Recorded on June 14, 2013. Length: 30 Minutes.
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 14th. My name is Judy Hughes, and I’m pleased to welcome Oscar Dahl, who has lived and worked in Northbrook since about 1965. Welcome, Oscar.
OD: Thank you, Judy. Pleasure to be here.
JH: I wanted to begin: What is it that brought your family to Northbrook?
OD: I was transferred on my job from Waukegan, Illinois to Chicago. I had drove for a year, and my wife got tired of me getting home real late at night. So we decided to move south, and got to Deerfield and saw a house we liked. The builder was closing the subdivision that he was building. He said that he was opening a subdivision in Northbrook and we ought to go over there and look at his homes that he had there. So it was a lucky break that he had closed Deerfield, and we stumbled into Northbrook and have been… In 1965 we moved in in December and have been happy ever since.
JH: Where’s the house you bought? What subdivision is it?
OD: We’re in Sunset Fields. Sunset Fields was the first subdivision built west of Western Avenue, and it was a cornfield. It was kind of bleak and barren, and the first two days we got in there, a big snowstorm and ice storm came. Power went off for three days. Fortunately, we had a fireplace, and we snuggled up there with the three kids. Ice-skated on the street. Starting to think, Maybe this is not the best place to be. But it turned out to be really the greatest place to be. But that’s how we got into Northbrook.
JH: You mentioned you have three children. They all went to school here in Northbrook?
OD: Correct. I have three boys, Larry, Dean, and Thomas. All went to school in Northbrook. One thing you have to say, when we got here, Northbrook, we were in District 30, and District 30 had two schools, Wescott and Maple, and Maple at that time was where the Heinz ketchup built a plant at and which is now the bread company. There was only a couple rooms in that schoolhouse. My oldest boy went there until they built Maple across the street. School District 30 has been a good district for our kids, and 225, of course, has been an outstanding high school district for our kids. That’s one of the things that I’m not so sure it drew us here, but after we got here we were very fortunate to find out that the school districts were as good as they are.
JH: We have some other good amenities in our town, and you’ve been very involved with one of those, being the Northbrook Park District.
OD: Right. I was fortunate enough to get selected to serve on the Park Board, and I served there for 20 years. Been off now for 6 years. I saw the Park District just grow enormously in that time frame. I will say, when we first moved into Northbrook, the big park, the Village Green Park, really didn’t have any amenities down there for kids. They had a doggone whirly thing that went around and around, made out of metal. You’d fall off of there and you’d get a concussion because it was so hard underneath there. Now Village Green Park is one of finest parks in the state of Illinois. Plus, the other parks that we have, during my time on the Park District I was fortunate enough to serve with 25 different commissioners. All had the best interests of Northbrook at heart. We expanded the Park District. I think some of the things that happened while I was there, we bought the 9 holes from the high school for Sportsman’s, so we have a 27-hole golf course there. We bought the Techny property from the Anetsberger folks and have built a 9-hole golf course there, skate parks, batting cages, ball diamonds, walking trails, just a tremendous place for everybody in the family to have. If you look at the Northbrook Park District and you add in the swimming complex that we have over there, and it’s hooked onto the Techny park, you’ve got almost anything and everything a person could want to do, just in that one location area. That was a big plus. The Park District became a gold medal winner, and that shows that the national people have recognized that Northbrook has one of the finest park districts in the country. We did every playground, and every community has a playground now today that they didn’t have before. There are a lot of good people doing a lot of good things for a lot of good people. The one thing that I’m extremely pleased about in Northbrook that I feel really good about is there are so many good volunteers in Northbrook. You can look at a number of other communities, and they’re always crying about they don’t have enough volunteers. But I can remember when I first started volunteering, my first volunteer job was being a coach in the Little League, and I coached some hockey. Then I went into Boy Scouts. I was a Scout Master for a number of years, and then I went to the Park District. So my life has been one of volunteering, and I got that from my neighbors who were volunteers. It’s just something that once you see that spirit happening in Northbrook, it just grows on you. I’m very fortunate that I was on the Park Board and was there when great strides were made to make it the Park District that it is, and it still is a great Park District and it’s getting better every day.
JH: I sometimes think that people don’t understand the work of a commissioner. Could you talk a little bit about what it’s like to be a commissioner?
OD: The job of a commissioner is really to oversee the professionals doing job. It’s not the job of the commissioner to do the job of the professional but to make sure that the professional is doing the job correctly for the citizens. I would say that we spend probably about 15 to 20 hours a week – a month, I’m sorry – on the Park District activities. If you’re really involved, you have a board meeting. You have committee meetings. You’re going to the events that are happening within the park. I’ve found over my time frame that I would spend that much time on Park District activities. You have to like it. Some people can’t handle it. It is a time commitment, and it is all volunteer. There’s nothing … It’s not a paid position like maybe the village trustees might be, so you do volunteer. If you love it, you’ll do it. If you don’t, you’ll get out in a heartbeat.
JH: The growth of the parks, has it been totally Park District directed, or is it community directed?
OD: It’s both. The community, you get community input. I think a good example right now is what’s happening right today is the community input has got the Park District building a dog park. For many years, the Park District didn’t have the facilities to build the dog park, so the community has continued for probably the last 8 or 9 years pushing the Park District to find a place to do a dog park. That’s one example of where the community does. The professionals in the field of park and recreation, they see the activities that are available in other areas, bring them back to the Board, make a recommendation to the Board, and then the Board makes a decision that that makes a lot of sense to do. In that park, that’s where it’s Board and staff driven. So it’s a combination, and I think in Northbrook it’s worked really well.
JH: We may get back to the parks in a minute, but I know in Northbrook you’ve had a lot of Northbrook Civic involvement.
JH: You want to talk about Northbrook Civic?
OD: This again goes back to volunteerism. Everybody that belongs to the Northbrook Civic Foundation is a volunteer. I joined Northbrook Civic Foundation in 1970, so I’ve been a member for 43 years. My neighbor was a member, got me involved, and working in Northbrook Days originally, we had back in those days, bingo was illegal. We had a carnival operator who had a booth called Ringo. My neighbor ran it, so he brought me in to help run it. Wouldn’t you know it, two days after we opened, this county sheriff came by and closed us down, which was something new and unusual to say that you see the police come in and close your game down. That was my first exposure to the Civic Foundation. Fortunately, over the years I was chairman of Northbrook Days three times. I was president of the Civic Foundation. I’ve done just about every job that the Civic Foundation has, be it the major projects chairman, or the regular projects chairman, or new member chairman. I’ve found that the Northbrook Civic Foundation, which has raised over $2 million now and given back to the community, it’s one of the few that gives everything back. Every dollar they raise goes back into the community. There’s nobody getting paid for anything. It’s the kind of thing that I like to do. I think we’ve given over a million dollars to the park districts. The village has gotten money. The mental health people have gotten money. Little League, the girls softball, basketball: just about anything good that happens in Northbrook. The Civic Foundation has had a part in helping. The library that we’re sitting in here today: The Northbrook Foundation bought to old library so that the village would have enough money to get the down payment on this library, which is an amazing thing in itself that that happened. It’s just a great organization. A lot of great people belong to it. I think the one thing that I personally like to do, and that is to sell Northbrook Days grand prize tickets. Over the years that I’ve been there – I looked this up because I keep good records on this – I have sold enough tickets to bring in $150,000 to the organization and been the leading salesman for many, many years. But it’s only because it motivates me to do good because the organization does good, so I put a feather in my own cap on that one.
JH: I think one of the things that people don’t recognize is that all the money that Civic raises goes back to the community, and one of the ways that they’ve given back to the community and then are giving back to communities for the future is through scholarships.
OD: Correct. I’ve been there 43 years. We weren’t doing scholarships when I first started, but we started scholarships, I’m going to say, about 25, 26 years ago. It started small, but today we’re giving 30 to $40,000 a year in scholarships for kids, and not all those scholarships are meant for those who go to college but those who go to a trade school. So it’s not limited to just those few who are going on to higher education, which is really I think a feather in Civic’s cap that they have seen that as a need, too.
JH: Northbrook Days is the main… is the fundraiser for Civic?
OD: The only one.
JH: The only one. What does Northbrook Days mean to you, and what should it mean to this community?
OD: I think to me it means bringing together the community. It’s one of the only really activity in the community that the youngest child and the oldest person in town can come to and have a good time. To me it’s a bringing together of families, friends, associates. You bring them together not only to come and enjoy the carnival and the other activities that go there, but you bring together people to work together. You bring volunteers to work at the carnival. You get to know people by working with them. When I first started with the Civic and there, we used to have 200-300 volunteers who worked the games, sold the tickets, cleaned the grounds and those things. That’s 200 or 300 people that you never would have got together otherwise if it wasn’t for Northbrook Days. The other thing about Northbrook Days is it’s one of the last remaining events, or festivals, as they like to call them now, on the North Shore that last from Wednesday through Sunday. Some of them have one-day events, but nobody has an event like Northbrook Days, and it’s only because of the really great volunteers in the community coming together to do things. I think that if you looked at the people who serve on the Park District boards, school boards, the village trustees, you find all of them at one time or another came together at Northbrook Days and volunteered at Northbrook Days besides volunteering in their positions that they hold in other areas as volunteers.
JH: We’re doing this interview at the Northbrook Public Library, and there’s a plaque on this wall in this room that says, “In honor of Bertram Pollack,” who was a former Northbrook Days chairman and a president of Northbrook Civic – at that time – Association, that the money donated in his memory from Civic was given to the library to furnish this classroom that we are in. That’s just one example. It’s a long and hard five days that you put in.
OD: Oh, yes. I can remember when it was only three days, and then we went to the carnival vendor, kind of said, “Hey, listen, I’m all set up.” I happened to be the chairman of Northbrook Days at the time, and with the committee we decided, why don’t we open on Wednesday and see what happens? People flocked there on Wednesday, so it became a five-day event back then. Great entertainment comes in. We’ve had some of the biggest-name entertainers in the country, starting with Chubby Checker and Mitch Daniel & the Riders. Of course, we get the Buckinghams every once and a while, and the Ides of March. There’s just been some really great entertainment here, and just great people working over there.
JH: I know when I began this I said that you also worked in Northbrook. What did you do?
OD: I was in the insurance business. I had an insurance agency for 34 years in Northbrook, and I think that’s another reason why I liked to volunteer, because I always felt that Northbrook fed me and clothed me, put a roof over my head, and I owed them something. I still owe them something. I’ll always believe that, and anybody who I speak to, I always tell them that that’s one of the big reasons why I’ve been a volunteer forever, because it was good. The business was good to me. The people in Northbrook who were my clients were very good to me, and so I have to be good to the community.
JH: You talked a lot about volunteering and the importance of volunteering, so let’s talk now a little bit about Northbrook and the way it’s grown over the time you’ve been here. You started out by saying you came to a big snowstorm and you weren’t so sure this was the best place to go. What was it like when you first came here?
OD: There were 8,000 people on the sign when we moved in, and as I mentioned earlier, we were the first subdivision west of Western. There was a few scattered houses, but not too much. The town was just in the start of its really boom when they were building hundreds of houses. It seemed like every time you turned around, a new cornfield was getting turned over. You all came together because you were all new. There were a lot of people coming from all over that had never been in the Midwest before that you became friends with. I want to go back to the volunteerism about Northbrook because that to me has been one of the biggest things about why I like Northbrook. When I was on the Park Board, there was a fellow, a group of people that came from Hong Kong, and they had three places they were going to visit in the United States. One was Northbrook, one was New York, and one was Los Angeles. Their mission was to find out why people in the United States volunteered and why they couldn’t get volunteers in their country. We met here in Northbrook. There was a group of us, five of us with them, and we talked about that. My personal opinion was the reason why Northbrook and the reason why the United States gets volunteers is because we’re a free country. All the other countries are an ism, either a communism or socialism or whatever. There they get paid to do things. Nobody wants to do anything for nothing. Why should I do anything for nothing when the next guy over there gets paid for it? Where in the United States – and I believe Northbrook is a shining example of that – we do it because we want to do it. It’s not because somebody says you got to do this or do that. It’s because we want to do it. I’m still a firm believer in freedom gives us the opportunity to do the things that we want to do, and also gives us the opportunity to do good things for other people.
JH: Let’s talk about the parks again. It’s an award-winning park district. What does that mean?
OD: That means that it’s been judged by the rest of the communities – and this is nationwide now – it’s been judged. They have a selection committee that goes around, looks at the different park districts. You make application for it. I should say that. Then you have to show them what you do, how you do it, why you do it, and if you do it well enough to be judged to be a good park district. Northbrook has for a number of years, at least 28 years, has been doing those kind of things. We do what’s right in Northbrook for the Northbrook people. When the guy from New York and the guy from Los Angeles and the guy from Minneapolis and the guy from Atlanta, they come and visit and they’re the judges of whether or not you’re doing things that are good for the community and you’ve done them in a manner that’s been frugal enough that you qualify to go to the next step, that’s what happens. Then once you go on to the next step, then they’ve got another bunch of people who come and judge, take a look at you. Then they announce winners once a year, and there’s five winners. In Illinois alone, there’s 350 park districts, and throughout the country there’s thousands of park districts. Now if you’re one of the five that are selected to be a gold medal winner, you’ve really done a job, and you have been judged by your peers who have actually come and seen what’s happened and see how you operate, go through your books and that, and you deserve it. There’s no question in my mind that we deserved it back then, and that was in 1999. I happened to be president at the time, of the Park District, so I was extremely proud of the fact that we were selected to be the gold medal winners in our division, and they kept that up. They’re still there, in my opinion, anyhow.
JH: Is there any one thing that you can think about that was the best achievement during your years on the Park Board?
OD: I think the best achievement that happened was the purchasing of the Techny property, and the reason I say that is because there was a large purchase of land. Northbrook’s land-locked. Don’t have a lot of land to … You can’t expand out anyplace, and this was an open area that was available. We were able to pass a referendum to get the money that was necessary to purchase the property, and I personally like to think that it was a crowning achievement for everybody who was on the Board at that time. I know that I had been involved with the state of Illinois’ organization and was able to get $1,600,000 from them towards the purchase of the property as a grant. I would tell you a little story about that. We were in Washington, D.C. at a meeting and we went out to dinner with the head of the Department of Conservation in Illinois with his deputy and there were about six or eight other people. I was the only one from Northbrook. That’s when I met those two guys who were in charge of the grants, and after meeting them – we put our grant in – I became friends with the one, the fellow. I think because of the fact that there was some knowledge between the two of us and some kind of a friendship, we were able to be able to get our grant and our request ahead of somebody else’s. I attribute that to the dinner we had in Washington, D.C., of all places, because we were there to lobby our legislators, at that time on a federal level, for money for the National Parks, and it was just a fluke that we met those guys and we had dinner. But it was helpful to get to know them, and I think that was a big plus in getting the grant from them.
JH: We’re almost at the end of our 30-minute interview. Is there anything about Northbrook you’d like to tell somebody that you haven’t already said?
OD: I would put it in a tip of the cap to this place: Northbrook’s a great place to live. It’s a great place to work. It’s a great place to raise your kids. It’s a great community for schools, parks, recreation. The other thing that I’d like to say to people is that Northbrook has the right type of governmental agencies in it. It has people that are dedicated to the town, it has people that are interested in the town, and it has people that are willing to go above and beyond to make Northbrook the place that it is, which is really just a great place to live.
JH: 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.
OD: Thank you.