Evanston’s former Third Ward alderman William E. “Ned” Lauterbach was a big man in Evanston. Sure, he was well over six feet tall, but it was not the size but rather the big-hearted personality that won people over. As friend and former Ninth Ward alderman Dona Gerson said, “He was so big. He did so much. His warm smile just beamed, inviting you in.” Aldermanic colleague Don Borah simply said, “He was a marvel of a man.”
Mr. Lauterbach passed away in his sleep Feb. 2 at the age of 92. His wife Albe passed away in 2012, but he is survived by five children – Steve, Stew, Christine, Katherine and Amy – and four grandchildren. A memorial service will be held Feb. 28 at Evanston’s First United Methodist Church.
Mr. Lauterbach was an engineer, but one who understood both infrastructure and people. He could grasp the problem, wrestle it to the ground and get everyone into the act so they all worked on and owned the solution. As a result, his aldermanic legacy is broad and meaningful, including two dramatically different transformations — the modernization of our city sewers and the conversion of a closed elementary school into a fine arts mecca.
If you’ve ever been to Evanston’s Noyes Cultural Arts Center – whether you went to an art exhibit, a play, dance class or summer camp – you can thank Mr. Lauterbach. Back in June 1976, Evanston School District 65 closed the Noyes Elementary School and planned to sell the property to developers. The 1892 building, designed by Daniel Burnham, was heading for oblivion. Instead, Ald. Lauterbach proposed that the City of Evanston preserve the old school and turn it into a community art center. His idea won out. The City bought the school but agreed to cover only half the cost of renovation. Ald. Lauterbach and proponents from all over the City mounted a vigorous campaign to raise the needed funds. In the bargain, the City also gained the four-acre Tallmadge Park.
When Ald. Lauterbach joined the City Council in 1975, many Evanston residents still suffered from flooded basements after hard rainstorms. That year the new Third Ward alderman was appointed the first chairman of the city’s Flood and Pollution Control Commission, marking the beginning of the end of what Alderman Edmund Moran once called “the era of floating washing machines and dryers.”
This commission soon oversaw a $200 million public works project that completely overhauled the city sewer system. “It was huge,” Ald. Borah said recently. “It took years to improve sanitation and end flooding. We replaced sewers all over town, separating storm pipes from sewer pipes and building tunnels that linked up with the Deep Tunnel.”
Mr. Lauterbach headed the commission for all eight years of his two terms as alderman and in 1990 was invited back to serve for 17 more years as a citizen member. In 2007, after almost 30 years, the commission was finally dissolved, mission accomplished, and the city recognized his contribution to dry basements and clean water with a commemorative plaque.
Mr. Borah praised his friend and City Council colleague as “visionary, hard-working and conscientious” with a valuable background as an engineer. But just as important in making him so productive, he said, was “Ned’s thoughtfulness and kindness.” In particular, he said, these special qualities “helped Ned reshape the city’s Human Services Committee” and led to creating a whole new city Department of Human Services.
Around the time he decided not to run for office again in 1983, a group of retired aldermen started getting together together once a month over beer and popcorn to hash over all things Evanston. Mr. Lauterbach looked forward to solving City and world problems with his so-called Beer & Popcorn pals, that in time included Adele Neems, Beth Davis, Betty Papangelis, Bob Romain, Dave Ream, Don Borah, Dona Gerson, Edna Summers, Jake Bleavens, Marge Collins, Maxine Lange, Sandy Gross and Sue Brady.
Ned and Albe Lauterbach were stalwarts of the Democratic Party of Evanston, helping to organize and support many a political campaign, but his interests went beyond politics. In 1963 he and Albe were founding members of the Lake Shore Unitarian Society. He also served on the board of Youth Organizations Umbrella (Y.O.U) and Housing Options for the Mentally Ill in Evanston.
Y.O.U.’s founder and long-time head, Don Baker, said Mr. Lauterbach was a big help to non-profit agencies. “He was unpretentious, focused and fair; he asked questions, gave everyone respect and always made sure any group funded by the city was evaluated and held accountable. He was glad to support us once he understood our mission,” Mr. Baker said, “but he always made sure the city got its money’s worth.”
Melissa Wynne, current Third Ward alderman, said, “I really admire Ned’s service to the City. He spearheaded the long-range sewer plan for the City, which was a $200 million project. We’re a generation ahead of other communities, due to his leadership. He was thoroughly committed to the community in so many ways, and he really had a joy for life.”
In 2010, the City Council recognized the Lauterbachs’ contributions to Evanston by naming a street in their honor. Lauterbach Way is on the 700 block of Forest between Kedzie and Keeney streets, where the Lauterbach’s lived from 1961 to 2009, before moving to the Mather.
At home on Forest, Mr. Lauterbach reveled in his basement workshop and the many home improvement projects he worked on, building everything from bunkbeds to tree houses and handling plumbing and electrical repairs.
Mr. Lauterbach grew up in Kewanee, Illinois, and earned a mechanical engineering degree from Antioch College in Ohio, where he met his future wife, Alberta Johnson (1922-2012). After graduation in 1945, they got married and came to live in Chicago’s Rogers Park. In 1961, the Lauterbach family, which by then included five children, moved to Evanston.
Mr. Lauterbach, who also completed graduate work in engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology, worked as a sales manager and engineer for Dole Refrigerating Company, where he earned several patents for designs of truck refrigeration units. In the mid-1970s when Dole left town, he moved to Douglas & Lomason truck body company. He belonged to the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers.
“He always had an engineer’s mind,” said Ald. Gerson, “organized and logical. He even liked the long-term planning needed for jobs like updating the sewers.” She recalled many family trips camping with the Lauterbachs in Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine where Ned’s meticulous preparation paid off. “Even at the Mather,” Ms. Gerson said, “Ned was still engineering things. He was in charge of the residents’ bulletin boards here, and he lined up all the flyers and announcements so perfectly, so straight, that we kidded him he must have used a level.”
Despite Mr. Lauterbach’s innate need for careful planning, the Lauterbachs were inveterate adventurers — camping, hiking and traveling. Nonetheless, Christine Lauterbach said her parents never traveled outside the U.S., except for Canada, until their kids gave them a trip to Machu Picchu to mark their 65th birthdays. By the time he retired in 1992 and they had time to travel, they were already in their 70s, but they made up for lost time over the next two decades, managing trips to places like Burma, Turkey, Costa Rica, Panama, Thailand and Vietnam. And they didn’t do it the easy way. No tour groups for them. Unlike most people their age, Ald. Gerson said, “Mr. and Mrs. Lauterbach never traveled in groups or made hotel reservations past the first night. That was a rule they followed to make sure they’d talk to the locals and find out the best places to stay and eat.”