And….I LOVE the museum!
Recently, I was honored by being elected President of the Board of Directors of the Museum. But that is not where the story begins. So, let’s travel back in time, about 20 years ago.
As Principal of Harnew Elementary in Oak Lawn, only once did I have a parent ask to observe our preschool. Our district was one of the first public schools to have a 3 and 4-year-old preschool, so it didn’t really surprise me. I spoke to our preschool teacher, Diane Falkenthal, and she readily agreed to welcome the mom in to observe. BTW, Diane is one of the finest teachers I have had the pleasure to work with. After the observation, I met with the young mom, Carol Marsh, and she spoke glowingly about her observation and immediately not only signed up her son but also had made plans with Diane to help in the classroom.
She also shared with me her mission to have a children’s museum on the southwest side of Chicago. Now that really interested me. She raved on about how the “nearest museums were in downtown Chicago, far west in Naperville/Wheaton and south in Bourbonnais.” All we had were “McDonald’s ball pits”! She had me!
Being a principal of a school of 600 or so students and about 50 staff is definitely a FULL time job, but I just had to be a part of this fantastic “madness”. My husband and I had never been fortunate enough to have children of our own, but that only increased my love of children and all the things that help them grow.
I need to tell you that the very first mention of a children’s museum in Oak Lawn actually came in 1993. Politicians were divided on what to do with the historic Cook School building, which was no longer needed. Cook School was probably built in the early 1900s and was located at 95th Street and Cook Avenue. One side wanted to bulldoze it for a parking lot and the other side felt that the building should be preserved and renovated for community use; one of several possibilities was a children’s museum. At that time, no one stepped forward to spearhead the idea and renovation proved to be quite costly. So, the politics of the time brought the idea to a screeching halt!
By April of 2000, Carol Marsh had put together a proposal without naming a location (other than Oak Lawn). She did not want to get involved in the no-win situation of Cook School. Carol was an excellent writer and lacked the “reverence” that many of us have for people in authority ----- so she knocked on the mayor’s door and the doors of all of village trustees, continually phoned local state representatives and attended any group meetings where they didn’t throw her out! Along the way she gathered a diverse group of individuals who thoroughly supported the idea. Actually, several of those people (besides myself) remain active board members and supporters of the Children’s Museum in Oak Lawn to this very day.
In May of 2000, the Oak Lawn Park District voted to provide the museum a temporary home in a tiny, rundown, virtually unused 900 sq. ft. facility for $1.00 per year. The location, 9600 East Shore Drive, is in a scenic residential area. By rundown, I mean that when we held meetings there and it happened to rain, we had to lift up our card tables and chairs to avoid the waterfalls coming through the ceiling!
In June, we had our first Board of Directors meeting, a great bunch of people with a common purpose: to somehow create a small children’s museum. In July, we came up with the kite “Explore and Soar” logo.
In October, we held our first public event, the Harvest Home Festival. To this day, we still have a fall festival!
In February of 2001, I chaired the first meeting of the Academics and Exhibits Committee and within the year we agreed upon a tree house theme for the tiny facility and had pencil drawings and concepts for 9 exhibits. We hired an exhibit designer and in 2002 he completed professional drawings based on our suggestions. Next came a fabricator who would build our exhibits for $175,000. In March, we hired our first (part-time) director, Elizabeth Gelman. We also hired two other part-time employees, a floor supervisor and an administrative assistant. In May of 2003, we opened our doors for the very first time and were gratified to see lots of children and families come to our tiny museum.
Our first birthday came and with it an unbelievable offer we couldn’t refuse. In the local papers it read: Oak Lawn announced the first tenant of the “controversial” commuter train station proposed for downtown: the children’s museum.
Had we planned on growing this quickly? Absolutely not! Our heads were spinning from opening one year earlier. But our feeling was we just had to keep moving forward. But like most things in life, money became an integral piece of our puzzle. Also, “politics” entered the challenge of making our dream of having a larger children’s museum come true. To this very day, I must admit that it still amazes me how we accomplished all that we did, and I am so proud that we persevered.
In February of 2006, we hired our current executive director, Adam Woodworth. My head spins with the number and scale of things that came at us as we climbed the “mountain” of making a new regional museum come to life. We had to do a tremendous amount of fundraising. We had to hire a professional exhibit designer; we chose Becky Lindsay, of Mindsplash. We had to hire architects, builders, etc. Exhausting…but exhilarating!
In April of 2009, just when we thought things were the darkest and maybe it would NOT happen, we were told about a fledgling children’s museum in Knoxville that was closing. We were able to purchase their almost brand new exhibits (very close to what we ourselves had planned) for a portion of what they would have cost us.
But the thing that SAVED us, were our loyal supporters. So many people saw what we had done and more importantly what we planned for the future and they “bought into” our dream literally by donating the funds needed.
In July of 2009, the doors opened to the children’s museum at Oak Lawn station.
To this very day, every time I walk through our museum, I take great pride in having been there at the very beginning and continuing to be an active supporter of the Children’s Museum in Oak Lawn.
It might be compared to watching a child grow up. What a thrill! And we’re not finished yet…I continue to love working with the museum to help make it the best place for families to play and learn together.
I personally invite you to please join us by contributing your time, talent and treasure; because we would not exist without your support.