Recorded on December 9, 2011. Length: 32 Minutes.
JH: Good afternoon and welcome to Northbrook Voices a joint oral history project of the Northbrook Public Library and the Northbrook Historical Society. My name is Judy Hughes and I am happy to welcome John Novinson. John, we are glad to have you here to share your story of your memories of Northbrook. When did you first come to Northbrook?
JN: I started working in Northbrook in 1975. I obviously was here a few times before that because I still have furniture I bought here at stores such as Dania.
JH: What did you do when you came here?
JN: I was the assistant to the Village Manager. I had been working for the state of Illinois and I moved to working in municipal government and never looked back.
JH: That Village Manager would have been Bob Weidaw.
JN: Yes, Bob Weidaw.
JH: And you succeeded Bob Weidaw as village manager.
JN: I did in 1990 and at that time we moved to Northbrook because by the ordinances establishing the form of government, the city manager has to live in the community. I knew what I was getting into when I became the manager.
JH: Tell us a little bit about your family.
JN: Well, I am in a second marriage. My first marriage produced one son who now lives in Mesa, Arizona. My second marriage has two children who actually preceded the marriage but are children to me. All the children are grown up and successful. There are six grandchildren and we now have family in New Jersey, Libertyville, IL, and Mesa.
JH: Can you describe Northbrook when you first came here? You said you bought some furniture at Dania so you had some sense of the community.
JN: Well, actually, I had some sense of Skokie Blvd. I can recall visiting Golden Crown so I made it all the way to the downtown shopping center once. Golden Crown was actually listed in CHICAGO Magazine and I remember driving up here on a winter night.
JH: So what was Northbrook like?
JN: Well, it seemed quite rural. I remember driving around the town with Bob Weidaw and we were on Pfingsten Road which was still two lanes. It was midday and a deer bounded across the road in front of the car. Bob sort of dismissed it with, “Oh, yeah, they are like squirrels.” It seemed to me I was coming to a place that was radically different than the City of Chicago where I grew up or the City of Evanston where I was living at the time. It seemed much more of a country-type environment but with some sophistication as well. UL was here. At the time I came here Northbrook Court Shopping Center was under construction and I did some work with the Village in overseeing the finalization of that project. I got to be involved in some of the lingering lawsuits that had been filed over that project. There were seven different lawsuits filed by the City of Highland Park against the Village of Northbrook over that matter so I was sort of jumping into the deep end of municipal affairs.
JH: You must have liked it because when Bob Weidaw retired you became the Village Manager.
JN: Bob was quite a mentor and a very special person. I guess our tendencies meshed very well. Bob was extremely happy if he could just work and be left alone so he really needed someone who would be willing to talk to all the people who wanted to bother him and keep him from doing things he loved to do like special assessments. He was truly pre-technology. He would do things like go around and collect the pencils that others were throwing away. He would use them until they were impossible to hold in your hand. He was never happier than when he was at his desk doing the numbers and trying to convince people that they would really be better off if they improved their streets.
Northbrook has this unique water system – the only community not on the Great Lakes that draws water from the lake. That sort of controlled its development. Much of the town you see today was actually developed in Cook County with very different construction standards and very different requirements for streets, sewers and sidewalks. As people that had wells got into trouble, they would come and petition the Village to annex them so they could get village water. But they usually didn’t want more than water. They didn’t want to pay for sewers, certainly not for storm sewers, and not for streets. So we had many crumbling and run down streets that were built by scrapping the grass out of the way and laying down some asphalt – no curbs and gutters or storm sewers. Many parts of town were essentially a storm water retention basin. Bob’s evangelical mission was to convince people in those areas to vote a special assessment to tax themselves for the development of a real street. One of the rumors I would hear around the town was that he discouraged anything that would make those streets look or work better. Eventually, the Village decided to just do it and solve the problem. Toward the end of his tenure they stopped trying to convince people to vote for a special assessment. Being a democratic community, the votes pro and con were usually 48 on one side and 49 on the other after which the neighbors wouldn’t talk to each other. It was interesting.
JH: Do you remember what the Village limits were when you first came in 1975?
JN: Well, it was an irregular border. My recollection was that in the southwest we did not go much beyond Landwehr or Pfingsten. On the north, Highland Park attempted to involuntarily annex a long key shaped series of properties west of Skokie Blvd. all the way south to the Tollway Spur. There is this strange rule that if you are under 60 acres you can be involuntarily annexed. Why Highland Park would want to acquire the property west of Skokie Blvd. was something they couldn’t even answer but it did end up with the parcel being annexed to Northbrook. In the northwest corner off of Sanders Road, that was all unincorporated and came in as a major subdivision and subsequently other areas that had been developed in the county also came in, attracted by access to water from the lake. Lake water is much better than well water.
JH: Another thing you said earlier that was very interesting was that Bob Weidaw was pre-technology. That is a difficult concept for people to understand that there wasn’t this kind of technology.
JN: We used mimeograph machines when I arrived. The Village Hall at that time was in a building that sat between the current Village Hall and the Library and had gone through several iterations. That building had once held the entire village government – all departments. It was an understated, modest sized building. Typically, it was not uncommon during a Board meeting, if there was rain, we might have to set out buckets to collect water leaking through the roof. To put together the ordinances, we used mimeograph and typewriters. Electric typewriters arrived after I started working here. There were few of those to start with. We gradually evolved into a modern organization. We were doing so many subdivisions and land developments that Gerry Friedman said that 2 or 3 years before I arrived, while he chaired the Zoning & Development Committee, during a typical meeting he would have to read so many ordinances that he would lose his voice during the meeting and have to pass the task on to another member of the committee. That’s how much development was going on. Those were long meetings. More recently when people have asked – how could they have approved this? I point out that not everything could get read thoroughly. The resources for supervision of development were there and the stuff that was built in Northbrook was generally far better built than in the country.
Shortly before my time, there was a member of the Board, perhaps under the influence of the Concrete Association, who insisted that concrete streets could be built as cheaply as asphalt. It would cost more initially but over the life it would be less expensive. However, if a concrete street is built on the same base as an asphalt, it will not last as well and replacement is very expensive. Northbrook still has some concrete streets that are repaired on a patch by patch basis.
JH: You’ve seen a lot of growth in the Village and a lot of community involvement. During your time in Northbrook is there one thing that stands out about this community?
JN: Northbrook is a very moderate community, very tolerant of different opinions and polite. In conversations with colleagues I would hear of interactions with residents that would be truly horrific. When they would get around to me, I would feel that I didn’t have it that bad so I would remain quiet. We did have someone who said once he was going to shoot a member of the board but he tended to tell many people he was going to shoot them. I told him that I sat next to that board member and since the resident was not a good shot, I would appreciate it if he didn’t shoot the board member since he might end up shooting me. He said he would consider that. He never did it act on his threat. Our biggest radicals tended to be more bark than bite.
JH: A lot of community involvement?
JN: Every town as a core – you are probably the essence of the Northbrook core – of volunteerism. Northbrook has always had a solid core whether it is through the Civic Association or Rotary. One of the things when you consider back how primitive things were, how tightly packed staff was and how many things were going on, they did so many things right. Northbrook has been used as a model of development. The way our industrial and commercial areas are separated from the residential represent a style of development which is envied by other parts of the country. It does extend the utilities and adds cost and perhaps makes the city a little less walkable. One of Northbrook’s bigger problems – I remember a member of the Bike Federation saying that if biking in Northbrook, be careful as it is not friendly to bikes. We did a lot of work to get sidewalks, primarily to get bikes off of streets that were really not suited to a comingling of bikes and cars.
JH: Has Northbrook changed from the village you came to work for? Have its core values changed at all?
JN: That’s interesting. We have obviously changed demographically. I think there has been somewhat an atrophy of involvement. Bob VanDusen, manager in Glenview and one of the people who influenced me to stay in municipal government, once asserted that 90% of the people in any community treat it just like a hotel. They check in, they check out, and if the water runs and the streets are cleared, they don’t really have any involvement other than to go to Northbrook Days, perhaps. I think all of America has been having a problem – maybe its TV, maybe it’s the internet – getting people out of their homes and into social interaction with other people is a real problem. The thing that Northbrook has always done is work at it. Early in my career, the Village Board would have a meeting with new residents twice a year. That ended when fewer and fewer new residents showed up. There is a book called “Bowling Alone” which is about the fact that social interaction is atrophying across the country. Lacking that social interaction, smaller and smaller groups can have greater influence because people are not paying attention.
JH: If someone asked you what makes Northbrook the place where you want to live, what would you say?
JN: The moderation, the tone of the community is inviting. It sort of says that you can get as involved or uninvolved as you want and be at home here. You can be any color you want. It is a little hard to be of a different socio-economic group but there is great emphasis on culture and education. Northbrook has a wonderful location in the metropolitan area – great accessibility. I sound a little like the Chamber of Commerce. Though not in Northbrook but across the street (if you count Edens Expressway as a street), is the Chicago Botanic Garden with lots of facilities for adults and children. One of our school superintendents once said you could put a sign on your lawn that said “lessons” and people would stand in line to learn whatever was being taught.
JH: Is there an untold story of Northbrook?
JN: I think I told you one about Bob Weidaw and his effort to get people to vote for a special assessment to fix their streets. Untold story – wish I had had that question to think about ahead of time. Again, I think probably the thing most people don’t pay much attention to is that the people they elect to serve on boards and commissions really do a wonderful, difficult job and are very dedicated to it especially in a time when there is lots of contempt for government. It was always comforting to me that they would either carve out an exception for Northbrook or they didn’t know what they were talking about. Even when they didn’t really know what they were talking about they would advocate sincerely due to a lack of information rather than prejudices.
JH: There is planning that went into the development of Northbrook. There was all the work that went into making sure the plans were appropriate for Northbrook. There were the people at the Hall who carried out the plans and all the volunteers on the boards and commissions who considered and supervised the developments.
JN: Tons of volunteers with 18 boards and commissions.
JH: 18 – is that a lot?
JN: It is more than you usually find in a community of this size. And there was never a problem finding people to serve on them.
JH: That certainly speaks to the volunteerism.
JN: We also have more school boards than most communities. This is Illinois. We have more of every kind of government. There are pieces of 9 school districts in Northbrook, the Park District, the Library, the Drainage District. Illinois makes government about as complicated as possible – maybe Peru is worse, I don’t know.
JH: When did you retire?
JN: I retired on May 1st of 2008.
JH: Are you keeping yourself busy?
JN: Grandchildren keep me busy.
JH: Are you serving on any boards related to your work?
JN: I actually consider the board of the Northbrook Historical Society as related to my work. On the national level, I am on the Sustainability Committee of the National City Manager’s Association and I am on the Ethics Committee for the Illinois City Manager’s Association.
JH: If you think back over your career with the Village, is there any one thing that you would want people to remember when they think of John Novinson?
JN: Well, I think we have touched on it. I was pleased with the receptivity of the Village to trying to be a greener, more sustainable organization. Any time you try to make changes, it is a challenge economically. They say that pioneers get arrows. Sometimes you make mistakes. I don’t know that ethanol is as good an idea as I thought it was when I started to study it. To convert a lot of our fleet to ethanol makes corn growers happy but it may not be as important to the environment as we originally thought. But we are proud of a lot of things that we did do successfully. One of the things we did do was follow the rules. I remember when we had a low pressure situation in our water mains due to a main break and we issued a boil order. The EPA called and said they really appreciated that we knew the rules and followed them. So many people and they cited a community in the south end of the County that had contaminated water and hid that from their residents. There are a lot of things that are potential threats and people don’t appreciate that we had employees who were dedicated to following the rules and where the rules made no sense, challenging them. It is a great statement for the Village and may not have been appreciated by the residents.
JH: We are at 30 minutes. Time went by quickly. Is there anything you would like to say to end the interview that we haven’t touched on?
JN: I hope that this tendency toward non-involvement – perhaps the Occupy Movement indicates that involvement is necessary – will change. I think I was very fortunate to have wandered into Northbrook when I was actually looking to leave to join the private sector. I worked for Northbrook for 32 years and had fewer stories of questionable conduct here than I had in seven years with the State and combining the state and municipal years, I had fewer than with one year with the county.
JH: John, thank you very much for participating in Northbrook Voices. Your memories of life in Northbrook will add a unique and personal perspective about the history of our Village. We thank you very much.