Jay Terry, the City’s onetime Health and Human Services Director, joined the City in August of 1989, which happened to be the last year of then-City Manager Joel M. Asprooth’s tenure with the City.

At that time, the City Council chambers was arranged in a horseshoe fashion, with the Mayor, City Manager and City Clerk seated up front, fanning back to the aldermen, than 18 in number, in the next row of seats. City staff members, meanwhile, were seated to the City’s Manager immediate left, with some good naturedly likening their role to a Greek chorus.

 “Back in those days you were expected to stay in the City Council chambers and be respectful,” Mr. Terry recalled. “You were never called, but Joel still wanted you there just in case some obscure factoid came up and you were expected to respond.”

More often than not, though, that was not necessary, Mr. Terry added, “because Joel knew it all. Joel knew every packet [hundreds of pages of documents Council members refer to during City Council meetings], backwards and forwards, and could answer every question himself, and no City Manager I ever worked for came close to that.”

News reached Evanston last week that Mr. Asprooth had died April 22 in Indianapolis. He had moved there in retirement and had been undergoing treatment during a second bout with lymphoma, his son Kurt Asprooth said. He was 67.

A Young City Manager

Succeeding Edward Martin as City Manager in 1982, Mr. Asprooth had not yet turned 30 at the time. He had been working as the City’s Assistant Manager for several years when Mr. Martin accepted the City Manager position in Corpus Christi, Tex.

Under the council-manager form of government adopted by Evanston voters in 1951, the City Manager is the chief executive officer of the City and responsible for Evanston day-to day operations, including hiring and firing. The Council, meanwhile, adopts legislation and makes policy decisions.

Jay Lytle, then the mayor of Evanston, served on the three-member search team that recommended hiring Mr. Asprooth. Initially, when casting about for successor to Mr. Martin, some other Council members raised reservations, such as, “Oh, he’s awfully young to take over a City this size,”  Mr. Lytle recalled. “So then we went out and hired a national search firm and made sure they included Joel, and the Council ended up overwhelmingly deciding at the end that Mr. Asprooth was the best choice.”

At the time of the 14-3 vote approving Mr. Asprooth’s appointment, Mr. Lytle predicted he would bring the “vitality, enthusiasm and energy level that the community needs.”

It was hardly a cakewalk, though. The City was just emerging from a recession, Evanston’s status as the “Headquarters City” was fast changing, with companies moving out for office parks and favorable tax deals and downtown had never really recovered from Old Orchard’s opening, showing nearly 20% vacancy rates.

One area that Council members brought immediate attention to was the City infrastructure, working hand in hand with Mr. Asprooth, said then-Ninth Ward Alderman Don Borah, then one of the Council leaders.

The City had a huge sewer program, replacing Evanston’s aging storm and sanitation sewers, “which had to be planned financially and logistically – that was Joel’s doing,” he said.

From there, officials turned their focus to improvements to the City’s street-lighting systems, and the City yards and buildings, such as the Civic Center, badly in need of upgrades.

The street lighting systems, and repair to Civic Center, and Service Center [now facing major repairs], were among much needed on that list.

A ‘Golden’ Era

“It was a golden era, when we had a remarkably confident staff, a remarkably confident City Manager, and very harmonious relations on the City Council, with a few exceptions, and I think we worked together remarkably well,” Mr. Borah said.

Mr. Asprooth set the bar high, recalled former employees who worked under him.

 “He had a sense of humor. He was smart – he remembered everything,” said Judith Aiello, an Assistant City manager, and the City’s economic development specialist during that period. “He spent a lot of time preparing for City Council meetings. He would talk to what would be characterized as [aldermen on] both sides of the aisles before a meeting. He would talk to Ann [Eighth Ward Alderman Ann Rainey, then just on the Council], and he would talk to Marge Collens [Marjorie Collens, the Seventh Ward alderman] to be prepared for where the landmines were – and that was the way he would be prepared.”

“He was a mentor to many people in the management field,” recalled Judith Witt, the City’s Personnel Director at the time. “He left a lot of people smarter than when they started. He had a great sense of humor.”

The son of a newspaper reporter, he also had a sharp editing pen.

“He could find on find one small error in a five-page memo in about 32 seconds,” Ms. Witt recalled.

“He was good with numbers, he was intellectually acute, he was an extremely good writer,” added Mr. Borah. While he normally held his temper in check, one colleague recalled a time Mr. Asprooth blew off at her for releasing information she was not authorized to release. “Then about two hours later he came in the office and with the most elegant apology she ever heard in her life.”

“That was Joel,” Mr. Borah said.

To Beth Davis, elected to the Council as Third Ward alderman in 1983, he was “the consummate professional City Manager, first of all.”

Ms. Davis, who grew up in a household attuned to City management – her mother Helen Boosalis was Lincoln, Nebraska’s first female mayor – remembered Mr. Asprooth “as a really smart guy, but his command of City finance was, I thought, unparalleled. The budget is not necessarily an enjoyable process but he really made it [in such a way] for the Council to be able to grasp everything they needed on budget and finance issues.  During the budget, aldermen would come up with budget questions and his budget memos were just so clear and comprehensive and educational.”

Ann Rainey, who also joined the Council that year, remembers sitting in the Council’s Administration & Public Works and Planning & Development Committee meetings in those days, and marveling at “how people could ask the most unimportant questions that required the most detailed answer, and he [the City Manager] would have it on the tip of his tongue. He wouldn’t turn to a staff member; he would know the answer,” she said.

With One Exception

The new City Manager’s approach did not resonate as well the with Evanston Firefighters Association, Local 742,  the firefighters union, which had already refused to be intimidated by the aggressive in-your-face management style of Mr. Martin, Mr. Asprooth’s predecessor.

“We had labor issues with him every contract,” recalled Dave Ellis, later the union’s vice president. “In one year we had 110 grievances, one unit clarification case, and we had three unfair labor practices, and one contract arbitration. That was all going on in one year.”

One of the problems in that era “was a unilateral type of management,” he said. At that time, the City’s other labor units were more passive, “and we had to take our political action committee grievance to the Supreme Court of Illinois to have First Amendment rights,” Mr. Ellis recalled.

Mr. Asprooth definitely brought “a sense of leadership,” he said. “I didn’t agree with his policies, but he was definitely a strong City Manager. He led the City in the direction he wanted, and he had the consensus of the aldermen to follow his decisions. A lot of things didn’t work out but he was able to prevail in a lot of things,” too.

There were occasional skirmishes with the local press, young like Mr. Asprooth too, and whose ways Mr. Asprooth was sympathetic, or wary of because of his father.

Tom Lassiter, a reporter at the time, remembers going to Asprooth’s office for an interview and craning over to look at some documents on his desk while it was briefly unattended.
“Oh, you can read upside too,” said Mr. Asprooth, returning, no doubt knowing that was an acquired trait for some reporter.
On the other hand, recalled Mr. Lassiter who went in to an award-winning career with the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, “he was very good at explaining how budgets  worked. I really learned from him how to read a budget and what was behind the numbers. That came in very handy, especially because many reporters find budgets and numbers boring.
The skill proved “critical to some of the investigative stuff I did later,” he said.

Economic Resurgence

One of those areas was economic development, where Evanston was surfacing from its loss as the preeminent retail center on the North Shore to Old Orchard Shopping Center and a nearly 20 percent vacancy rate downtown.

In 1982, when developers Buck and Irvine failed to obtain long-term financing on a project for the Downtown 2 area [later the movie-theater project], they were required to pay a $500,000 letter of credit to the City.

That money became a trigger for later redevelopment, which included some of the first office buildings of the modern era at 1800 Sherman Ave., and development of an underutilized west of downtown [the present location of movie theaters, Hilton Garden Inn and a City-owned parking garage], then a mud-splattered tract of land housing the City yards.

By 1984, City officials were in discussion with Northwestern University on the development of a science research park on the underutilized land.

The concept never really succeeded. To make way for the project, though, aldermen approved the creation of a Tax-Increment Financing district for that area, opening “the door for financing to assist public improvements and private/institutional investment in the area, and for the elimination of longstanding blighting influences,” observed Robert Teska in his history of that period,  Downtown Evanston Revitalized (teskaassociates.com).

The TIF the Mr. Asprooth, Ms. Aiello and aldermen such Jon Nelson helped get through “was ultimately the tool that led to the whole development of the triangle, and ultimately led to the whole growth of Evanston’s tax base,” said Alderman Art Newman, member of a later City Council that backed the movie theater/retail development. “We got a lot of other things: We got a new hotel, we got a new parking garage which was paid for out of the TIF.”

The City was even able to tap the funds to finance the move of the Levy Senior Center, then located in an uninspiring one story building in the downtown area, to a new building at the edge of James Park.

Other projects were set in motion under Mr. Asprooth’s steady hand included the new public library at Orrington Avenue and Church Street, and Rotary International’s move into 1500 Sherman Ave., after American Hospital Supply Corporation pulled out.

A new multimodal transportation center incorporating the CTA, Pace, Metra and taxis, satisfying “a goal of Evanston for several decades,” finally took root in 1987, Mr. Teska noted.

In 1987, the City brought in a consultant team to prepare a feasibility study and design guidelines for the new 112,000-square-foot library – with Mr. Asprooth and City facilities head, the late Max Rubin backing a novel two-phase construction plan, keeping library services going during the interim period.

Ms. Davis also recalled Mr. Asprooth’s awareness of Evanston’s “place within a region. “I think especially, going out of Chicago, communities can be very insular,” she said.

“But Joel had an early view that regions that we “need to work with communities – Chicago and the whole regional community,” which really was not in vogue back then, she said.

The City brought in Larry Suffredin, today a Cook County Commissioner, to represent Evanston interests in Springfield.

The relationship resulted in the replacement of three dilapidated viaducts and other gains the City might not have had otherwise.

“What I remember is, he was one of the hardest working people and just constantly wanted to make sure that whatever we do in Evanston, it was the best for the people, best for the employees,” Mr. Suffredin said.

In 1990, Mr. Asprooth left the City to become vice president for finance at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Lew Collens, whose wife Marjorie Collens served on the Council, recruited Mr. Asprooth for the position.

For Mr. Collens, it was an easy choice.

 “My wife was so admiring of him,” he said. “I had been hearing Joel Asprooth stories for years. I developed an extraordinary appreciation for his abilities, tactical insight, analytical [skills],” said Mr. Collens.

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.