May 14, 2009
Vol. 28 No. 16

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    Former Alderman and Activist Dies

    Leon Despres, a former Chicago alderman and activist, died Wednesday in his Hyde Park home. He was 101.

    Despres, who represented Hyde Park in the city council, was considered the liberal conscience of Chicago politics for decades. He was born in Chicago in 1908, attended the University Laboratory Schools and graduated from the College in 1927 and the Law School in 1929.

    Despres continued his association with the University of Chicago and received the University’s Benton Medal for Distinguished Public Service in 2005.

    “I have seen, heard, talked to or worked with every president of the University since Harry Pratt Judson, and on,” Despres said at the time he received the award.

    Judson was the second president of the University, serving from 1906 to 1923.
    In addition to attending the University, Despres taught at Chicago, his children attended there, while his late wife, Marian Aschuler Despres, earned her doctoral degree there. “We fell in love at the University of Chicago,” he said at the Benton Medal ceremony.

    “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.”

    Despres was elected to the Chicago city council to represent Hyde Park as 5th Ward Alderman in 1955, 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 crusaded to ban discrimination, gain equality for African-Americans and preserve Chicago landmark buildings.

    The Hyde Park Historical Society awarded the 2008 Marian and Leon Despres Preservation Award to the University of Chicago Medical Center for the “excellent restoration” of the facade and the first-floor main lobby of the American School of Correspondence Building, 850 E. 58th St.

    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 was also the author of 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, while frequently facing 49-to-1 defeats on Chicago’s city council.

    Survivors include a son, Robert; a daughter, Linda Baskin; and a grandson.

    Services will be held 1 p.m. Sunday, May 31 at KAM Isaiah Israel, 1100 E. Hyde Park Blvd.