in the vote at the very end of a meeting before adjourning — after the attendees and press had departed. She didn't make many speeches as clerk, but she did that night.
"I told them, 'I don't feel this is democracy.'"
She retired in 1993, but immediately took on the role of board chair for the Ernest Hemingway Foundation, where she served another couple of decades. In addition to overseeing the spending of a million dollars from the state to completely restore the Hemingway Birth Home, she brought an even more important skill set to the foundation: her gracious manner and personal warmth. As one long-timer put it, "It's almost impossible to say no to Ginie Cassin."
It wasn't easy for someone so involved for so long to finally decide to leave her beloved village altogether.
"I've gone through this over and over and over in my mind," she said. "I'm kind of a perfectionist, I always wanted to be taken seriously, and I've always been smaller than everybody else. I would like to feel that I had my boots on till the end. So maybe there's a little ego there. I cherish the image I have in Oak Park. It's such a warm family feeling here. That's a hard thing to leave.
"But there's a whole part of my life up north now, way up in Minnesota. There's a whole new batch of great-grandchildren who will never know me if I don't go up there and have some life with them. It's to my detriment that I haven't gotten to know them. I want them to know who Grandma Ginie is. I would like them to know me in my increasing age for who I am, who I feel like I am, and not an old lady being pushed around."
When she puts it like that, it's hard not to grant her a leave of absence. But still …
"I'll miss the good feeling of being from Oak Park and being a part of Oak Park," she said. "I feel it has been an honorable place to live, representing a good community with a lot of good people in it."
She will miss being in the July 4th Parade and at Day in Our Village and leading the Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies at Scoville Park and the Oak Park Arms.
"I will miss being in a community where I am seen as a beloved old-timer. But I don't want to turn into a disabled old-timer. Most of my adult life, I have lived under very good government, which has espoused policies that are very much in line with the way I feel about things, whether it was racial diversity or the openness of the board and commission system where there are hearings and opportunities for people to put in their thoughts. And I'm proud to be in a community that is so nicely maintained.
"I think people rise to the occasion of being an Oak Park resident or business owner. And this might sound a little funny, but I'm happy to have generally been on the right side of things. It means that you match the place where you live."
Matching the place where you live certainly describes Ginie Cassin.
"I'm very torn about leaving," she said. "It was a tough decision, and I hope it's a good one. Time will tell." At 94, that's what you call optimism.
Hugs and confessing that she reminded me of my mom (same graciousness, same class, same height) undermined my journalistic objectivity when it came to Ginie Cassin pretty much from the start.
But great people make great towns. If that's true, then Brainerd, Minnesota has no idea what a gift Oak Park, Illinois is sending its way. After nine decades, however, I guess we can afford to be generous.
"My life is getting kind of misty," she said, "my eyesight dimming, my hearing dimming. I feel like the end of Casablanca, walking off into the mist."
So, Ginie, speaking on behalf of Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, and all the people of Oak Park, I would just like to say:
It's been a beautiful friendship.
If you'd like to say farewell to Virginia Cassin and thank her for her years of service to the community, the Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park is holding a wine reception this Saturday, July 14, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Home Museum, 339 N. Oak Park Ave. All are welcome.
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