Saturday, October 14, 2017

Obit Week #3: "The conscience of the council—Leon Despres

      With the Society of Professional Obituary Writers in town for their annual convention this weekend, I thought I would reprint a few of my own obits from over the years. This is perhaps my favorite.
     Few things are sadder or more haunting than to imagine what Chicago might have been like had anyone listened to Leon Despres.
     For two decades, he stood virtually alone in the Chicago City Council and called upon humanity's better nature, only to be ignored or ridiculed.
     Mr. Despres, 101, who died at his Hyde Park home Wednesday morning, was the alderman representing the South Side neighborhood's 5th Ward from 1955 to 1975 and "the absolute conscience of the city," as former congressman and judge Abner Mikva once dubbed him.
     In retirement, he remained active and was involved in fighting a high-rise condo in his neighborhood.
     His son, Robert, said Mr. Despres' mind was very sharp until recently, and that one of the secrets to his longevity was having an "army of friends."
     Mr. Despres battled, unceasingly and eloquently, against Mayor Richard J. Daley and the Democratic Machine. He tried to make Chicago a more decent and fair city than it became, and though he seldom won, he never gave up.
     He fought racial repression at a time when bold action might have prevented incalculable suffering and loss.
     "The Board of Education is shortchanging the children of Chicago," he told the City Council on Jan. 17, 1963, asking that it "electrify the world" and "vote for the greatness of our city" by withholding tax funds until the board ended segregation. "It is educating nearly all children in damaging racial isolation. Separate education is never equal education, and, in addition, the board is providing inferior facilities and teaching staffs for most Negro children."
     The measure was resoundingly defeated.
     Often, the only vote cast for his resolutions was his own. Alone, he voted against the council's ban on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s open-occupancy marches in August 1966, while Daley's black aldermanic puppets denounced him for dictating to blacks where their best interests lay.
      When Mr. Despres opposed the construction of new Chicago Housing Authority high-rise buildings, just one alderman sided with him. The buildings would become a monumental failure, sinkholes of crime and despair that plagued the city for decades.
     The City Council of Mr. Despres' day was a tempestuous body of colorful figures, most of them slavishly loyal to Daley, whom Mr. Despres called a dictator and wasn't shy about castigating to his face.
     "One of the prime attractions at any Council meeting is watching Despres lecture the mayor, his finger wagging practically under Daley's nose, pouring out a dazzling array of statistics and studies and sociology and sheer guts," longtime Chicago reporter Lois Wille wrote in 1970.
     Such antics bewildered and angered aldermen who unwaveringly toed the Daley line. The late Ald. Vito Marzullo once called Mr. Despres "wholly irresponsible, a nitwit, a vicious person and a menace to the City Council and the public at large."
     "Sit down before I knock you down," said Ald. Thomas Keane, one of several aldermen to physically threaten Mr. Despres.
     "Despres has been told to shut up—in one form or another—more than any grown man in Chicago," Mike Royko wrote in the Chicago Daily News in 1972.
     Even his attempts to foster the barest civic decency were quashed.
     When he introduced a resolution decrying the bombing of a black family's house and reaffirming "the fundamental right of all law-abiding citizens to purchase and occupy homes anywhere in Chicago, regardless of ancestry or race," the Council voted 38-4 against the measure.
    Mr. Despres fought against discrimination in hospital staff appointments, cemeteries and housing. Sometimes, he even won. The day in August 1967 that Mr. Despres and two others called a special session on fair housing, Daley suspended the licenses of three real estate brokers for refusing to show homes to blacks. It was the first time the federal Fair Housing Law of 1963 was enforced in Chicago.
      He was the first to raise an alarm about the dangers of lead paint.
     He drafted the city's first ordinance establishing a landmarks preservation commission and led the fight to save Frank Lloyd Wright's extraordinary Robie House after the Chicago Theological Seminary announced plans to demolish the peerless architectural treasure to build a new dorm.
     Along with Ald. Charles Chew (17th), Mr. Despres chartered two airplanes to take 184 people to Alabama to participate in King's voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965.
     He fought official artistic censorship, once a notorious Chicago hallmark. When the City Council voted its "unqualified condemnation" of Wright Junior College for putting James Baldwin's Another Country on the required reading list of a contemporary literature class, Mr. Despres called the resolution the "most degrading kind of censorship. This body will make Chicago the laughingstock of the country by lynching a book," he said. Only two other aldermen voted with him.
     He also fought to abolish the police department's secret spying unit.
     On a variety of issues, Mr. Despres expressed a vision approaching prescience. In 1965, he urged the CHA to consider low-rise, scattered-site housing. When fire destroyed McCormick Place in January 1967 -- a building Mr. Despres once called "a damaging monstrosity" -- he declared, "This is a marvelous opportunity to rebuild it somewhere else." It was rebuilt on the same lakefront-hogging site.
     Mr. Despres' vision was not clear on every issue, though. His sensitivity to the problems affecting the urban poor, for instance, initially blinded him to the threat posed by street gangs, which he called "very important manifestations of urban life" in 1970.
     "It's very important to realize that along with the pathology and the criminality of extortion, killing, beating and violence, there are also positive elements of association that ought to be developed," he said.

     He was born Leon Mathis Despres on Feb. 2, 1908, the son of Samuel and Henrietta Rubovitz Despres. Most friends called him "Len." The family moved to Hyde Park when he was 3. He started at Hyde Park High School, but his mother decided he wasn't working hard enough, so she sent him to boarding school in Rome and then Paris, where he saw—he would later say—James Joyce's Ulysses, newly published in the window of Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare & Co. bookstore on rue de l'Odeon.
     Mr. Despres returned to Hyde Park to attend the University of Chicago. He received his undergraduate degree in 1927 and his law degree in 1929. On Sept. 10, 1931, he married Marian Alschuler. She died in 2007 at 97.
     Tall, slender and scholarly, Mr. Despres set out on a career of improving society through law. From 1935 to 1937, he was a trial examiner for the National Labor Relations Board. He also became a socialist, and visited exiled Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky in Mexico, a trip that saw him escorting legendary artist Frida Kahlo to the movies while her husband, Diego Rivera, painted a portrait of Despres' wife.
     "She was very attractive, very pretty," he said years later of Kahlo. "We had a good time. I had no idea she was an icon."
     He was general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, Illinois division, from 1948 until 1955, when he was elected to the City Council. He fought bitter election battles in 1955 and 1959. Then the Machine swung around and gave him a kind of tacit approval -- in 1966, he was the only aldermanic candidate endorsed by both Democrats and Republicans.
     Mr. Despres served as Council parliamentarian from 1979 to 1987. He also served on the Chicago Plan Commission during that period. Over the last decade, he returned to private practice.
     His memoir, Challenging the Daley Machine: A Chicago Alderman's Memoir, written with Kenan Heise, was published in 2005 by Northwestern University Press. "I expect defeat," he once said, referring to a certain city budget battle, but also, in a way, to his entire career. "Nevertheless, I have to make an effort."
     Paddy Bauler, the famously corrupt Chicago pol, put it to Mr. Despres this way: "Len, the trouble is you think the whole thing's on the square."
     In addition to his son, survivors include a daughter, Linda Despres Baskin, and a grandson, Frederick Despres. Services are pending.

        —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 7, 2009


  1. "...the whole thing's on the square." A common delusion, but I for one prefer it to the paranoia inflicting the present era. No "do-gooder" has ever been successful in changing his world, but Leon Despres certainly served as a beacon showing the way to a better future. God only knows we need him now.


  2. I remember being impressed by the obit when you wrote it, and remember reading Despres' memoir right after his passing, probably because you mentioned it here. Thanks, many years after the fact!

  3. Len Despres was my friend and neighbor in Hyde Park for over 60 years. Your obituary does him justice. He. Was elegant and patrician but never snobbish. We were having dinner at his home on Christmas, 1962. His phone rang often. Constituents had his home phone number and used it freely. Thanks for an excellent job.


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