Article II of the constitution of the Historical Society of Forest Park reads: “The purpose of this society shall be to bring together those people interested in the history of Forest Park.” The third article explains the society is open to anyone who is interested.
The trouble is, Forest Park’s historical society is in a state of limbo and those interested in reviving it haven’t agreed on how to go about doing so. The society is an active nonprofit but has not held board meetings in years, and has long been in search of a permanent home for the society’s historical artifacts.
In addition, several people with an interest in the town’s past have long complained that archivist and board President Rich Vitton has operated unilaterally and hoarded artifacts in his basement. Nonsense, Vitton said, adding that he’s willing to turn over the material as long as there’s a suitable place to house it.ÊÊ
Last month, a small group of local, history-minded people arranged a meeting at the Forest Park Public Library to discuss reviving the society. Mayor Anthony Calderone, village Secretary Sally Cody, Vitton; and local-history buffs Mark Rogovin, Ken Knack, Augie Aleksy and John Rice attended the meeting.
“When we last met, a few weeks ago, Rich was completely on board with plans to re-activate the historical society,” Cody emailed the Forest Park Review.
After that meeting, she sent a blast email, copying the Review, announcing a May 17 hearing at village hall, reportedly arranged to reform the board through the nomination and election of new members and the adoption of new bylaws, among other matters.
Vitton and his wife, Valda, told the Review in an interview at their home last week that Cody was “overstepping her boundaries,” and they felt “ambushed” by her “forcing an election.”
“I’m stumped,” Cody wrote in a different email.
“If he’s still passionate, he needs to stay on board,” Cody said in a phone conversation, following a discussion Cody had with the Vittons to sort matters out. Now, according to Cody and Valda Vitton, the May 17 meeting is a go.
When the Review first spoke with Rich Vitton, he expressed concern that the village, specifically Cody, would be involved on the board. Not so, Cody said; she’s just promoting it. Vitton maintained that the village should have nothing to do with the society, and village officials said that is the case.
There is also a rift between Vitton and Cody that dates back to an incident in 2007, when he was accused of stealing photos that were used to promote a committee Cody formed for the village’s centennial. Police reportedly tried to retrieve the items from the historical society’s former home in the lower level of the public library.
“It’s been so many years,” Cody said. “We need to get beyond this.”
But Vitton’s primary concern is finding a suitable environment to house the artifacts that he says he has spent countless hours and thousands of his own dollars archiving.
Mounds of the village’s tangible history are stored in his basement, which he said is “66 degrees [Fahrenheit] with roughly 20 to 22 percent humidity.” It’s ideal for housing the archived content, he added.
Calderone has promised to provide the historical society a home countless times, Vitton said, but has failed to deliver. The Mayor could not be reached for comment on the matter.
Vitton conceded that the village offered to house the material at 501 Desplaines Ave., but suggested storing the items on the second floor of the police building. He is concerned that the temperature on the second floor is too high and will damage the artifacts, many of which are old photographs.
“It’s gonna be humid as all hell,” Vitton said. He called the location a “heat house.”
The Vittons said that, until there is an appropriate location, the content should remain stored in their basement.
“Rich is indisputably passionate about history and the few times we were able to get together, he demonstrated as much,” Ken Knack wrote in an email. Knack briefly worked with Vitton to borrow images for a picture book on Forest Park’s history. The book was part of Arcadia publishing company’s “Images of America” series.
“The collection needs to recorded, documented, protected and, most importantly, accessible to the public and researchers alike,” Knack added.
“I’m trying to save it for the people,” Vitton said. “People are welcome to come and see this stuff.”
“What if Rich decided to pick up and leave?” Village Administrator Tim Gillian said. “The village would be without artifacts.”
Gillian also pointed out that the village might store the artifacts in a currently dilapidated building across the street, at 512 Desplaines Ave. – once it can be repaired. Vitton scoffed at the notion because he believes the cost to repair the burned building would be impractical. Gillian countered and said the village could use grant money to rehab the building, which it owns.
Vitton also suggested putting the items in an abandoned building behind the Altenheim, which the village also owns. But that building, too, is in need of major repair, and Gillian said housing the artifacts there is “not an option.”
Some have also questioned Vitton’s right to house the objects. The group’s constitution does not specify who retains control over the society’s material if the board becomes inactive or disbands.
The historical society filed a report with the Illinois Secretary of State in 2010 to retain its active nonprofit status and the paperwork states that there are five members.
Vitton said he stopped collecting dues from members and holding meetings so he could dedicate his time to making copies of as many artifacts as possible. He estimates he spent between $7,000 and $8,000 doing so.
“It was a donation,” he said.
The Historical Society of Forest Park will convene on May 17 at 7 p.m. in the basement of village hall. The event is open to the public.
“Rich is on board again,” Cody said. “It’s really a great thing.”