Voices from the Past: Fred Dumke
From constant growth to controversy, Oak Lawn’s defining leader guided his town through dramatic change for over 20 years.
As dozens of village officials made their way into a meeting room at the newly renovated Oak Lawn Public Library, many of those present hardly noticed the short man who slowly made his way from the back of the room. Although small in stature and precariously balanced on a pair of crutches, he had been integral in approving the library’s recent addition.
He gingerly made his way to the front of the room as business leaders and prominent citizens took their seats. Finally settling into place next to the current speaker, the sharply dressed man waited and took the podium to deliver a poignant final remark. He spoke about his community’s constant growth and the challenges it faced each day. But Fred Dumke was firm in his commitment to the village. Addressing the crowd of onlookers, he thanked them for their unending support and quickly returned to his seat.
After a thunderous round of applause and many firm handshakes, the mayor, along with his fellow Board of Trustees members, made the short trip across the street to Village Hall. Yet another project had been checked off his list, but there was still much to be done. Settling into his office, Dumke eyed a stack of mail that had accumulated overnight. Knowing that it would be another long day, he rolled up his sleeves and plunged back into his work without saying a word.
Although he grew up on the South Side of Chicago, Dumke moved with his parents to Oak Lawn in 1948, when the community was still an isolated farm town on the outskirts of Cook County. After working several jobs around town, Dumke realized that he wanted to make a career out of serving the village he now called home.
Majoring in business administration at both Northwestern and DePaul University, he returned to Oak Lawn determined to become a public official. He spent much of his adult life in the community, working as an independent manager for several contracting companies. Even with his time divided between work, church, and his family, Dumke found time to keep up on Oak Lawn politics. And when a position on the village board of trustees became vacant, Dumke enthusiastically threw his hat into the race.
Because of his selfless devotion to Oak Lawn and its residents, Dumke easily won the seat, being sworn into office in early 1953.
When he took his place at village hall, Oak Lawn and the surrounding areas were experiencing a population explosion. Tired of overcrowded and inadequate housing, many Chicagoans began relocating to the south suburbs. Dumke and other board members soon spearheaded an aggressive publicity campaign designed to attract prospective homeowners to Oak Lawn. Billboards, radio advertisements and newspapers all showcased Oak Lawn as the perfect place to raise a family.
As requests for building permits flooded into village hall at an alarming rate, the village faced a problem as hundreds of Chicagoans demanded new housing. With a skyrocketing population in urgent need of homes, Dumke devised a plan to address new residents’ needs. Meeting individually with contractors, Dumke had existing structures and apartment buildings modernized without raising taxes. The expansion of Oak Lawn’s sanitation facilities were also completed at no additional expense to residents.
During the population boom of the 1950s, many cities across the nation contracted out the construction of hundreds, if not thousands of inexpensive houses to individual companies. The result was typically miles upon miles of identical homes, with no variation. Trustee Dumke feared that his village would become a mirror image of these subdivisions, and worried that citizens’ individuality and sense of belonging would be lost amidst a sea of prefabricated houses.
Dumke was successful in limiting the number of contractors that were hired to expand Oak Lawn’s housing. Per agreement with village officials, individual firms were assigned to build 25-30 homes under the close supervision of village hall. The result of this effort was evident as the first foundation was poured.
Trustees personally met with each hired contractor and offered suggestions as construction proceeded. The people of Oak Lawn were elated to see their representatives working hard to preserve their town’s close-knit sense of identity.
Impressed with this dedication to his hometown and its residents, Dumke was propelled to the mayor’s office in 1961. Though he was now the undisputed figurehead of Oak Lawn, his down-to-earth persona and strong work ethic ensured that he always did what he thought was in the best interest of his supporters.
Throughout the 1960s, Dumke constantly strived to transform his community into the beating heart of Southland. Under his leadership, new senior housing was built for many Oak Lawn retirees. The police and fire departments grew with the addition of new equipment, funding, and volunteers. Village coffers were filled to capacity as more and more people moved to Oak Lawn. By the end of Dumke’s 16- year stint as mayor, population would grow from a mere 8,500 to an over 62,000.
Though his days were filled with board meetings and appointments, Dumke took time out of his busy schedule to give back to the community. As a member of the Lions Club and the local VFW lodge, he was frequently seen chatting with friends and family at local fundraisers. A deeply religious man, Dumke regularly attended Sunday service at St. Raphael’s Episcopal Church located just off Cicero Avenue.
Mayor Dumke jointly held memberships in the Illinois Municipal League, as well as the Northeast Illinois Planning Commission, an organization that oversaw building projects in Worth, Palos, and Orland Park. He authorized the purchase of 90,000 acres of land just south of Chicago for just over $500 million. This deal helped fulfill a Cook County ordinance that required Oak Lawn to provide nine acres of land for every 1,000 residents.
A stalwart member of the Democratic Party, Dumke participated in numerous municipal conferences, in which mayors from across Illinois met to discuss the challenges facing municipal government. Because of his association with leaders in Chicago, Dumke was widely considered by rivals to be a political “boss,” much like Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and Illinois Governor Otto Kerner. Angered by being mislabeled as a “yes” man for his supporters, Dumke maintained that he only acted on behalf of those he governed.
Despite several controversies that gripped his final years as mayor, Fred Dumke continued to serve Oak Lawn until he stepped down from office in 1977. After his retirement from politics, he worked for the Hancock Engineering Firm; utilizing the knowledge he gained in office to oversee various building projects across the south suburbs.
Although Oak Lawn’s most prominent citizen passed away in 1991, his impact on the community that surrounds us cannot be overlooked. So next time you’re driving down 95th Street, or visiting the public library, take a moment to say a word of thanks to Fred Dumke, the man that made it all possible.
For more information on Fred Dumke and his impact on Oak Lawn, visit the Local History Room of the Oak Lawn Public Library.