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The Despres Legacy

Don Rose 11 May 2009 No Comment

PARIS—I was in the south of France last week when word came of the passing of Leon M. Despres, that giant of Chicago politics and culture, at age 101—his mind sharp and incisive to the end, even as his body was betraying him.

My thoughts darted back 20-some years ago when my friend Judy and I were visiting here in Paris with Len and his late wife Marian, both in their eighties. I was approaching 60 and Judy much younger than that, but the two of us were puffing away trying to keep pace with them through serpentine streets and grand boulevards on our way to wherever. Like us, they never tired of this place and walking was the way to experience it.

They were regaling us with details of a private tour of the Louvre’s undisplayed treasures—a collection of art and artifact almost as vast as the one displayed. Then it was talk of recent gallery shows, mingled with chatter of food and whatnot—but scarcely a word about politics among these pre-Obamian Chicago politicians and political junkies.

Art was just another facet of this amazing, multilingual man and his equally accomplished wife who devoted so much of themselves to our hometown and left so many lasting legacies. Marian’s contributions to architectural preservation alone helped keep Chicago from destroying its own heritage, even though she lost far more battles than she won—as did Len in his City Council floor fights.

Len almost made the word “alderman” respectable. His genius was twofold: first he blended the thrust of political progressivism with more traditional municipal reforms opposing patronage and corruption, thereby creating coalitions that helped shape public opinion and sometimes win victories over an otherwise intransigent city administration; second, he brought home to Chicago politics the seething national issues of civil rights, liberties and the war in Vietnam.

Despres was a constant agitator for civil rights, for years fighting a solitary council battle for schools, housing and jobs—often against the opposition of the Negro denizens of Daley’s plantation known as “the silent six.” For this he became known as “the only Negro” in the council.

He opened the struggle for gender equity in city employment,  paving the way for female representation on the council itself—at a time when much of the town thought women’s rights was crackpot stuff.

His first piece of legislation, back in 1955, removed the power of aldermen to control the issuance of driveway permits—a lucrative practice for the other 49 councilmen who got open payola for their beneficence. That was the last ordinance that bore his name.

It’s legend now that Daley Pere regularly cut off Len’s microphone, and also that the mayor never again permitted a Despres ordinance to pass. If an idea was really good, the Despres version would die and a Machine hack would introduce it separately.

But Len wasn’t interested in glory—he was dedicated to doing the right thing and thus many civic improvements he championed eventually became law. Of course, we’re still struggling with some of the same issues decades after his 20-year tenure ended in 1975.

He inspired and helped elect a handful of other independents, black and white, who joined him. He initiated a slim, often faltering, thread of progressive civic reformers, with us today in such folk as Toni Preckwinkle, Sandy Jackson, Ric Munoz, Joe Moore and others.

Back in 1966 Len helped a bright, young, black Harvard grad named Richard Newhouse win the Hyde Park-South Lakefront state senate seat from an old-line white organization guy. That established the seat for the black independent movement. Thirty years later it was passed on to a bright, young, black Harvard grad named Barack Obama.

There are endless Despres stories, many in his memoir, “Challenging the Daley Machine,” and in a companion volume called “Chicago Afternoons with Leon” by his collaborator Kenan Heise, but of course he was bigger and more impressive than all the stories put together. His integrity and unswerving dedication to principle is almost unimaginable in the world of today, but he lived it to the end.

Last year, at one of his centenary birthday celebrations he was put on mock trial by a group of friends. His physician Dr. Quentin Young, his law partner Tom Geoghegan and I prosecuted the satiric case against him for municipal sedition, plotting to overthrow the Daley regime, rabble rousing and such.

To all of these Despres pleaded “guilty,” but sought the mercy of the court on grounds that he, at 100, was an orphan.

Now that he’s gone I sort of feel like an orphan myself.


Don Rose is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer

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