Recorded on June 12, 2015. Length: 29 Minutes.
Mary Ann Chambers reflects on living in Northbrook in 1963 and what it was like growing up here. Part of the reason Mary Ann’s family moved to Northbrook revolved around the creation of the Velodrome and she reflects on that experience. Judy and Mary Ann talk about the changes that have happened in Northbrook’s downtown area. Mary Ann discusses about getting involved in the PTA for District 28, the Park District. as well as the caucus system in place to be selected to the Park District. Judy and Mary Ann talk about the formation of Techny Prairie Park and Fields as well as some of the current goals of the Park District.
JH: Good afternoon, and welcome to Northbrook Voices, an oral history project sponsored by the Northbrook Historical Society and the Northbrook Public Library. Today is Friday, June 12, 2015. My name is Judy Hughes, and I am pleased to welcome Mary Ann Chambers who has lived and worked in Northbrook since 1963. Welcome.
MAC: Thank you. Happy to be here.
JH: What brought your family to Northbrook?
MAC: My father, Bill Chambers, worked for the Schwinn Bicycle Company in Chicago, and part of what his job responsibility was, was finding locations for new dealers. George Garner was a Schwinn dealer in California who wanted to move to the Chicago area, and at the same time that George was looking for a bicycle shop location in the Chicago area, Ed Rudolph asked Schwinn Bicycle to help with the start of the Velodrome. The happy confluence of those two events led to my father coming out to Northbrook, to look at the Velodrome and see what was going on, to see if Schwinn would be helping and found not only a good location for George Garner but for the Chambers family.
JH: Can I stop you for a minute? There may be people listening who don’t know what the Velodrome is. Can you explain what it is?
MAC: The Velodrome is, in the vernacular, a bike track for racing bicycles. It is an angled oval loop paved with asphalt and covered usually with a special paint. People race bicycles, race on bicycles. Northbrook had a lot of residents who were bicycle racers. (William) “Torchy” Peden was a longtime Northbrook resident who, in the 1920s and ’30s, rode in the three-day bicycle races at the Chicago Stadium and also up in Canada. I don’t know a great deal about those events other than this was a big deal and that he was here, in Northbrook, in the ’50s and ’60s, when bicycle racing started up again. It was a very big deal, and probably helped inspire some of the newer and younger riders. That is what the Velodrome is. It is a bike track, and they race fast bicycles on it.
JH: AndEd Rudolph was interested in it?
MAC: Ed Rudolph was interested in it because his sons were interested in bike racing, and I believe that it came out of their training for their Olympic speed skating. When they built the swimming pool at Meadowhill, the dirt that came out of there was placed over where the bike track is, and it built the wall. Those walls, its basic construction, it’s compacted dirt, and that is how the bike track became.
JH: You still have bicycle races there today?
MAC: We still have bicycle races there today. About seven years ago, the Velodrome was in desperate need of repair because the surface had cracked, and then you get water in between the asphalt and it deteriorates the ground underneath. The Northbrook Park District joined with the Northbrook Cycle Committee and the Northbrook Bike Club, and re-did the bike track, took out all of the old asphalt and all of the old paint, and recompacted the soil, filled in soil where it was needed, and I think that there is some rock in there as well, to try and solidify things, and then put down a new layer of asphalt, and repainted it, resurfaced it and restriped it.
JH: They still have races there?
MAC: They still have races there. I believe that there are preliminary or more novice races on Tuesday, and then the senior men and women ride on Thursday nights. Periodically, Northbrook hosts the NCAA Bicycle Champions as well as the U.S. Cycle Committee, in the U.S. American Cycling Team.
JH: Thank you for taking that detour from the Chambers family.
JH: You ended up with saying that it was a great home for the Chambers family. What made Northbrook such a great place to live?
MAC: What made Northbrook such a great place, our family was in the city, and as most families identified themselves and the city of Chicago at that time, you identified yourself by parish, and we were from Our Lady of the Angels Parish, which was on the West Side. It was a parish that had some tragedy with the school fire. I was not in the fire, but it left a significant… We were members of the parish at that time, but not… I was not actually involved in the fire. When my parents, we were living in an apartment. We were three little kids when they came out here, and they saw the parks, and they saw the open spaces and just, in dealing, as dad was going around, looking for places, to find a bike shop, helping out with the volunteer, he thought the sense of community was wonderful and this would be a great place to raise a family. There was a little house on Meadow Road, and we moved in there. It was a great location because at that point in time you could walk to everything. My mother raised three children in Northbrook without ever possessing a driver’s license. We were active in Park District events, in our school activities, and we could walk to and from the A&P as well as Sunset and the Jewel.
JH: There were three chain grocery stores?
MAC: Three chain grocery stores as well as Woolworth with a counter, a lunch counter.
JH: And Ben Franklin, of course?
MAC: A Ben Franklin across the street. The people who owned Ben Franklin lived next door to us.
JH: Where was the A&P?
MAC: It was where Dollar General is now, Dollar Tree is.
JH: Yeah. Okay you’re talking about walking. Your mom walked to do her grocery shopping and to do all of her shopping…
JH: …right in the shopping center down the road.
MAC: She walked, and then we rode bikes up to Meadowhill pool. When we moved here, sports center was not built. We were a little bicycle brigade. She had a baby seat for my younger brother, Pat, on the back of the bike, and she had a basket in front that held our towels and stuff. We all had baskets or saddle bags on our bikes, and we would ride up to Meadowhill together, and we had the little tokens that you pinned (Laughs) onto your bathing suits.
JH: A different time. (Laughs)
MAC: A different time. I made my first friend in Northbrook at the Village Green, which has always had… Marilyn White and I met each other in the park. We became fast friends and have been friends since we were seven years old. We are pushing 60, which is not quite as much fun as one might think, but it has been a long time, and I always think that neighbors become friends in the parks, and I take that from Marilyn and I who have stood with each other, through graduations, very wonderful happy times and some very tragic times.
JH: I want to talk about your memories of the Northbrook that you grew up in.
MAC: The Northbrook that I grew up in was extremely welcoming, and very (Pauses) comforting, as a child. Everyone wasn’t the same, but the differences were allowed. Coming from a very Catholic community in the city, everybody went to the same church, everybody went to the same movies, you had dinner at the same parties, you did everything together, and I remember my mother being so thrilled that we had neighbors who weren’t Catholic. We all didn’t have to do the same thing. Some played baseball. Some played football. My brother played hockey. I took ballet lessons at the Park District. It was very welcoming, and everybody wasn’t the same, but everybody was welcome, and that was really a wonderful place to be. Plus you could be outside, everywhere.
JH: At that time, you went on your own outside?
MAC: Yes, I did. We were allowed. Oh, it was a big deal. The big deal was then you could ride your bike up to Woolworths on Saturday afternoon with $2.25, in order to have a grilled cheese sandwich and a chocolate malt at the lunch counter.
JH: All by yourself.
MAC: All by myself, or Marilyn and I could do that, or one of our other friends, or go to Ted G’s for an olive burger.
JH: Where was Ted G’s?
MAC: Ted G’s is where the Subway is now, in the little shopping center, near where the A&P used to be.
JH: Was there a record store in the shopping center?
MAC: I don’t remember a record store.
JH: Do you remember Meadow Save Mart at all?
MAC: I remember Meadow Save Mart, and I remember the stationery store, and there was a tiny liquor store in there as well.
JH: Where was the Save Mart?
MAC: Save Mart, I think, went in where Woolworths was, where Woolworths was, was where the Save Mart went in. And it made you appreciate the quality of goods that Woolworth had, which is where the hardware store is now.
MAC: That is one of the things that my husband had a love hate relationship with, is the Northbrook vernacular of, “Oh, you know, where the old firehouse used to be?” Now it’s the Chamber of Commerce or the Civic Building.
JH: Yeah, you have to learn all those things, where they used to be.
MAC: Yeah. You turn left at the corner where the Glenview Cleaners used to be, which is now. It is now the parking space that used to be in front of the cleaners, but it is Leonidas Chocolate.
JH: Yes, you have seen a lot of changes in the town since you have lived here, haven’t you?
MAC: Yes. (Laughs)
JH: When you married, you came back?
MAC: We came back. Actually, our very first house, we tried to buy a house in Northbrook, and at the time my husband and I were buying a house, and I am dating myself , was 1982, the prime rate was 22.5%, so the interest for a 30-year conventional, fixed rate mortgage was 17.5%, and it made housing in Northbrook, even though the houses were, compared to what they’re priced for now, much lower, when you’re paying that much interest plus taxes, it was not affordable. Our first house was actually out in Cary, which I had hoped would be a Northbrook in the making. It turned out not to be so, but we bought there because it was a development that had gone under. St. Paul Federal Bank, which is no longer around, took it over, took over the development, brought in a new builder, and they were selling the homes. It was comparably priced to what we would have purchased here, but the interest rate for the first five years was 9.9%, and the remaining 25 years would be 10.9%, so before the interest rate went up, at that point in time, in Cary, the town had grown so much, they were looking at triple-shifting the kindergarten, which was great. I understand how that has to happen, but they had no plan for first grade. When I went to a school board meeting and realized that they had no plan for that, I went home and explained to my husband that it was time for us to leave, that the community didn’t have that level of interest in developing and growing and meeting their needs, or planning ahead, so we came back to Northbrook.
JH: You have been here ever since?
MAC: We have been here ever since. We have been here since… It was June of 1990.
JH: You jumped right in?
MAC: Pretty much. It happens. I started very much with the schools, with the PTA. Our kids went to Westmoor School, and we went there… I started with the PTA there, went on to the PTA Council, the District 28 PTA Council.
JH: Who was principal there when you were there?
MAC: Bert Satovitz was there. I will never forget the first day of school. I had two kids in a stroller, and then Phil, who was going into kindergarten, and I introduced myself to him, and he said, “Oh, yes, I heard you were coming. I am sorry I didn’t meet you when you dropped off Phil’s paperwork and things.” He said, “I look forward to meeting Mr. Ryan and I said, “He is looking forward.” The next time we had an open house or whatever, I introduced my husband. He never forgot our names, and a very interesting thing is, 20 years later, after my kids are long out of Westmoor, and Bert has recently retired, I am at Glenview Terrace Nursing Home, visiting my mother, who was rehabbing from a broken hip, and down the hallway comes Bert Satovitz. His mother was living at Glenview Terrace. He remembered us. He went in to see my mother, and from then on, he had met my parents, who came to things, he stopped to visit my mother almost weekly.
JH: Oh, how nice.
MAC: For the six weeks she was there.
JH: How nice. Who was superintendent of the schools then? Do you remember?
MAC: We had… Homer Harvey had retired.
MAC: I missed Homer Harvey, but he was still in town, and active in town. Luck?
MAC: Luckett.Then after Luckett Excuse me. Then Jim Puchinsky, and Julia Hale was in there. I think that I am missing someone, but….
JH: I was trying place whether Harvey, Dr. Harvey, was still here.
MAC: I think that he had just retired because it was ’90.
JH: Now, did you go to District 28 schools or …?
MAC: I did not. I went to St. Norbert’s grade school, and then I went to Marillac High School.
JH: All right. Now your kids are here, and you jumped right in, with the PTA. Then where did you go?
MAC: I received a phone call from one of the caucus people, asking me if I had any interest in running for the District 225 school board, and at that time my son was in eighth grade. My oldest was in eighth grade, and we had determined that he most likely would not be going to Glenbrook North. I said, “That is not… I don’t think it’s appropriate.” Certainly legal, certainly, but that was not something I thought would be appropriate, but I casually said, “Oh, but if you ever need anybody for the parks, please give me a call.” Within 48 hours, I had a second phone call, “By the way, we have an opening on the park board. We would really love you to come in and apply for it,” which I did.
JH: Can I stop you for a minute and have you explain what a caucus is, for a second?
MAC: A caucus is- It’s a wonderful system in Northbrook. I know people- there are other communities that it doesn’t work out so well, but the caucus comes together. It’s sort of a Brigadoon committee. It comes together about a year or eight months before an election, a local election, and members of the community volunteer to be president, vice president, treasurer and secretary. What they really are is a recruiting member, so they contact all the local districts that have offices open, and they find out how many offices are open and how many slots need to be filled, and they contact the people who are incumbents, to see if they are interested in running. Then they go out into the community and recruit people to sit on committee. The library has a caucus committee, and there is a library chair. There is a chair of the library committee for caucus, and that chair recruits members to sit on his committee, and those committee members are charged with finding out what the issues are that are facing the library or the park board or the school district. They find out how things run within those committees, what the boards are looking for and what would be servicing well those boards, what kind of qualities in the membership that they’re looking for. and then put out notices seeking applications for people to run for those. You apply to the caucus. They have an interview process. They set up a series of questions, and every candidate is asked pretty much the same questions. If you are an incumbent versus someone newly applying, you may have a few different questions. Then you are interviewed, and then the caucus committee makes a recommendation for the members- on the applicants that they’ve had in front of them. Then they present them to the full caucus, and then there is a big ol’ town meeting, and everybody gets to vote.
JH: The caucus committee itself, is it still that you only have so many people from each precinct?
JH: That you try to fill from each voting precinct?
MAC: Right. To my knowledge, there are three members from… There can be three members from each precinct, and they try, very actively, to fill that. There are some precincts that have a lot of interest, and a lot of members, and there are other precincts that have a hard time filling their three.
JH: Okay.Now let’s go back to your phone call, and you are going before caucus and applying to be on the library board. When was that?
MAC: Actually, I am on the park board.
JH: That is what I meant. I’m sorry.
MAC: I was talking about library…
JH: I was just talking to Mark Lonoff about library. The park board.
MAC: I was on the park board. I was elected in 1999, so it would have been the fall of ’98.
MAC: We had just moved back. We had been here eight years, back, in our own home, and I sat on the park board, and my first meeting as a commissioner… Just to backtrack, at that period in time, there were some issues about doing a condemnation for downtown, and earlier, I had spoken out rather aggressively against doing condemnation for rehabbing downtown. My first meeting, we go into closed session, and the topic was looking at condemnation of the Anetsberger parcel for the Park District acquisition. I went home that night, and Randy said, “How did things go?” and I said, “Fix me a martini. I am going to be the shortest serving Park District Commissioner in history.” The long and short of it is that that ended up not being necessary, and not being an option. That was not what the district wanted to do, and the meeting actually went much better than needing a martini and thinking that I was going to be the shortest-serving member. It was a stunning thing. It was baptism by fire, my first term, with negotiating the acquisition, negotiating the contract with the Anetsberger family, getting that approved and then going out for a referendum, which was one of the singular, great community moments that I have seen, is the community coming together at a time when no one was passing referendums. It was 1998, 1999, and things were… It was hard to get a referendum passed. We passed out referendum for $15.5 million with 70% of a yes vote, so it was an overwhelming …
MAC: It was a wonderful thing, and the community came together to do it, and it was a wonderful event. And then the development, all the activity in the development of it, and it’s a wonderful park. I look at that, and every time I walk out on the Trail through Time, I offer a prayer of thanksgiving for the Anetberger family that built a business with a golf course and a park for their employees, and the community. It is the definition of corporate citizenship, that the Park District was able to negotiate and acquire the property and keep that, but without the Anetsberger’s foresight and corporate citizenship, it would never have been there for us. The community, that park is used every day of the year.
JH: It is an amazing open space, and when I go there, and I look at that prairie, I think that this is what the first people who came here saw.
MAC: Yes, and you can be out there, and until a train goes by or you hear a car honk its horn, you think that you are in Little House on the Prairie. I think about the first settlers who came here. I also think… then, when you turn and you are coming back towards Waukegan, going south and east towards Waukegan, and you see the Techny Towers, can you imagine being a 15-year-old boy from New York, getting off the train and going there for the seminary?
JH: Or an orphan who was placed there.
MAC: Or an orphan, yeah. You look at that, and it brings all those things, and then I see our kids out there, from the junior high, doing pound water testing and reclamation, and I see the high school kids out there, and I see drawing classes out there, and then you see the Garden Club out, what a wonderful thing. It is cradle to grave. You’ve got mothers pushing kids in strollers, and then you’ve got caregivers pushing older people in their wheelchairs. I took my dad out there when he couldn’t walk anymore on his own.
JH: Yeah, it’s amazing. You’ve seen the formation of the Techy Prairie Parks and Fields, and the growth of the Park District through its programming. What has been the biggest challenge for the park? From your perspective, for the Park District?
MAC: The Park District’s biggest challenge is indoor programming space, and we are a landlocked community, and because we’re landlocked, when we have open space, we cherish it, we treasure it, and we hold it in… I am making a motion, like we’re hugging it. We hold it close to our hearts, but we need more indoor space, and that requires a building, so we have tried some options to utilize existing spaces, which did not work out, last year, so in the greater scheme of things, I think, something better must be coming along. We will find it, and we will put it together, abut the biggest challenge is open space, is indoor programming space and feeling that we’re going to have to build. Either we will have to knock down an existing facility and build new, or we will have to buy open space and create new.
JH: This is not a new subject for the Park District?
MAC: No. This is something that actually was on the 1956, the year I was born, master plan for the park district. It was in the 1970 master plan, it was in the 2000 master plan, and there wasn’t a master plan between, I think it was, 1975 and 2000. In that period of time, it was always there, but there was no new master plan.
JH: The master plan is not… The master plan is a plan that is approved by the board …
JH: … But it is with citizen input?
MAC: It’s with citizen input. The master planing process is at least 18 months, and in the 2001, I think, or 2002, master plan, it was at least two years. We do extensive surveying. We do focus groups. We do general public input sessions. We go out. We went out to each facility, and did the open-ended blue sky, “What would you like to see? What’s not here? Conversely, what’s here that shouldn’t be here?” There is a lot of public input, and we are in the process of gearing up to do that, again, because a master plan that is 10 years old is neither comprehensive nor current.
JH: You are also gearing up to do a major re-haul at the West…?
MAC: At the West Park, which is 50 years old. We redid the pool in. Actually, we opened it in 1999, so it is 16 years old, the rehab. Unfortunately, while things typically would last a little bit longer, because of the Virginia Graham Baker Act, which was a non-funded federal mandate, we had to change the drains in the pool. In a pool that was just, I think, when we first started, it was just at 10 years old, we had to crack the shell. Anytime you crack a shell in a concrete pool, you destroy the integrity of the seal, and through years of work and trying, we have tried to…
JH: Maintain it?
MAC: Maintain it, and we have done it. We have done what we could, to get it open and get it safe and get it approved by the Illinois Department of Public Health, but we have reached a point now where, in the areas where the cracks have occurred, near the drains that we had to install, the foundation of the pool has deteriorated to a point where we can’t keep injecting concrete into it. So for $4.2 million, over the course of the next two years, we will be building a new pool. We are starting the public input process, June 23rd, with an open house. It will be a wonderful thing.
JH: We are almost at the end of our interview. Is there anything about the Park District that you would like to say that you haven’t already covered?
MAC: I think that, really and truly, for the Park District, it is a tremendous asset to our community. It truly is where neighbors become friends. It is a public forum. It serves everyone here, and serves it very well, and I really hope that, as time goes on, we continue to have good leadership and active participation in our Park District.
JH: Mary Ann, thank you so 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.
MAC: Thank you very much.