Barbara O’Connor, a foot soldier for the independent politics of Hyde Park from its modern inception in the 1950s, died on Jan. 12 at the age of 89 from cancer.
O’Connor worked for U.S. Rep. Abner Mikva (D-1st), Mayor Harold Washington, Barack Obama before he was elected president and many others,
Born in Chicago, she attended Catholic high school, Loyola University and what is today St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. A list of forebears and survivors was not immediately available.
Her community involvement spanned seven decades; she moved to the neighborhood around 1957 because she admired its racial diversity. By 1960, she was a block director of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference (HPKCC), giving lectures on how to organize block groups, formed as the HPKCC tried to quell the moral panic about the neighborhood’s integration.
An avid gardener — in 1974, her third-story apartment notwithstanding, she reportedly grew corn, eggplant, melons, tomatoes and lettuce — she worked on the HPKCC Garden Fair for decades as head of the herb department. She was also an avid knitter and nature photographer and associated with the former Artisans 21 gallery in Harper Court.
Her community involvement also included the Catholic Interracial Council, the Harper Court Foundation and the Illinois Commission on Human Rights, for which she worked as a consultant. In 1970, she was among the scores who rallied to prevent the liquidation of the Hyde Park Credit Union. They raised $300,000, and it survived, merging with the United Credit Union, 1526 E. 55th St., in 1989.
Fears about integration in Hyde Park and the neighborhood’s urban renewal programs had largely ended by 1977, when O’Connor was running to be on HPKCC board of directors. She said the HPKCC, then in decline from its mid-1960s peak, needed to raise funds in order to concentrate on community projects and pilot programs to improve the quality of urban life. She advocated for a cultural center at the former South Shore Country Club, 7059 S. South Shore Drive. The idea came to fruition by the end of the decade.
“In our quest for a stable community, we must not force housing prices so high that we lose our splendid mixture of people,” she wrote in her statement of candidacy. She was made full-time executive director in 1982 and aimed to increase HPKCC block organizations, membership and fundraising.
“People are beginning to realize that the problems of the neighborhood haven't gone away: they’ve just shifted a bit,” she said. “We’re out to revive the sense of community which has always characterized Hyde Park.”
Membership grew from 100 to more than 1,000, but the organization’s financial problems persisted, and O’Connor was laid off along with two-thirds of her staff in 1983. But O’Connor used the opportunity to begin work for Washington’s mayoral bid. It was nothing new: she had been doing political work since she was a teenager, when she worked for Aldai Stevenson’s 1948 gubernatorial campaign.
“Barbara was a very smart, perpetual activist,” said former Cook County Clerk David Orr, for whom O'Connor worked in the 1990s. “I think she really liked working on elections because she was a firm believer in democracy and people having a fair shot at things, which is why she’d always been fighting some of the old-time machine politics.”
She was a member of the Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization (IVI-IPO) from the early 1960s. In the early 1970s, when Mikva was a congressman and running one-day civic engagement workshops with the University of Chicago, O’Connor was listed in the Herald as the contact for more information. She also worked for Gov. Dan Walker’s administration in the mid-1970s, and in Washington’s administration, as telecommunications manager, after he won the 1983 election.
In January 1985, the Herald reported on her implementation of a new computer system to record tenants’ complaints of low heat in their apartments. (Then, as now, temperatures in rental units must be at least 68 degrees during the day in winter months.) She said the system would help with the city’s speed and efficiency in responding to complaints and promised to give data to community groups so they could go after unscrupulous landlords.
“I believe that people do control the community. They do have the responsibility to be involved," she said at the time. “Most of the things I’ve done are bringing people and problems together and looking for a solution.”
O’Connor also worked for the Chicago Access Corporation in the 1980s, a nonprofit formed to bring cable television access to the city and, later, to promote its application in cultural, educational, health and civic uses. She left city government in 1988, landing in Orr’s elections department — he had been Washington’s deputy mayor — and taking a particular interest in voter registration and outreach.
“She constantly felt like it was her responsibility to try and make things better, so she would do whatever she could. She wouldn’t shy away from the difficult things. She wasn't a person who looked down on others: she was willing to do whatever she expected others to do,” Orr said, crediting her ethos to her Hyde Park political background. “Ironically, she was such an activist (that) she was still an optimist, in a sense. She really wanted to see things change, and she believed things could be changed.”
After she retired, O’Connor focused on photography, knitting and the Garden Fair. From her longtime apartment over Bixler Park, 1372 E. 57th St., she provided twice-daily online updates for the community during its 2016 renovation, with some residents crediting her for the Chicago Park District’s quick work to complete the project after controversy over its unannounced closure.
During the 2008 presidential race, she went across the state line to Indiana to canvass for the Obama campaign and, with other volunteers, received the tried-and-true instructions and literature on how to work voters door-to-door.
She looked at the material and burst out laughing. “I wrote this!” she exclaimed.