Invited to address the Levy Senior Center Men’s Club in October 1986, Fourth Ward Alderperson Evelyn Raden did not speak about gun control, nuclear disarmament, life in the U.S.S.R., or any of the usual topics the group batted around in those days.
Instead her topic was discrimination, and Ms. Raden brought along with her an opinion from the City’s legal department on why the all-men club was illegal.
Ms. Raden had been invited to speak to the group several months before by a representative of the center, she said.
“I have to say at the time he called me I didn’t realize the invitation was from an exclusive men’s club,” she said. “I thought I was going to talk to all the senior citizens.”
Rather than cut and run, Ms. Raden then stayed for a roundtable discussion, airing both sides of the issue.
The alderperson relished taking on challenges and did it with a flourish; in this case, she was responding to a call she had received from one of the women members of the center, complaining she was barred from hearing a popular lecturer speak.
Evelyn “Evie” Sherman Raden, a relentless advocate for social causes and friend and mentor to a later generation of some of the City’s most important activists and politicians, died May 11 after a long illness. She was 82.
A Reluctant Candidate
Initially, Ms. Raden had little interest in running for office, said her son Tony Raden, in a eulogy at his mother’s funeral. “She had been active in the Civil Rights movement and a crusader for women’s rights. Demonstrations, rallies, political marches and campaigns were a constant part of our childhood,” he recalled, adding: “She had me in a stroller at the protests at the 1968 Convention.”
When Connie Fitzsimons, the longtime alderperson in Ms. Raden’s ward, announced she was retiring and asked Ms. Raden to succeed her in 1981, Ms. Raden initially demurred, said her son.
“And she only relented when she realized that a stealth Republican would be the likely winner,” he said.
“I still remember her first debate, which was held at the gym at the Robert Crown Center,” said Mr. Raden, whose own career has been in childhood development and public policy.
“Her voice quivered, her hands trembled. Her obvious fear and unease made the 13-year-old me want to intervene to end this risky venture to protect her. But in the days and weeks that followed, something shifted significantly and profoundly inside her.
“The next time I saw her talk before a crowd,” he said, “she spoke extemporaneously, assertively with what would become her trademark, directness, and humor.”
On the Council, Ms. Raden challenged the new City administration on budget cuts, suggesting aldermen were not being presented with a full list of options.
She advocated for programs which did not have big constituencies, such as the Youth Job Center of Evanston, struggling to survive, and Hecky Powell’s Neighbors at Work’s painting and carpentry training program.
The supporters of a Youth Job Center were seeking funding from the City after Evanston Township High School had eliminated popular director Ann Jennett’s position at the high school.
Ms. Jennett recalled that the then new Council member in 1981 “did everything she could to get the Job Center off the ground with the City Council.”
Ms. Raden brought “enormous energy and vigor” to the task, Ms. Jennett said. “She could see both sides of an issue and know how to play the game to get stuff done.”
Members of the Evanston Fire Fighters Union also appreciated the fight Ms. Raden led against the City closing fire stations in a cost-cutting plan.
At a testimonial “roast,” held after Ms. Raden’s Council service had ended, she blushed as she tried on the oversized firefighter’s helmet that firefighters had presented as a token of their appreciation.
“On the City Council I’m viewed as the member that started fires,” she said. “It’s nice to know there are people that understand I was trying to put out fires.”
She did start a few fires, though, releasing documents marked confidential on several occasions she thought should be made public.
Together, with Jack Korshak, her fellow aldermperson, the two raised objections to the semi-private nature of the City’s pact with Northwestern University to develop a research park just west of downtown, where the movie theaters and other businesses are today. The project eventually fizzled but did set the stage for the later development of that part of downtown.
Jay Lytle, the mayor at the time, recalled the Council member “was passionate about everything.”
He acknowledged their differences on issues, particularly on economic development and officials focus on redeveloping the 22-acre research park.
That was not necessarily a bad thing, said the former mayor, noting challenges posed by Ms. Raden and others “can be a healthy thing in a political environment.”
On social policy issues, he said the two were more on the same page.
In fact, Mr. Lytle left the door open for support of one of the Alderperson’s references that might have had the most lasting impact.
Citizens’ First Speak-Out Slot
Six months into her first term, Ms. Raden argued that citizens ought to be able to address the Council through the establishment of a special speak-out slot on the Council agenda.
“I’m guessing at the beginning of Council meetings, before the Council votes on anything,” she said, making her reference to the Committee on Committees, then the Council’s rule-making body. “When citizens come down to City Hall on an issue,” she explained, “I think they must feel pretty strong about it. It certainly would give the community more input into the process.”
The proposal faced resistance. One Council member raised concern that adding the feature would open up the doors to the City’s “yahoos.”
The reference ultimately, though, went through. The 15 minutes that Ms. Raden initially suggested has grown to 45 minutes currently and has become a key channel for Evanston residents to express their views.
Many of Ms. Raden’s proposals were hatched away from City Council chambers, recalled son Tony in his eulogy.
His mother was raised in Chicago’s Albany Park, a neighborhood comprised largely of first- and second-generation Jewish immigrants, he said.
“Her family had little material wealth, but abundant emotional warmth, generosity, and laughter,” he said.
During his mother’s activist years, he said, “at times it seemed like much of the progressive politics of Evanston of that era were plotted at our kitchen table, where she spent innumerable hours on the phone every day, ranting and scheming with her many co-conspirators,” he said.
“She loved solving problems for her constituents. But the quality of what set her apart was her absolute refusal to remain quiet. When she thought regular people were being harmed by political decisions or by destructive policies or systems, she was fearless in speaking out, in battling for change. She could probably just wear people down with her tenacity. And she was always willing to go it alone, when she was felt, felt it was necessary to speak truth to power.”
Ms. Raden’s actions, particularly the passion she brought to issues, would influence others moving into public service.
She was an early supporter of Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky. “Evelyn was a longtime friend of mine,” said Ms. Schakowsky last week. “She was my alderman and was always a great Evanston booster.”
After Ms. Raden’s retirement from the Council, Ms. Schakowsky noted, “Whether or not you agree with her, you have to be proud that Evelyn has been there fighting with passion, with conviction. She was someone you knew who really cared.”
Arthur Newman, Alderperson of the City’s First Ward from 1991 to 2005, said he met Ms. Raden during the 1980s and watched how she handled issues on the City Council.
“She stuck up for the little guy,” he said. “She was unbelievably passionate about Evanston. She read materials thoroughly, she asked great questions. She never had ulterior motives other than public service.”
Ann Rainey, whose service as alderperson for the City’s southeast Eighth Ward recently ended after 34 years, said Ms. Raden was part of a group urging her to run for office in 1983 against an opponent then backed by that ward’s political establishment.
“I didn’t understand the importance of it at time but as time wore on I realized how important these people were,” she said.
Ms. Rainey said Ms. Raden also gave her a tutorial on dealing with constituent issues, in a driving tour around Ms. Raden’s own ward.
“I went to visit a tree in her ward at least five times in one week,” Ms. Rainey remembered. “I didn’t know what this particular tree was or who the constituent was but I had to go look at this tree.”
“She was insufferable when she got in an issue,” Ms. Rainey said, adding: “We were cut from the same cloth. She was older than I was but we had the same feelings about those things.”
“It’s a great loss, really,” Ms. Rainey said. “She was a public figure that has never been duplicated and probably never will be.”
Dinner Parties and Hecky’s Late Arrival
Ms. Raden was also an early supporter of Hecky Powell, dating back to his days as executive director of Neighbors at Work, a social service agency that provided food, utility, and housing support to needy Evanston residents.
The two and their families became closer after Hecky and wife Cheryl Judice moved across the street about 30 years ago.
“You know, Evelyn was a phenomenal cook,” recalled Ms. Judice. “She made the best brisket.”
One year, on the Jewish Passover holiday, the Powell family joined Evelyn and her family at their house for the meal – all except Hecky that is, recalled Cheryl.
The food was ready, J.B. Pritzker, then an Evanston resident, was among the guests, and Hecky had not shown up, recalled Cheryl.
“Where the heck was Hecky?” they wondered.
Hecky did arrive, she said, and had a pretty compelling reason for his lateness, Ms. Judice said.
“I just met the first Black Vice President of the United States,” he announced.
Barack Obama, then not well known, had been advised to meet with Hecky and get advice on getting wider backing after meeting resistance in Chicago, Ms. Judice said.
“Somebody told Obama, ‘You need to go to Evanston, because the Black folks in Chicago are going to give you a rough time,” she said. “Go talk to him [Hecky]. Maybe you can get some traction up there.”
“He [Hecky] told everybody at the table about this,” Ms. Judice said.
She said Ms. Raden’s support of her friend Hecky was steadfast and continued after he received a liver transplant about 10 years ago.
“She would be over with enough food to feed an army,” she said.
“You know, Evie was one of those personalities; she was not politically correct,” observed Cheryl. “She didn’t kowtow to silliness. When she supported you, there was no half way about it. She supported you.”
Ms. Raden is survived by her husband of 59 years, Bernard Raden; her son Tony and daughter Lisa; her brother Mark, grandsons Theo and Levi Raden; and countless friends.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorial contributions be made to the Forrest E. Powell Foundation or Youth Job Center.
A celebration of Ms. Raden’s life is planned for later in the year.