Despres, Chicago activist, honored with Benton MedalBy Jennifer Carnig
Leon Despres, a former Chicago alderman and community activist, received the Benton Medal for Distinguished Public Service during a lunch at the Quadrangle Club on Wednesday, Sept. 28. The Benton Medal, created by the University Trustees in 1967 to honor Sen. William Benton on the occasion of his 25th anniversary as chairman and publisher of Encyclopedia Britannica, is presented “to honor the most extraordinary service to the field of education and to the University.” This field includes “not only teachers but also...everyone who contributes in a systematic way to shaping minds and disseminating knowledge.”
Despres, considered the liberal conscience of Chicago politics for decades, was born in Chicago in 1908, attended the University Laboratory Schools, and graduated from the College in 1927 and the Law School in 1929.
“I have seen, heard, talked to or worked with every president of the University since Harry Pratt Judson, and on,” Despres said. Judson was the second president of the University, serving from 1906 to 1923.
In addition to attending school at the University, Despres taught at the University, had children who attended school here, and his wife, Marian Aschuler Despres, earned her doctoral degree here. “We fell in love at the University of Chicago,” he said.
The honor “means an unusual amount to me,” he continued. “My life has been entwined with the University of Chicago since 1911 when I moved to Hyde Park. So this is like a confirmation of a long and valuable relationship.”
In 1955, Despres was elected to the Chicago city council to represent Hyde Park as 5th-Ward Alderman, the same year that Alderman Paddy Bauler famously uttered: “Chicago ain’t ready for reform.” But that is exactly what Despres delivered.
One of the few independents on the council and the most liberal alderman in the city, Despres ushered in 20 years of reform efforts. His demand to cut out the corrupt sale of city driveway permits made him enemies from the very beginning, particularly among the administration of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley.
Over the years, Despres, 97, has crusaded to ban discrimination, preserve Chicago landmark buildings and gain equality for African-Americans. After serving for 20 years with great distinction as alderman, Despres worked as a parliamentarian for the Jane Byrne and Harold Washington administrations, as well as an attorney, teacher and lecturer.
He also is the author of the recently released Challenging the Daley Machine: A Chicago Alderman’s Memoir. In his political memoir, Despres offers a first-person account of the corruption and cronyism that defined Chicago politics, and his efforts to stand up to the machine, frequently facing 49-to1 defeats on Chicago’s city council.
This is only the eighth time the Benton Medal has been awarded. Following the inaugural medal given to William Benton, the medal was presented in 1972 to Paul Hoffman, who, as administrator of the Marshall Plan, engineered Europe’s economic recovery after World War II. In 1976, it was awarded to Hermon Dunlap Smith, former chairman and chief executive officer of the Marsh and McLennan insurance firm, who was known for his lifelong support of social service work both at the University and in the community. In 1996, Katherine Graham, chairman of the Washington Post Company and an advocate for First Amendment rights, received the Benton Medal.
In 1997, the medal was given to Geoffrey Canada, president and chief executive officer of the Rheedlan Centers for Children and Families in New York, and a pioneer in creating social programs for inner-city youths, and to Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist John Callaway. The medal was most recently awarded in 1999 to U.S. Sen.Paul Simon (D-Ill.), the two-term senator and presidential aspirant, who died in 2003.