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The Keepers of the Past

For generations, one Oak Lawn Family recalls their hometown’s transformation through the years.

On a frigid afternoon in the 1930's, several boys dashed past an open country road, precariously stepping over an ice-encrusted fallen tree.  After tossing snowballs back and forth, they discarded their heavy winter boots in favor of worn ice skates.  While they glided across the frozen lake, they were joined by numerous local families.  After a tiring, but enjoyable evening of fun, one of the boys, Bob Philbin, squinted to see the familiar peaked cap of an Oak Lawn Parks Department officer approaching.

Through careful negotiation and compromise, the officer returned to his post, having allowed the boys to skate for another hour before shutting off the street lights.  Collecting their belongings after their time was up, the boys retired to a neighbor’s home to warm up with some frothy hot chocolate.

Many decades later, a similar scene played out in Oak Lawn as a group of children rode their bikes down Cook Avenue, gathering friends as they went.  Stopping at Wolfe’s Bakery for a mid-afternoon treat, Bob Philbin Jr. spent his carefree weekends playing tag and hitting a few balls at the baseball diamond.

When Oak Lawn Patch visited the Philbins’ quiet home in Oak Lawn, they reminisced about simpler times, when family and friends rarely locked their doors at night.  Before the massive population surge of the 1960’s and 1970’s, the community was far from the busy suburb that it is today. 

Bob Sr. can trace back his family’s history in Oak Lawn for five generations.  Great-grandfather Patrick Flynn helped build the original Wabash train station, now located off 95th Street, back in the 1880’s.  Other relatives helped during the construction of St. Gerald’s Catholic Church, as well as the first Oak Lawn post office (now the location of Krauss’ Gaslight Lounge).

“Back in those days, we kids had to find our own fun.  Hunting rabbits in the fields was a frequent activity.  We also spent countless hours building and rebuilding forts out of old tree branches,” Bob Sr. recalled.

Upon completing his education at Sward School and Oak Lawn High School, he served his country as a medic in Vietnam. Bob had the unfortunate luck of arriving back home mere days before a cataclysmic tornado struck the community in April 1967. As neighbors and friends huddled in their basements and root cellars, the courageous veteran walked outside to see what all the commotion was about. When asked by Oak Lawn Patch if he had ever feared for his life that day, his answer was characteristic of a hard-working man that had just returned from active duty.

“I figured that if I had survived combat in Vietnam for so long, a tornado would be no problem. Besides, my homecoming party had been planned for that day, so I needed to see what had postponed it.”

The destructive storm soon passed, but left in its wake millions of dollars of damage and numerous causalities. Bob’s phone rang just as the clouds were clearing. It was the Oak Lawn Police Department, looking for volunteers to help dig residents out of the rubble that used to be their homes. Without hesitation, Philbin spent the next few days administering to the injured, putting his military training to use yet again.

Throughout those hectic days, the Johnson-Phelps VFW lodge served as a makeshift morgue as more and more victims arrived.  The ever-present image of Mayor Fred Dumke, still balanced on a pair of crutches due to a Polio infection, inspired Bob Sr. to work on, despite the long hours of arduous work.

His experience would lead Philbin to work as an ambulance driver in Oak Lawn. To this day, he holds the record as the longest-serving emergency driver in the community.  An impressive feat, he was quick to point out to Oak Lawn Patch that he was only “doing his job to help others”.

By the time Bob Jr. was growing up in the early 1970’s, much had changed in Oak Lawn, but the sense of close-knit relationships still remained.

The annexation of the towns of Grandview and Columbus Manor added thousands more residents and greatly expanded the village limits.  This transformation brought even more bus and train routes that linked the heart of Southland to Chicago.  New businesses moved in and replaced locally-owned stores that had been around for generations. Even in spite of the rapid change from sleepy farm town to bustling suburb, Bob Jr. still has fond memories of growing up.

“My brother Mike and I used to deliver newspapers from the seats of our bikes.  I covered the area from 52nd Avenue to Tully and was always grateful when Mike would step in if I got sick”.

“And don’t forget that I always covered for both of your butts when neither of you could do it!” Bob Sr. playfully interjected.

Amid warm memories and numerous laughs, the Philbins made me feel instantly at home.  When asked to say what stuck out in their minds about their respective Oak Lawn childhoods, both were quick to respond. Not only was it a great place to raise a family, it was the small-town atmosphere that gave the community its unique charm.

“The Oak Lawn of the past resembled Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show in every way,” Bob Jr. remarked.

Thinking for a moment, this columnist can easily picture a father and son leisurely strolling down to the Oak Lawn Lake for a brief fishing trip.  It was a simpler time, but one that the Philbins say they were privileged to live in.

OakLawnGuy March 01, 2011 at 02:18 PM
I'd love it if some of your interviewees shared photographs that illustrate what the area looked like back in those days.
Lorraine Swanson (Editor) March 01, 2011 at 03:49 PM
That's a great idea, OakLawnGuy. The Oak Lawn Public Library's Local History Room, a must-see for anyone who loves Oak Lawn, has thousands of historic photos, such as the ones included with this story. The library has been generous is sharing them with Patch. If you or any reader would like to scan photos and send them Patch, or talk to our Patch history dude, Adam Bednar, please contact me at lorraine.swanson@patch.com.
OakLawnGuy March 01, 2011 at 03:51 PM
I've been to the History Room, and have browsed the photos at the Library's site. We live in one of the oldest houses in town and I'd be very interested in seeing how my immediate area looked back in the day.
Lorraine Swanson (Editor) March 01, 2011 at 03:59 PM
I know Adam has been eyeing writing about some of the older homes. Shoot me an email with your address and we'll look into it.
Adam Bednar March 01, 2011 at 07:19 PM
This is an excellent idea. The Local History Room currently has an outstanding exhibit showcasing many historic homes. I am always on the lookout for interesting article topics. From what the Philibins told me, the Oak Lawn of the past was VERY different from the community of 2011. Please feel free to email Lorraine or myself. You never know, there might be another story to uncover!
Bob March 01, 2011 at 07:31 PM
This article has to be put in the History Room on the wall! Bob Philbin
Bob March 01, 2011 at 07:39 PM
Feel free to e-mail me you can get my e-mail address from the author. Bob Philbin Jr.
Stones March 01, 2011 at 10:51 PM
A while back the library published pretty cool historical book on the town with a load photos and stories.
Bob March 02, 2011 at 10:40 PM
There are a lot of wrong things in that book! Trust me!
Carl Stahl November 23, 2012 at 09:41 PM
It seems like I was around the town for a little while. It seems like I was around 98th & 52nd for a while. Dicemaker Carl

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