Tom Welch - Transcript

Transcript of Tom Welch
Interviewee: Tom Welch
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren and Robert Remer
Place: Chicago, Il
Date: Dec. 12, 2016
Transcriber: Dorothy Nygren
Time: 25:26

Copyright © 2017 Edgewater Historical Society

DN: Today is Dec. 12, 2016. We are here with Tom Welch, our 2017 Living Treasure. I am with Bob Remer. My name is Dorothy Nygren. We’re very excited to learn more about the life of Tom Welch and his contributions to Edgewater. Let me start out by asking you Tom how you came to Edgewater.

TW: It’s kind of an interesting story. I certainly hadn’t planned to be a Chicago person. I spent most of my life in Kentucky around the Lexington, Kentucky area. About seven years ago I met somebody and after a couple of years just decided to make the big leap. He couldn’t move and I could at that point. So I thought, “Why not?” After forty years in one area I decided to pack myself somewhere else. That’s the basic story of how I got here.

DN: That was very courageous of you to take that big leap for your partner. Was your partner a resident in Edgewater.

TW: Yes. Well actually he lived in Uptown but we bought a place on Thorndale right when I moved. So I’ve been in Edgewater ever since I came. We absolutely love it. In fact, we moved from that first place to another place but as we were looking at different places to live, I said, “First criterion is we have to stay in Edgewater,” because I had fallen in love with the community and couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. I’m sure there are other great parts of Chicago, but I just really…..We both came to love Edgewater.


DN: What is there about Edgewater that you find so special?

TW: One of the things is the diversity. I think that’s a real attractive thing for us because it puts us in touch with people from so many different walks of life with so many different talents. There’s always something going on. It so much more compact a neighborhood than I’ve lived in before. That also is extremely appealing to me because going just as few blocks in any one direction you can find all sorts of things: artistically, architecturally racially, and educationally. Anything you want is going to be found in a very short distance here.

DN: When we were communicating, you said you were a futurist. You efforts in volunteering comes from that. Could you talk about that a little bit?

TW: Well my niche professionally for the last ten years has been, what I call, an educational futurist. A lot of people are confused by that. In fact I have plenty of people in my own family who say, “Now what is it that you do?” The idea behind that is to say, “Instead of always looking back and how do we improve on what we have been doing, the concept is how to we learn to look forward and see the opportunities that are opening up and then developing ideas for leading those opportunities, what I call opportunity curve, and meeting those opportunities.” Actually I carry that same frame of reference into my work here because it’s when you step back, as I was able to do as a newcomer, and look at Edgewater and say, “OK. Here’s this rich history that the community has had, and richness that it currently has now. What do we see going forward?” I’ve been here long enough and fortunate enough to be here to meet others, such as Bob here, who fill me in on some of the history of the community. So then you say, “How do you treasure that?” How do you look ahead and say, “Wow, if we want this to continue to be a wonderful community, what are some of the things we can ensure that that happens?”

DN: I find it very interesting that in reaching out to establish a larger sense of community, you’ve used your dog. Could we talk about that a little bit?

TW: Sure. One of the first things that I noticed when we were living on Thorndale in a two flat was that my office overlooked a sidewalk very near Senn High School, just caddy-corner from there. As an educator I have a heart for kids, especially [since] I was a high school principal in Kentucky. I would see these high school kids coming every day walking from the el. It just seemed as if the neighborhood was tolerating them because they come from all over the city, not just Edgewater obviously so most of them would not be taking the el. So they come from all over, not just Edgewater. I thought, “How do I go about helping them understand that, as a community, we really value them. We want to be successful. We want them to know we care about them as people. I have a golden retriever actually that was my other golden retriever, George. Five years ago George and I started going to the el stop from about 7:30 to 8 o’clock just to be there as a presence as the kids got off the train. We would smile. Now it’s my new dog Duke. We go down there every morning and we open the door. We say, “Hello,” or “Have a nice day.” or “Good morning.” It’s not that I try to get to know the kids on a first name basis or anything; just to say hello to them and let them know somebody really likes you being here.

That actually led to something else where I got to know some of the neighbors, who were going to the el stop at that time of the morning to go to work. So it’s amazing how many of them I’ve gotten to know. The neighbors – I’ve gotten to know them on a full time basis. They come every day. Many of them stop and greet Duke and pet him, as do some of the kids. It’s been a great way to get connected to the neighbors as well.


RR: Weren’t you involved with the Senn principal when she first came here about the Safe Passage project?

TW: Yes, and the Senn principal at that time, who is no longer there, used to come down with a couple of teachers to the el stop as well. So I got to know her a little bit and some of the staff as well. Unfortunately they no longer have the staffing availability to come down to the el stop in the morning. So the last two years there’s been nobody there from the school as a presence….

RR: Not Duke?

TW: Just Duke and I are there every morning. Now I will confess that since we moved a little farther away – it’s about three times farther as when we lived on Thorndale to get there – so we have a mile walk each way to the el stop and Duke’s not a real cold weather [creature] so this morning after the snowfall, we didn’t go.


DN: For those people who might be listening to the recording or reading the transcript I just want to fill in a little bit about what the Safe Passage part is. Chicago Public Schools has an initiative where students can go to schools other than their own neighborhood school. But they [CPS]want to ensure that those kids going from one to the other are safe. So there is an initiative called Safe Passage. You might see those signs posted on arterial streets or around schools. The downtown office has funded some staff to be there at entry and dismissal times, but as Tom said, it’s very underfunded. So this initiative needs all the help it can get so the kids to really have safe passage. I really applaud Tom’s effort with Duke to do that; to make sure that the kids not only know that it’s safe but that there are people there who think it’s important for them to be safe; that take it upon themselves to do this kind of activity.

TW: I know too that, for many kids, school is an awful place to go for many reasons. Part of what my intent is that at least somebody in their day is going to be smiling with them; has no agenda; is glad to see them. And the same way for the neighbors as well. It always warms my heart to see the students and neighbors and greet them. I have come to understand that it’s the same thing in reverse too. It helps them get their day started with a smile and a friendly pet to the dog.

DN: It is amazing what a smile can do.

TW: Yes.

DN: Now in addition to walking with Duke and helping kids get to school and saying,” Hi” to your neighbors, you also got involved in other aspects of community life in Edgewater including connections with the aldermanic office, with Alderman Osterman. Maybe you can talk about that a little.


TW: Yes, well I’ve become a real fan of the alderman. He has really been very visible in the community since I’ve come here and has taken a very active role to see that the community is a wonderful place. One of the first things that I did after I moved here was I found out they were undertaking a plan for the future. His key point person for that was a woman on his staff named Karen Dreyfus. She was undertaking his education aspects. I introduced myself to her and as we talked and got to know one another and realized we had a lot in common, we developed a close friendship and a good working relationship. She was very concerned about literacy in the community. At the time one of the things we were looking at was the temporary closing of the Edgewater library while the new one was being built. In order to help with that, we started an initiative though the alderman’s office called Edgewater Reads. We had a committee and at one of our very first meetings somebody was saying, “Have you heard of these things called Little Free Libraries, which are just a box of books.” None of us had. But I went home and did some research. I’ve always been a book lover and my mother was a public librarian, so I did a little bit of research and found out about the Little Free Library project. I thought that sounded really neat and built one and put it up in front of our place. My husband said, “Hundreds of high school kids walking by every day. I give it forty-eight hours before somebody vandalized it or something.” Well it’s been up three and a half years now without not one bit of vandalism ever. Kids use it as well as adults; people of all ages. That idea started to spread with the Little Free Libraries. We thought, great way to connect the community together.

We decided to take it a step further than with most communities. In most places it’s an individual who says, I’m going to put that in my yard and they do it and take care of it. We thought we have two things in Edgewater. One is that there are a lot of people that do not have the equipment or means to build them. So maybe we could provide a little help that way. But the other thing that we thought that was really more important was that we wanted to use the Little Free Libraries as a way to connect the community together. So we’ve taken the idea that all the Little Free Libraries in Edgewater are loosely networked. So we encourage people to take a book from one library and return it to another one. We had a little holiday gathering last night for Little Library hosts, as we call them. One of them was talking about was that he’s surprised by a couple of things. His library has been up for about three months now. He says he’s surprised by first of all the amount of traffic he gets; that people are always borrowing books. The second thing that surprised him is that he rarely sees the same books come back through. That tells us a couple of things are going on. People in the community are taking responsibility to see that the libraries have books in them. That’s a great thing. It’s not just up to the hosts to put their own books in. Secondly we know then that the books are circulating in the community which was one of our other real goals.


RR: How many libraries are we up to now?

TW: Now we have, counting those that we have in businesses, because we have probably ten businesses right now with Little Libraries…

RR: Oh really?

TW: Yes, and that’s part of the [Edgewater] Chamber [of Commerce] project I was involved in. We probably have about sixty right now.

I have two goals for the fairly near term. The first is that we’ll get to a hundred actual

free standing ones. The second goal is that is a little longer term, is that every single block in Edgewater will have at least one library on it so you would never have to cross the street to find a Little Free Library in your area.

RR: Some of the people that frequent mine; I talk to them. They know where the Little Free Libraries are. They’ll actually shop around.

TW: Yeah. Then we have some areas where we have several that are pretty close to one another. On Wayne Street, for instance, I know we have three; two on the block on the same side of the street; and then one on the other side of the street from it. One of the hosts from last night was saying, “I see people who are walking their dog, or just out walking, and they will walk from one and check it, and then” - just as you said, Bob - “cross the street to check the other.” That’s something that we really like because we want that idea of these connected libraries and connected communities to be a manifestation of the concept.


RR: Now there’s a lot of work involved with the libraries. It’s not just “I want to do a library.” but also getting the materials, putting them together, the artwork…. Can you talk a little bit about how you organize those activities behind the scenes before they actually show up?

TW: Sure. That’s been a real experience, a real learning experience. Early on we realized not everyone would have the tools or the space to build a library. So the committee came up with the idea of hosting what we call Community Build Days. We send out notices to the community that anybody who wants to can come at a certain time to a certain place and build a Little Free Library and we would provide the materials and we have everything prepared There’s a lot of history behind that. The first one – oh my goodness! We showed up with four by eight sheets of plywood, a couple of sawhorses, a circular saw and a drill. It’s amazing we didn’t have anybody injured or anything but that taught us a lot. First of all we realized people didn’t have the experience to help them really efficiently make use of that Community Build Day. They didn’t know how to lay out a pattern. I couldn’t do this without a number of volunteers who have given a lot of time.

So now what happens is some of the other volunteers and I rent a U-Haul van and we go to the lumber store. We get four by eight sheets of plywood. We have them cut in half there. We take those back and I have a little shop now in my garage. So my car sits out in the winter now because we got Little Free Library stuff inside. We’ve got it down to a pretty good system now where it takes a lot of time but we prepare the kits so that all the pieces are precut to the exact measurements and so on a Community Build Day we have families or kids who come and within an hour, an hour and a half, they can put together a Little Free Library. Then they take it home and paint or we try to find somebody who can help them paint it. We’ve have Tybony Hardware who has donated some paint recently to help people who don’t have paint.

Then we also have been able to attract the support of a foundation called the Overhead Project. We’ve gotten a couple of grants here and there. Now we’ve gotten some seed money so that we can also make sure that anybody who wants a Little Free Library can get one and not have to worry about the cost. It’s not a great cost; we probably have in materials about forty dollars in each library, between the hardware as well as the lumber. But the real savings is in the work we do ahead of time to get everything ready. It’s a great thing to do and we have a nice time when we do our pre-build days together.


DN: I’d like to get back to what you said about being a connected community. In today’s age… we’ve seen how life in Edgewater has changed in the last couple of years. While it seems that we’re more connected in terms of our electronic devices, we’re less connected in terms of our physical interactions. Can you make some comments on that in terms of your own personal perspective?

TW: Sure. Besides calling myself a futurists, the other thing I like to call myself and think of myself is a “connectivist,” because those connections, whether they be electronic, which I think is important, or even more importantly are those personal physical connections – I think that’s really important. One of the things I’ve tried to do is become involved enough in the community so that I can connect people and also connect things that are going on. I’m looking forward to the New Year because I’m going to spend much more time with the Little Free Library project and we’ll be able to make more connections. There’s so many opportunities, because we are such a close community, to make connections. The Peterson Garden project, for instance, has a wonderful kitchen at the [Broadway] Armory. They have a bookshelf there that’s part of our Little Free Library so that people can exchange cookbooks. One of the other things I’d like to do is to support what they are doing by saying, “Maybe in our Little Free Librariesin the next two months is we can either can put up announcements about something going on with Peterson Garden project or make sure that we have some books that we may find from our repository that are food or garden oriented and we could put a flyer in there about the Peterson Garden project.


Or when we have the Edgewater 5K, which the [Edgewater] Chamber [of Commerce] sponsors. It’s like – you know what? We need to connect that by having somebody do a book talk at the library about running or a marathoner who comes in maybe; or someone in the community that is a runner, who will talk about running and feature books about running or runners in our Little Libraries; and encourage people then to connect with each other, with reading and with things going on in the community. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for that. But it takes time. So that’s, as I say, one of my goals for the New Year is to spend much more time helping facilitate things like that.

DN: Those connections.

TW: Right. Those connections.


DN: What advice would you give young people in terms of getting involved in building community? We all have such busy lives, especially young people, it’s somehow hard, I think, to see the importance of that. Can you talk about that?

TW: Yes, I would encourage them to step back and look around at the community and see what’s going on because they might not think there are very many opportunities to be involved as a young person, but actually there are so many things going on in this community. For instance, I was always interested in history and genealogy growing up. You look at the Edgewater Historical Society and how many things are going on there and different ways that they could connect to that. Lots of ways to do that: the art projects, the projects for youth that run out of the alderman’s office….We’d love to have young people from elementary through high school, and even our universities, become involved with the Little Free Libraries project. We have lots and lots of opportunities for folks who would be interested in doing something there.


We’re getting ready to start an initiative with the business community where we will have QR codes on a poster. So for instance if you go to Father and Sons Barber Shop, there will be a QR on a poster that says “Edgewater Reads” and they have a Little Free Library already for physical books. But the QR code would then - if you put your [cell] phone on it - would link you electronically to all sorts of things that are related to barber shops. They would be very specific: novels set in barber shops, or the lyrics from The Barber of Seville, or lyrics to barbershop quarters, or lots of different things to read as well - as this is where we could always use help – or books from the collection of our Edgewater Library that have those same things. Or if you wanted to go to Ethiopian Diamond [Restaurant], there would be a QR code that would lead you to Ethiopian folk tales, novels by Ethiopian authors, whatever connection it might be because we know that those folks – and this once again goes back to the richness of the diversity in our community. We have a lot of folks from different backgrounds who are very passionate about their cultures and yet, even though they may run a restaurant featuring those foods, they don’t often have a very long prolonged opportunity to share very much in depth about that culture. So this would be a way to facilitate that and maybe have them connected at a deeper level in the community and feel more connected to the community.


DN: What a wonderful imitative. Our time is almost up but I’d like to give you an opportunity that we might have missed asking you.

TW: I just once again want to say how fortunate that we landed in Edgewater and what a magnificent opportunity that’s been. It’s such a great community with so much potential and I don’t want people to feel that they are just passing though and nameless. I would like every single person who lives in Edgewater or works in Edgewater to really be able to feel that connection to the community. In all honesty, although I’m a pretty outgoing person, I’m much more connected in this community in this large city than I ever was living in Lexington, Kentucky with neighbors all around me, which was a very friendly city but I never had the level of connection into that community that I’ve had here. So anything I can do to encourage that, count me in.

DN: Great. Bob, is there anything else?

RR: No, but I’d love to talk to you more about the educational system off camera.

DN: I think we’ll conclude the interview now. Tom, thank you so very much for sharing with us.

TW: Thanks.