Forest Park is now one step closer to having a functional historical society. After a contentious meeting at village hall last week, three-fifths of the previously dormant – but legally active – board of the Historical Society of Forest Park managed to elect interim members who will serve until an official election is held in October.

Last week’s meeting was called subsequent to discussions about the group’s revival that were attended earlier this year by society President Rich Vitton, Mayor Anthony Calderone, Village Secretary Sally Cody and several members of the public. The discussions were arranged by Cody in an attempt to restart the group although both she and Calderone clearly stated that neither they nor the village would have any direct involvement in the society’s functions. Disagreements over how the group should operate led to its functional collapse in 2009. The Illinois Secretary of State currently lists it as an active nonprofit, but no meetings have been held in at least two years.   

A dozen or so Forest Parkers came to village hall last week hoping that the group would be reformed and the town’s archived materials and artifacts would find a public home. Currently, that content is housed in Vitton’s basement, which has long been a controversial matter. 

Calderone opened the meeting by stating that he was asked by those involved in the aforementioned talks to offer advice on how to revive the society, but he said he was only acting as an “ombudsman.”

The mayor noted he was surprised to be in attendance because the local government has no role in the society’s functions and wants none.  

“When things fall apart, people call the mayor,” Calderone told the sparsely populated crowd. “Why they asked for my advice, I don’t know, but I offered my advice. People are asking me, ‘Why hasn’t the society been meeting?’ and I say, ‘I don’t know. But it’s time to step up to the plate [and revive the society].”

Calderone spent considerable time refereeing the arguments directed at current board members, Rich and Valda Vitton, who are husband and wife, by an audience that was unhappy with the how the society has operated in recent years.

“You folks can be as rigid about this as you want, but I don’t think that’s necessary,” Calderone said. “Let’s begin a healthy conversation … and step up to the plate.”

The arguing centered on accusations that Vitton has unilaterally controlled the society as president and has brought it to a standstill because of his unwillingness to cooperate with others who are interested in accessing its content and being involved in the group’s functions.

“The stuff should be available to the public,” said Mike Thompson, an audience member and local resident. “Your basement is not the most fitting place.

“I’m sure you don’t want me knocking on your door at 7 a.m.,” he added.

In the past, Vitton has suggested that anyone interested in seeing the society’s materials should visit his climate-controlled basement in Forest Park, where the content is carefully stored. In a past interview with the Forest Park Review, Vitton said he spent between $7,000 and $8,000 of his own money archiving the material, and thinks it should remain there until there is a permanent home for it.

“A home isn’t going to drop from the sky,” Calderone said at one point.

“Why are you adverse to moving it?” Cody asked Vitton.

Vitton told Cody that he is not opposed to moving the material; it just needs to be housed in an environment that will not contribute to its deterioration over time. 

Previously, the village proposed storing it on the second floor of 501 Desplaines Ave., which is currently a police building, until a permanent home is found.

“It’s got no air conditioning and no heat,” said Vitton.

“Well, presently,” Calderone stammered.

Before Vitton housed the material in his basement, it was located in a room at the Public Library of Forest Park, but the group was eventually asked to move. That room recently became an interactive space for teens.

“I was there two days a week and no one came in there,” said Valda Vitton, the society’s director. She recently told the Review that few people showed interest in the material before her husband took the time to store it, roughly two years ago.

“Not everyone is interested,” Calderone said at the meeting. “This [audience] is great, but it’s not standing-room-only.”  

The point driven home by audience members, though, was that the content belonged to the public, regardless of how often people visited any space where it was exhibited.

Other attendees who claimed they purchased “lifetime memberships” several years back wanted to know why they were neither included in activities nor kept abreast of the society’s doings.   

Cody said she knows Forest Parkers who paid $100 to be “lifetime members,” and have not been involved with the group. Vitton said he was unaware of any such membership ever offered, and Calderone suggested that it might have been the doing of Vitton’s predecessor, the late Dr. Frank Orland, the society’s founder.

There was also discussion of the society’s finances, which are supposedly kept in an account at Forest Park National Bank. The exact amount in the account is unknown, although Vitton recently said it is around $18,000.

“Is there a current treasury? Is there money in the bank? That information needs to be made available,” Calderone said.

The board’s reformation was dealt with at the end of the meeting, when the discussion waned.

“The basic problem is membership. … Without members you can’t vote,” said Eric Connor, an audience member whose wife, Mary Winn Connor, was a former board member.

Connor, an attorney who recently lost a bid for village commissioner, suggested that present board members nominate and elect interim members. Prior to the meeting, the society only had five board members – three short of the eight called for in the society’s bylaws. The state only requires five board members for an active nonprofit, Valda Vitton pointed out in a phone conversation several days after the meeting. Two of the five former board members did not attend last week’s meeting.

So the Vittons, president and director, and former Treasurer Judy Arnold voted in four new interim members. Forest Parker Andrew Cooper was elected secretary; Augie Aleksy, owner of Centuries and Sleuths bookstore, became the new treasurer, filling in for Arnold, who voluntarily stepped down; and local history buffs Mark Rogovin, Ken Knack and Mike Thompson became new board members. Although she resigned as treasurer, Arnold did retain a seat on the board. The board will only have seven members until the October election.

Although an interim board was created, the society still has to find a home for the many photographs and artifacts that Vitton has archived and stored in his basement.

At the meeting’s end, Arnold said, “I would just like to say thank you to Rich Vitton” for his work and involvement in the storing the archives.