Saturday, February 02, 2008

Happy Birthday, Len Despres

Alderman Leon Despres, one of the greatest Chicagoans in the city’s history, turns 100 today. You can do a lot in a hundred years, the more so if you’re relentlessly active, and “Len,” as he is known around the neighborhood, has combined longevity with alacrity for life and the pursuit of social justice to amass a list of accomplishments that no mere blog post could hope to summarize properly.

He is perhaps best known for the twenty years (1955-75) he spent representing Hyde Park and vicinity in the Chicago City Council as the 5th Ward alderman, most of which time he was the lone voice of dissent in that (ahem) great deliberative body against The Boss, Mayor Richard J. Daley. As a firebrand opponent of Daley’s autocratic rule, Despres so unnerved DaMare that his microphone was often turned off from the podium while he was in the middle of a speech.

Well beyond that, however, Leon Despres has been a tireless activist for progressive causes—labor, civil rights, women’s rights, political reform, economic justice—for more than 70 years. He had already earned enough respect in town by 1937 that he was asked to speak at the protest rally following the Memorial Day Massacre in South Chicago that year. And the people he’s met! He went horseback riding with Trotsky and took Frida Kahlo on a date to the movies.

And he’s never stopped. He was near 80 when I used to see him on the CTA in the mid-1980s, heading toward the Loop, where he was parliamentarian to a very different mayor, Harold Washington, sitting at Harold’s right hand (or was it the left?) during City Council meetings.

Happy birthday, Len. And thanks.

You can read, see and hear more about Leon Despres:

WBEZ’s Eight Forty Eight
Chicago Tribune (don’t miss the video)
Chicago Afternoons with Leon, by Kenan Heise
Despres’s 2005 book, Challenging the Daley Machine
Video: Beyond Haymarket and Pullman, in which Despres discusses Memorial Day Massacre