Inevitably with Bobbie Raymond, the stature thing comes up, so we might as well get that out of the way. She was short but seldom came up short. She was small in stature but left an outsized imprint. She was larger than life. She went by a young-sounding name and had a young-sounding voice, but no one ever looked down on her (not for long, anyway) or took her anything but seriously.
And she was always, right up till the end, Oak Park’s fiercest advocate.
For a while though early on, it looked like she might end up on Broadway or in Hollywood instead. Born in 1938 to William and Rosemary Wolin, she was a hard-working child actor in Chicago, 1945-52, and then, using the stage name Roberta Alden, appeared in NBC Radio shows like Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy and Cricket on the Hearth. She did commercials, trade shows and television, including the soap operas Search for Tomorrow and Love of Life. You can check her out on YouTube in the educational film “Parties are Fun” from 1950.
After graduating from Oak Park and River Forest High School in 1955, she toured the Catskills with the Stanley Woolf Players in 1958 and had a lead role in the pre-Broadway cast of Tender Loving Care with John Payne in 1960.
But she answered the figurative question, “How you gonna keep her down on the farm after she’s seen the Great White Way?” by bringing her brand of show biz back to Oak Park. Never one to shy from the spotlight, she turned her attention to a different stage back home.
After studying sociology at Drake University, The New School for Social Research, and Hunter College, she focused on racial integration and the Fair Housing Movement, joining the Citizens Commission for Human Rights, which spearheaded the effort to pass Oak Park’s landmark Fair Housing Ordinance in 1968. That led to Roosevelt University, where she wrote her master’s thesis, “The Challenge to Oak Park: A Suburban Community Faces Racial Change” as a prelude to founding the Oak Park Housing Center in office space provided by First Congregational Church (now First United Church of Oak Park) in 1972.
Based on the notion that “a community attempting to maintain integration had a better chance than a community that resisted” (a phrase that could serve as the village motto), the Housing Center, as stated on her Wikipedia page, “worked to encourage continuing demand from whites while opening new opportunities for minorities by counseling housing seekers to promote neighborhood diversity and integration.”
Ever the advocate, in addition to welcoming racial minorities, Raymond and the Housing Center also actively marketed Oak Park to the LGBTQ community.
Her comfort in front of the camera paid dividends. She was featured in the documentary, As Time Goes By: Oak Park, Illinois, which premiered at the Lake Theatre in 1974 and was later shown on WTTW, the Chicago PBS affiliate. She wrote the winning presentation script for Oak Park’s All-America City Award in 1976, was featured on CBS’ 60 Minutes in 1978, and appeared on the last Phil Donahue Show filmed in Chicago in the early ’80s. All these and more gave Oak Park a higher profile and positive publicity nationwide.
In 1977, she was one of the founders of the Oak Park Exchange Congress, a national organization made up of member municipalities that met annually for 15 years to discuss ideas for maintaining stable diversity, including what came to be called the “Oak Park Strategy.”
That strategy was based on the understanding that Oak Park could not succeed if it remained an isolated island of integration, so she worked to build bridges across Austin Boulevard by collaborating with the Austin Shock Historical Association to create the Austin Village House Tour, promoting the West Side neighborhood’s historic homes. She also organized the Boulevard Run, a 10K race whose course ran through both Oak Park and Austin (including Columbus Park), an annual event that lasted 10 years.
She retired in 1996 as executive director of the Housing Center, which by then was called the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, reflecting the wider scope and focus of their efforts.
But retirement didn’t slow her down much, if at all. She served on the boards of the Oak Park Development Corporation, the Doris Humphrey Foundation, the Ernest Hemingway Foundation, and the Oak Park Art League, to name a few.
She established and ran the Oak Park and River Forest High School Alumni Association, which raised scholarship funds for educational travel.
But many of her causes did not put her center stage. In 1996, she connected with a 1937 OPRF grad named Lewis Pope, a star running back for the nationally ranked OPRF High School football team that year. When OPRF was invited to play another powerhouse, Miami High, in the Orange Bowl, Pope was prohibited from playing because of his race. Raymond brought him back to Oak Park and interviewed him for the oral history project, “Legends of Our Time,” where he was also honored with the high school’s Tradition of Excellence Award (which Raymond herself was awarded in 1990).
More recently, she discovered a painting by a forgotten French artist and championed her story, telling it in a one-act play, An Imaginary Interview with Elizabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun, which was performed at the 19th Century Club.
In a series of articles in the Oak Leaves, she published the first oral history of early black history in Oak Park, dating back to the 1870s. And she was integral in the establishment of the annual Day in Our Village event on the first Sunday of June.
Bobbie’s son, Charles Raymond, remembers that, growing up, his mom seemed to be at a meeting every night. And not just when he was growing up.
“She would bake cookies and brownies for all these meetings. I would say, ‘Come on, Mom, you’re 80!'” She had enormous energy — until the end. “She would say, ‘The meetings keep me going.'”
It wasn’t until high school that he realized how unusual his mother was. “Until then, I just thought it was normal.” She would usually take him along to the meetings.
Bobbie, Charles, and her grandson, Trevor, who is 13, were only children.
“Her whole life revolved around him,” Charles said. “They always had fun, making crepes, playing a lot of Scrabble. He turned into a good player and beat her about half the time.”
She tried to expose him to the arts. They traveled to New York City last June to see the museums and shows, Charles recalled. But she would tire by the afternoon.
“It’s sad,” he said, “because she really wanted to see him play tennis for OPRF.”
Trevor, he noted, says he’s planning to use his grandmother as motivation to do well in school and on the court when he enters OPRF next year.
“I miss talking to her,” Charles said, “being able to call her. She had a great sense of humor.”
He’ll also miss seeing her honored by her alma mater, Roosevelt University, which was planning to give Bobbie an honorary doctorate at their upcoming graduation ceremony.
She was really looking forward to it, Charles said, but she knew she’d had 80 good years.
“She was somewhat at peace.”
Roberta Larson Raymond, always of Oak Park, died on May 7, 2019 of complications from congestive heart failure at the age of 80. In addition to her son and grandson, she is survived by her husband, Richard Larson; her daughter-in-law, Christi Ausland-Raymond; and her ex-husband, Geoffrey Raymond. She was preceded in death by her ex-husband, Wallace Kirkland.
A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, June 12 at the Oak Park Arts Center, 200 N. Oak Park Ave.