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Politics of Robert Picken
by Jay F. Mulberry
On Sunday, May 4, the Hyde Park Historical Society opened a new exhibit, Bob Picken: Hyde Park's Candy Man.
Bob was that, all right: president of Peerless Confection Company, he was one of our community's most successful businessmen. Everybody seems to have seen him in his shirtsleeves filling candy shelves at the Coop and if you worked a precinct with him, or flipped pancakes beside him at the Neighborhood Club, or just met on the street, you probably got something from his pocketful of sweets. His candy contributions helped keep the Kenwood Academy Swim Team afloat during the 90 s as they also supported many schools and churches.
Bob Picken leads a good neighboor walk-a-thon to benefit the Neighborhoood Club
Bob and Doris threw themselves
into Hyde Park activities. Doris, was active in League of Women
Voters. Bob fell in at once with the IVI and the first campaign
he worked in was that of his teacher and friend, Paul Douglas.
Douglas had returned from the War with authentic credentials as
a hero and was slated by the Democratic Party to lose. He and
a political neophyte named Adlai Stevenson were given the nod
by Jacob Arvey, the new Democratic king maker, because it was
to be a Republican year and the loss by two liberals would hardly
matter. Anyway, the Party wasn t wasting any money or workers
on them. (Among other things, this was the campaign in which Abner
Mikva tried to volunteer at the local Democratic headquarters
and was turned down with the timeless machine sentiment: We don
t want nobody nobody sends.)
But Douglas wanted workers, especially if nobody sent them, and Bob Picken jumped in. What chores he performed for the campaign couldn t be discovered, but he made a financial contribution at a moment when it was very much needed and in a way that was very much appreciated. Douglas writes in his memoirs, We were strapped for funds and had barely kept going. We had done so only by the sacrifices of friends and former students such as Robert Picken who, when I did not want to take his initial gift of $500 promptly proceeded to double it. (page 135, In the Fullness of Time). At the time Picken was not president of a major corporation but a lowly graduate student. The contribution was, indeed, generous. As everyone knows, when the votes were counted, the war hero and the egghead had won.
In 1949, with Douglas in Washington, Picken went to work for Peerless Candy doing what he called gofer work for his father-in-law, its founder and president. He was a natural for the job and responsibilities increased rapidly, so that he abandoned his graduate studies forever in the early 1950's. However, his activities in politics did not cease and his importance to the IVI grew. From the point of view of IVI young bloods such as Louis Silverman, Picken's earlier work in Milwaukee and his position as a successful businessman gave him status with the Old Guard. But to Silverman he showed a flexibility and openness that made him an important mediator between the old and the young. He was quite different from the other leaders, says Silverman, He wasn t an ideologue. He was willing to try new things and he took great joy in the proposition that youth must be served.
The IVI grew famous fighting for lost causes and many, unlike the Douglas campaign, proved to be truly lost. Len Despres and Louis Silverman both tell of an effort that took the organization into the belly of the beast.
In 1953, Silverman and Despres wanted the IVI to expand its activities beyond the lake front. Important leaders such as Paul Douglas were against the move but Bob Picken favored it. When the die was cast he jumped in with his money, a party and his support as Silverman remembers it. In an early application of its new policy, the IVI supported the candidacy of a Republican opponent to Vito Marzullo in the 25th Ward. Marzullo was a lot to tackle but they did it because, in Despres words, he was a malign influence. Marzullo was hardly terrified: You can take all your news media and all the do-gooders in town and move them into my 25th Ward, and do you know what would happen? On election day we d beat you fifteen to one. And, in fact, it was worse than fifteen to one. We carried one precinct, according to Despres, and, buoyed by our success, we went on to support Marmaduke Carter for the state legislature, and won! It was in the these two contests that Leon Despres and Robert Picken experienced the beginning of a long and productive relationship.
By 1954 Picken was still gofering at Peerless but he was well established in the inner circles of liberal politics. And liberal politics wasn t doing too badly. There were liberals (and more important, honest men) in the Senate and the governor's office, and even the outgoing mayor, Martin Kennelly, had been a relief from the unbroken train of hacks dating back to the 20's. In this atmosphere, Chicago's 5th Ward alderman, Robert Merriam, thought he had a chance to be mayor. And, according to Mike Royko he deserved it: A splendid orator, good-looking, knowledgeable, energetic and youthfully mature, Merriam would have been expected to crush Daley in any city but Chicago. (page 87, Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago).
Leon Despres recalls the events that led from Merriam s decision to his own start in elective office:
"In the Fall of 1954, Bob Picken, Richard Meyer, Louis Silverman and I met with Bob Merriam on a Saturday morning and Merriam told us that he was about to run for mayor on the Republican ticket and he needed a strong candidate for alderman in the 5th Ward. He turned to us, to Bob because he had some high position in the IVI, to Louis Silverman because he had managed the campaign for Marmaduke Carter and the campaign [against Marzullo] in the 25th Ward, to Dick Meyer who had been a previous chairman of IVI and to me as current chairman. We four were taken by his confidence in us. He was launching us on a campaign that would at least be significant. We set to work to find a good candidate. But by Thanksgiving weekend we still hadn t found one. That was when Bob Picken, Lou Silverman and Dick Meyer and probably others met separately from me and decided, in desperation, that they would run me for alderman. That started the aldermanic campaign and that started a long association with Bob Picken."
Bob Picken was enormously important to Leon Despres. For many years after his election the two held weekly breakfast meetings in the Despres home which was two doors from the Pickens along Professors Row on 56th Street. They discussed all the issues before the Council and the city and Despres took his friend's advice very seriously:
"For the twenty years that I was alderman, Bob was a source of enormous strength. What was extraordinary about Bob was his remarkable judgment; he just had very, very good political judgment. He seemed to understand what was involved in a campaign and as the campaign wore on, if things didn t go well he understood what the problems were. His practical advice--practical and theoretical, he mingled them--was so good that I really looked forward to those meetings and depended heavily on him. I saved up problems to discuss them with him and was enormously helped by those discussions. He was just a superb person. . . . He was simply first rate. Those sessions stand out in my mind for his remarkable judgment, and his generosity of spirit."
Picken's advice was always welcome but never more so than during the months of 1960 and 1961 when the news was dominated by the story of the Summerdale police scandal. The story began with the discovery of a burglary ring whose members were all policemen out of the burglary detail. It erupted because it not only involved police corruption but suggested enormous inefficiency and lack of control. Despres took a major role in advocating a plan modeled after the independent police commission used in Milwaukee, Bob Picken's old territory. Eventually his idea was adopted, though he thinks now it turned out to be not as important as I hoped, because the Mayor continued to control the commission. It did, however, strike a blow for independence and it certainly brought Despres to prominence. (And it brought television to the City Council when Len O Connor walked in unannounced with his TV crew to cover the hearings. That caused consternation and outrage among the pols, but the cameras are still there.)
All during the months of the scandal Picken was Despres mentor.
"Bob was very good on that issue, I remember. I was really astonished. Bob understood immediately that I had become, without my realizing it, a great source of news. He understood and urged me to continue with my advocacy. As a relatively new alderman I hadn t understood how advocating a position against almost unanimous opposition created a center of interest. It sounds a little simple now but at the time it was an important discovery, thanks to Bob.
Thinking back on it, Despres does not see this as the work that would today come from a media expert, but of a deep political thinker:
He understood public relations as they grew out of the positions in the campaigns you were working on. He was not a public relations expert. That wasn t Bob's forte. His forte was seeing what was deeply involved [in an issue] and developing the public appeal from that."
The weekly meetings with Leon Despres during the 1950's and 1960's were important but they were only a small part of Bob Picken's activities. In 1955 he became president of Peerless Confectioners assuming the job upon the death of his father-in-law. But he was also Chair of the Hyde Park IVI and, in that capacity, was among those who decided that 28-year-old Abner Mikva would get IVI support in his bid for the State legislature. In Hyde Park, that support was crucial, but to Mikva the personal support of Bob Picken was a great asset. I was very young and he brought a kind of gravitas to my campaign, he recalls. He never trumpeted his own cause. He was just incredibly effective. His background in business made him better at dealing with people like Julian Levi and Daley than Len [Despres] and I were. He could see their points of view, and be sympathetic to them without giving in to them. But while he was running the campaign, and sometimes running interference with the likes of Julian Levi and Richard J. Daley, Picken was not above licking envelopes and cleaning up the office. There was no task he wouldn t do, says Mikva, and as the IVI Chair, was not above janitorial worktthe President of Peerless Confections could be found answering his own phone and typing his own letters. On election day, he worked his precinct and found time to visit every other precinct in the 5th Ward with pockets full of candy for the judges.
After he was elected and until he moved from Hyde Park to Evanston, Mikva used Picken as a sounding board. He had incredibly good common sense, especially about financial matters. As one example, he advised me intelligently on the matter of the state income tax, which other people opposed as being anti-business. He, a very successful businessman, explained that businesses don t care so much about the tax itself as about the stability of the tax policy. Good businessmen always know how to price their products to accommodate the local taxes.
The great local political subject of the 50's was urban renewal and in 1958 the issue came to a crisis for Despres. The University, particularly represented by Julian Levi, decided I must be replaced. And, a lot of my original supporters just went away from me. You could feel the support being eroded. Picken may have personally held a different view from Despres. He was moderate on urban renewal, according to Abner Mikva. But his support in the campaign was crucial and he gave it unstintingly. Despres remembers:
"Bob was a stalwart, Bob grasped the issues and felt that, yes, I had raised a significant point, I had risked political support but he never wavered in his feeling that it was an important issue and, yes, he would continue to support me. You might have thought that someone one in Bob's community position might have said, Well, you have jeopardized your own situation. But Bob was a stalwart."
Inevitably Picken became the State Chairman of the IVI and though he still worked his precinct, he was a force to be reckoned with in good government circles. People always asked, Do we have Bob's support? He was one of those people whose stand was always important, remembers Alan Dobry. He was a kind of eminence grise, says Barbara Flynn Currie.
So it is particularly poignant that in 1978 Bob Picken showed just how independent an Independent can be. Barbara Flynn Currie was running for the State House of Representatives for the first time. She stood against a field of eight candidates, among whom was the elderly Louis Caldwell with much better name recognition. IVI endorsement would have helped the young candidate but despite the support of Bob Picken the endorsement was not given.
Bob Picken knew Barbara Currie well and considered her the best candidate. She had worked with his first wife, Doris, in the League of Women Voters and he thought he could predict the kind of legislator she would make. So the sixty-seven year old elder statesman of the Independents quit the IVI to work in the Currie campaign. He put himself into it heart and soul; he worked his precinct; he gave candy to the judges. When she won, he went back to rejoin his party. And Bob's second wife, Rita, who had been President of the Wisconsin State League of Women Voters, arrived in Chicago just in time to pass out literature on blustry IC platforms and shopping centers on behalf of Barbara Flynn Currie in one of her later elections.Books cited:
Paul H. Douglas. In the Fullness of Time: The Memoirs of Paul H. Douglas. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.: New York: 1972
Mike Royko. Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago. E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.: New York: 1971
The author wishes to thank Alan and Lois Dobry, Leon Despres, Louis Silverman, Barbara Flynn Currie and Abner Mikva for speaking with him about Robert Picken, and Frank Zeidler for sending a helpful letter on the subject.
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