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Park Forest Loses Pioneer and Dedicated Public Servant

Robert A. Dinerstein. (Photo: PFHS)
Robert A. Dinerstein. (Photo: PFHS)

Tribute to Robert A. Dinerstein

By: Jane Nicoll

Park Forest, IL–(ENEWSPF)– On August 30, 2008, Robert A. Dinerstein died in his home in Minneapolis.

Robert and Mary Dinerstein moved into the second court occupied in Park Forest in October 1948. In 1998, they moved to Minneapolis to be near their son, Jim. For many of the fifty years they lived here, Robert Dinerstein led a life of dedicated public service, one of the most influential in setting the course taken by the Village of Park Forest. Born in New York City, January 4, 1919, Mr. Dinerstein graduated with honors from City College of New York, receiving his graduate degree in organic chemistry from Penn State University. First a civilian employee of the War Department, as chief chemist of an explosives manufacturing plant in Little Rock, Arkansas, Mr. Dinerstein later joined the army and was assigned to the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico. The last few months of the war, he worked there as a civilian.

It is interesting to note that another former Village President, the late Bernard G. Cunningham, was also with the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Bob and Mary came to Park Forest while he was working for Standard Oil Company as a research chemist at their laboratories in Whiting, Indiana. He came to be head of the research division where he was supervisor to former Head Librarian for Park Forest, Marcella Lucas. Then Head of the Research library at Standard Oil. Mrs. Lucas remembers him as very sociable, always a gentleman. He often told her enthusiastically of his many Park Forest meetings and the developments in helping establish the Village government.

The Dinersteins moved to Park Forest in time for the Tent Meeting of November 27, 1948, where the tenants and those who had signed leases voted to incorporate as a village. It was there that a long involvement with the shaping of Park Forest began. Bob was one of the people named to represent his court on the Committee for Municipal Incorporation. When that was accomplished by February 1, 1949, Bob moved directly to being Chairman of the Community Council. Before the many social organizations became active in Park Forest, it was the Community Council that handled the services those groups would later provide. They helped get bus shelters for the commuter bus riders, and helped the early residents in other ways.

When the first residents moved to Park Forest, there were no schools built. Schools depend on taxes from their own community, and there was a lag of at least one year before there were any taxes to work with. When a Committee for School Organization formed, Bob Dinerstein became its chairman, working on the boundary lines for the several school districts, taking over District 163 from Matteson, and working with Chicago Heights where the children were bused from 1948-1949. By 1953, this committee created Rich Township High School District 227, an accomplishment which won Park Forest its first All America City Award in 1954.

In 1951, Bob was elected to the Village Board of Trustees, serving until 1955 when he was elected as the third Village President. During these formative years, the Village Board was in intense negotiations with the developers, American Community Builders, over planning, establishing a building code, dedication agreements, setting up a paid police and fire department, and determining how many policeman there should be for the burgeoning population. During this time the village board oversaw negotiations for the construction of Village Hall and the Public Safety building on Lakewood Boulevard, and the hiring of a Village Planner, Engineer and the first two Village Managers.

The ordinances had to be drafted from scratch.

Sometimes the Village was lucky to find among its early residents a professional to lend talents and experience to evaluating plans, or drafting codes and ordinances. Often, accomplishing the task took research and study. Outside agencies were consulted for help and for reference materials. Aside from the countless hours of meetings, there were hours of reading and talking to the proper sources to find out how to make a village government, and what to ask for from the developer, how to negotiate with neighboring towns for interceptor sewers, and more.

The early board participated in almost every phase of infrastructure and utility planning for the village. Just as the builders were pioneers in building what was the largest privately owned development to date built in the United States, village officials had to be pioneers in discovering how to make it the best village they could. As we say at the 1950s House Museum, these men had fought in World War II to win the world for democracy, and they were going to make the Village of Park Forest the very best home they could for their families.

Robert Dinerstein was one of the leaders in this commitment to excellence.

In 1959, with Village Manager John Scott, Robert Dinerstein drafted the Instructions to Village Officials on Minority Group Residence in Park Forest. This document now is part of the Library of Congress and hangs in the America on the Move exhibit in the Smithsonian. Because the Social Action Committee of the Unitarian Church had organized to find a family to break the color barrier in Park Forest, the Village was ready to make a smooth and safe transition to being an integrated community in a time when riots were breaking out in other communities like Deerfield, Illinois and in Levittown, Pennsylvania.

Mr. Dinerstein helped the Social Action Committee and the Human Relations Commission work on developing teams to go into the neighborhoods to make people aware of African American families moving in, so the community could see them as families and new neighbors, not as strangers. This team approach went on until November 1967 when the Human Relations Commission recommended adoption of the Open Housing Ordinance.

When Charles Z. Wilson integrated Park Forest in December 1959, Bob Dinerstein called all of the local papers, all Chicago papers, and finally the national news bureaus to urge them to let this family move in like any other family—to not treat it as a news story. Bob spent his Christmas Eve making these calls. Remarkably, almost every publisher agreed, and the story did not break until January 18, 1960, when Time Magazine picked it up, and the other publishers felt they had to cover the story. Although I have heard it disputed that this could not be why the story did not break, the archive has the paper on which Mr. Dinerstein recorded the notes of what he was saying and what was said to him. His memory of those conversations is recorded in his OH! Park Forest Oral History transcript.

As further evidence of his concern over the safety of the new African American residents, Vivian Purnell relayed a story about her experience after purchasing a home in 1963. She received a call from Mr. Dinerstein on Thursday, asking when she was moving in. When he heard that she was moving in that Saturday and would be at the house on Friday for phone installation, he asked her please to delay so calls could be made to 200 neighbors and to all clergyman in Park Forest to let them know about her family.

She said she could not delay the move.

Later that evening, she received a call from Mr. Dinerstein saying that 200 calls had been made. Bob acknowledged that the Human Relations Commission felt like “Big Brother” making these calls to the community, essentially invading the new residents’ privacy. He kept a now controversial list of the names and addresses of the first African American families. In part, this was to avoid clustering of these families to prevent the kind of “running” that was happening at the time on the South Side of Chicago and in other communities.

I assure you, though, that in Bob Dinerstein’s mind, there was an element of “Not on My Watch.” Not on his watch, if he could help it, was any person going to be harmed, or be made to feel unwelcome.

Before his term as President was over, Bob oversaw completion of Park Forest’s residential development and the resolution of outstanding issues with Dedication Agreements involving American Community Builders. He participated in the building of the Park Forest commuter lot. North Orchard Drive from Westwood to Lincoln Highway began construction during his term.

After leaving office, Bob served on the Human Relations Commission until 1967, its chairman for many years.

After they retired, until they moved in Fall of 1998, the Dinersteins wintered in Sarasota, Florida, summered in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, and lived in Park Forest for spring and fall. When they moved to Minnesota, Mr. Dinerstein remarked to me that it was unbelievable to him that he would not be living in Park Forest. Before he left, he donated his papers to the Park Forest Local History Collection and Archive. Many boxes of the originals are in remote storage at this time, but several documents had been photocopied and are available in various subject folders in the Park Forest Files at the library, including many of his papers on the integration of Park Forest.

I came to know Bob through editing his vast oral history transcript. When the society was going to do its first program on the history of integration, he was going to be in Sarasota, so I did a videotaped interview to share his story there. When he donated his papers we spent many hours over them and I made tapes of his descriptions of what each box held and the significance of the documents we were receiving.

One of my big regrets is that, in my early shyness, I did not seek him out earlier to take advantage of the vast wealth of information his mind held. I missed out on years of knowing a most fascinating and pleasant gentleman.

In the years since they moved, I often referred researchers to him and he was delighted to share the history of this community he loved so much. Sometimes I called myself, but not often enough.

Mary would always say, “Let me get Bob, he will be so pleased that you have called.”

The last time I called, within the past year, Bob knew who I was, but could not remember any of the facts he used to so quickly retrieve from his mental archive. We still had a very pleasant conversation, after which he said, “I have to write a note for Mary while you are on the phone to tell her you called. When I hang up the phone, I won’t even remember you called.”

A most amazing legacy to Mr. Dinerstein’s public service is his 6 tape oral history interview done in 1980 by Glenda Bailey-Mershon as part of OH! Park Forest. The bound transcript is available from the Adult Services Department of the Park Forest Public Library. Parts of the transcript are available online through “Park Forest: An Illinois Planned Community” on the Illinois Digital Archives, accessible through the Park Forest Historical Society web site at www.parkforesthistory.org. At the 1950s Park Forest House Museum, you can see photos of the young Bob and Mary Dinerstein, and also photos of how their court looked in 1948-1949. Mary’s Mix Master is in the kitchen and the board and brick bookcase from their rental unit is in the classroom.

Mr. Dinerstein is survived by his wife of 67 years, Mary, his children Bob and Annie Dinerstein of Flemington, NJ; Jim and Anita Dinerstein of Saint Paul, MN; and Susan and Al Perri of Branchburg, NJ; five grandchildren and a great-grandson.

Donations in lieu of flowers may be sent to the Robert and Mary Dinerstein Scholarship in Chemistry at The University of Minnesota, or the Mary and Robert Dinerstein Program for Families and Children at the United Jewish Fund and Council of Saint Paul or donors’ choice. Memorials to the Park Forest Historical Society to maintain Bob’s legacy here, would be welcome by the Society.

“Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” Matthew, XXV, 21.

Friends of the family may want to know, when Mary was called last weekend, son Jim of Saint Paul, MN was in hospice.


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