Holmes reflects on lifetime of service in Evanston


Daily file photo by Katie Pach

Ald. Delores Holmes (5th) at a City Council meeting. Holmes will be retiring — for the second time — next month, after serving as alderman for three terms.

Kristina Karisch, Assistant City Editor

When Ald. Delores Holmes (5th) finishes her final term next month and leaves office, it won’t be her first retirement.

In 2002, after roughly 27 years of service as director of Family Focus — an organization that helps families with young children facing homelessness or financial issues — Holmes thought her career had come to an end. But her neighbors and friends had other ideas; they pushed her to run for alderman.

“I really did retire to retire,” Holmes said. “But I got bored very easily because I’m a busy person; I’ve always been doing things in the community. I’m not one to just to sit and watch TV … after about six or seven months I was starting to figure out what the heck I was going to do.”

Holmes ended up running against four other aldermanic candidates and won more than 75 percent of the vote. Her 2005 victory kicked off a new career in public service that would last 12 years and span three terms.

Nearly a lifetime in Evanston

Holmes said she grew up “watching community service,” raised by parents who modeled civic involvement.

She moved to Evanston from Tennessee in 1941, when she was just three years old. Her father worked as a commander at Veterans of Foreign Wars, and her mother was a member of its auxiliary. Holmes said her parents served as an inspiration for a lifetime of service to the city and her community.

When she got married and had children in the ’60s, Holmes began working for the Evanston/Skokie School District 65 Head Start program, which provides early childhood education to young children. The job marked the beginning of her advocacy for families and children, a cause she has championed to this day.

“In terms of working in the public sector, (Head Start) was my first real job,” Holmes said. “Since then, I’ve really been involved in every community service organization you can think of.”

In 1976, Holmes became the first director of the Evanston branch of Family Focus. She said she envisioned the organization as a place for young parents and families to come and receive support.

Holmes also began volunteering with the Evanston branch of the League of Women Voters, and served as their observer at City Council meetings — a position that she said taught her the inner workings of municipal politics and prepared her to be alderman.

Starting a second career

Fifth Ward resident Glenn Mackey said he has known Holmes since middle school; she is his next door neighbor and the “grandma next door” to his child. Mackey said he remembers when former 5th Ward alderman Joseph Kent decided not to run for reelection and residents encouraged Holmes to vie for the seat instead.

“People had always been telling her she needed to run for public office,” Mackey said. “She saw the need for proper representation for the people in this ward, for someone to really stand up for the people and not be so political. … That was the attitude she brought forth to the table.”

He said Holmes was always a public servant who focused on helping others and never a politician. Her dedication to the community resulted in a 5th Ward newsletter that is sent out monthly, and regular ward meetings.

Janet Alexander Davis, another 5th Ward resident, said she remembers one such meeting several years ago. Despite snow and hail, she said Holmes still made it to that meeting — an indication of her dedication to the job.

“She gives,” Davis said. “She gives of herself, she gives of her time, she gives of her knowledge. She cares deeply about this city … and helping the 5th Ward to have their share.”

During her time as alderman, Holmes helped establish the Youth and Young Adult Division with former 2nd Ward alderman and current Cook County Circuit Judge Lionel Jean-Baptiste. The division, created in 2011, aims to provide support to those aged 14 to 26 through education, workforce development training, arts and culture programming and civic engagement.

“I was always working for those things that would help enhance families no matter where they were,” Holmes said.

In addition to the Youth and Young Adult Division, Holmes has worked closely with current mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl in the expansion of the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program. The program provides summer jobs to young adults to prepare them for future employment and help identify possible career interests.

Taking a gap year

When the newly elected City Council takes office May 8, Robin Rue Simmons will succeed Holmes as the new 5th Ward alderman. Simmons said Holmes left a “legacy of excellence” and that it will be hard to match her institutional knowledge of the city and the ward.

“She has set a very clear example of commitment and heart and service and action to the community without compromise,” Simmons said.

Simmons said she hopes to follow Holmes’ example and continue with some of her current programs, like affordable housing. Simmons also pledged to work closely with her predecessor during the transition.

Their close relationship, however, has raised some concerns. Holmes has been named three times in unresolved ethics cases, one of which involves her use of a city email account to announce she was endorsing Simmons. After failing to reach a quorum before the April 4 elections, the Board of Ethics will hear the cases on Tuesday.

At a City Council meeting earlier this month, Holmes said she felt “very hurt” by the ethics claims and did not want to leave office with “this craziness” hanging over her head. In regard to her use of a city email account, Holmes said in March that she had “never intentionally done anything unethical in her life.”

Tisdahl, who also did not seek reelection, will retire alongside Holmes. Tisdahl said her decision not to run again was made with Holmes’ retirement plans in mind.

“Delores leaving influenced my decision,” Tisdahl said. “I couldn’t imagine the council without Delores … It would be hard to be on the council without Delores.”

Tisdahl said Holmes has always been a source of advice and counsel.

“I call Delores frequently when I’m puzzled about something in the City Council packet or worried about something, just to check what she’s thinking,” Tisdahl said. “I so respect and admire her that when I’m in trouble on an issue and not quite sure where to go, she’s a person I turn to.”

Once she does retire — for the second time — Holmes said she doesn’t yet know what will come next.

“Right now, I’m just thinking I’m going to take a gap year, like Malia Obama,” she said. “I’m just going to take what comes; I have no special plans.”

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Twitter: @kristinakarisch