Larson reflects on five decades of shaping Schaumburg

 
 
Updated 12/10/2018 9:10 AM
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  • Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson talks about what most needed to be done in the village when he became a trustee in 1975 and then mayor in 1987, and about what aspects of his legacy he hopes will remain after he leaves office in 2019.

      Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson talks about what most needed to be done in the village when he became a trustee in 1975 and then mayor in 1987, and about what aspects of his legacy he hopes will remain after he leaves office in 2019. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson looks over an artist's rendering of Woodfield Mall's expansion plans with John Simon, senior vice president, and mall general manager Jim Linowski.

    Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson looks over an artist's rendering of Woodfield Mall's expansion plans with John Simon, senior vice president, and mall general manager Jim Linowski. Daily Herald file photo, 1993

  • Newly elected Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson takes his oath and promises four years of hard work as the village's chief elected official in 1987.

    Newly elected Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson takes his oath and promises four years of hard work as the village's chief elected official in 1987. Daily Herald file photo, 1987

  • Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson and then-Village Manager George Longmeyer take a village bike path on "Bike to Work Day" in 1992.

    Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson and then-Village Manager George Longmeyer take a village bike path on "Bike to Work Day" in 1992. Daily Herald file photo, 1992

  • Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson in front of the Schaumburg Prairie Center for the Arts more than 20 years before it would be renamed in his honor.

    Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson in front of the Schaumburg Prairie Center for the Arts more than 20 years before it would be renamed in his honor. Daily Herald file photo, 1994

  • Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson with the village skyline in the background in 1991.

      Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson with the village skyline in the background in 1991. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer, 1991

Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson has influenced more than two-thirds of his 62-year-old suburb's evolution from a longtime farming area populated by German immigrants to the second-largest hub of economic activity in Illinois.

His 32 years as mayor and prior 12 years as a village trustee have been characterized by both an unwavering drive to improve the community wherever an opportunity exists and recognizing when it was preferable to protect the status quo.

After his announcement last month that he would not seek re-election in April, the 80-year-old Larson shared numerous examples of both situations from his 44 years as an elected official, building a center of commerce that demanded the kind of respect not initially granted the suburbs, once dismissed as the land beyond O'Hare.

How it began

Larson's eyes were first opened to the possibility of public service when he wrote a letter to complain about snowplowing to then-Schaumburg Mayor Bob Atcher during his young family's first winter in the village in 1969-70.

When his wife, Nancy, told him the mayor had called to respond while he was out, the Chicago native could hardly believe his letter had had such an impact.

Larson soon became a member of Atcher's Schaumburg United Party, the Schaumburg Jaycees and the Schaumburg Environmental Committee; he also was appointed the village's public relations director.

But not until he was elected trustee in 1975 did he feel he had the authority to wield significant influence on the further development of the then-19-year-old village.

The first major issue to which he applied that influence was street lighting. Early developers didn't accept responsibility for it, so there were neighborhoods left in total darkness at night.

The next question -- which would go hand-in-hand with every proposed improvement that followed -- was how to pay for it, Larson said.

After some thought and a little persuasion, the village imposed $3 vehicle stickers to pay for the streetlights.

"It made sense to senior citizens, and it certainly made sense to young families," Larson said.

As a trustee, Larson evolved into an independent voice on the board, eventually resigning from the Schaumburg United Party to which every other trustee still belonged.

He drew the ire of Atcher, who, though no longer mayor, became a strong advocate for an extremely dense 40-acre development proposal called Woodfield '76 after the existing shopping mall. Larson led the opposition to a plan that included 40-story buildings.

"He thought it was such a great idea," Larson said of Atcher. "There wasn't a place on the face of the earth that could support the development that was being proposed. It never got built."

The reason for Atcher's enthusiasm, Larson explained, was that the plan promoted his vision of Schaumburg's becoming the second-largest population center in the state -- and that the village was receiving a 20-acre donation from the developer where today's municipal campus would be built.

During his three terms as trustee, Larson said, he never felt any burning desire to be mayor. As the only independent on the board, his political survival often was enough of a concern.

But when Mayor Herb Aigner announced he would not seek re-election in 1987 and Larson heard the names of potential successors being discussed, he thought his own experience and judgment were just as good.

What would the winner of that uphill battle think if he'd been told he'd remain mayor for nearly a third of a century -- and twice as long as Atcher?

"I don't think he would believe it!" Larson said with a laugh.

Only in distant retrospect can he consider the possibility that his history of independence may have contributed something to his effectiveness and longevity as mayor.

Building a community

Larson often is associated with his support for several big projects in Schaumburg, including the baseball stadium, the convention center and rescuing the originally privately owned Schaumburg Airport from being turned into an industrial park through the village's purchase of it.

But he believes his influence has been more profound in other ways, such as maintaining strong relationships with all the other local governments in the area -- including the Schaumburg Park District and Schaumburg Township District Library -- to ensure the entire community is aiming toward shared goals.

An aspect of his tenure he hopes won't lapse is the village's high standards for development, especially its attention to aesthetics. Just one example is the burial of more than 90 percent of the electrical wires in residential neighborhoods.

"If you make a town more attractive, people want to work there, they want to live there," Larson said. "People talk about how beautiful Schaumburg is. I think people who live in Schaumburg now are less aware of it."

Another aspect of his governing style has been cooperation and teamwork, Larson said. Over the decades, he's observed other mayors who try to dictate their agendas to their boards or councils. In many cases they become one-term mayors, he added.

Related to this is the need to keep national party politics out of municipal government, where it has no place or relevance to improving a community, Larson said.

His support for the baseball stadium -- now known as Boomers Stadium -- came from a desire to make Schaumburg different from other suburbs.

Though the idea of a convention center in Schaumburg was already in the air when he became mayor, Larson said he was not originally enthusiastic. Only when the site became available where it and the adjoining Renaissance Hotel were ultimately built did the concept seem absolutely right to him.

Seizing opportunity

While some communities would be thrown for a loop by the loss of a key employer as tied to the local identity as Motorola once was, Larson instead saw the availability of the land as an opportunity to begin with a new vision.

He's pleased with the progress of the planned redevelopment of the longtime Motorola campus into a mini-community of businesses and multifamily housing.

Larson said he has great faith in the current team of village staff members helping the village board and developer implement this vision.

"We are building a downtown for the Northwest suburbs," he said. "We're not just talking about it, we're doing something about it."

Very much related to that are the village's own plans for an entertainment district on the opposite side of Meacham Road near the convention center.

Though questions remain about the viability of the village's original plan for a 2,800-seat performing arts there, Larson is glad the village still holds the site and the project remains a possibility.

His endorsement of the center last year is emblematic of his overall philosophy of public improvements.

"It's always easier to say 'no' than to say 'yes,'" Larson said. "You say 'yes' and you have a responsibility to develop the future. If you say 'no,' who cares?"

The village has a smaller venue for performances -- the Prairie Center for the Arts, which was renamed in Larson's honor last year. Despite the many other venues he's seen renamed for fellow longtime volunteers, he was visibly moved by having been so recognized himself.

"That surprised me. It really did," he said.

But when asked to name the most important aspect of his legacy, Larson doesn't hesitate for a moment.

"I hope I'm remembered most for my family and my kids," he said.

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