Chicago Ridge Mayor Eugene Siegel looks over the collection of sports and political photographs he has acquired in his 38 year tenure in office at the village hall in Chicago Ridge, Illinois, Friday, January 31, 2013. He is not seeking re-election. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 11, 2013 6:10AM
Look around Chicago Ridge Mayor Gene Siegel’s office and 38 years worth of memories are stuffed in boxes all over the place.
His desk and a nearby table are covered with items. It’s almost hard to decipher the color of the walls, given all the framed photographs of various celebrities.
Hey, when you’re in the same job for nearly four decades, things add up.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with all this stuff,” he said. “These are things people have given me over the years. Some of it I’ve gotten by myself.”
There are plenty of items and photos autographed by politicians and singers and athletes, with those signed by Stan Musial and Bobby Hull among his favorites.
“I’ve been fortunate to meet some of my sports heroes,” he said.
They eventually retired from their sports when they knew the time had come. Siegel is the same way, deciding that after 38 years “it’s time” to move on.
When Siegel does leave office in May, he’ll be replaced by Charles Tokar, the village clerk who is running unopposed for mayor, a full-time position, in the April 9 election.
Siegel says he never planned to stay in office this long. It just happened.
He was elected in 1975 to fill an unexpired term. He was re-elected nine times, most recently in 2009. And in each election, Siegel never lost a precinct.
“We were just a poor bedroom community and we had no tax base,” Siegel recalled.
He started focusing on improving the streets, which had no drainage and some which were not paved.
“But where are you going to get the money? That’s when the mall started coming into view,” he said.
“Sears wanted to build at 95th and Pulaski in Oak Lawn, and the people there didn’t want it. We met the developer and they convinced Sears to come to 95th and Ridgeland. They bought the whole property,” he said.
The mall provided tax revenue to make improvements around the village.
A public works facility, the current municipal complex — named after Siegel — and a 130-acre industrial park also are among Siegel’s accomplishments. He also was instrumental in getting the full-time fire department established.
“We had a volunteer department and one day the chief said, ‘Mayor, I’m having trouble getting volunteers to answer ambulance calls at night.’ Knowing the mall was coming in, we established a full-time department and paramedics unit because I didn’t want to be left with someone needing an ambulance and nobody there for them,” he said.
Siegel was challenged in his last three elections by opponents “who said I was in too long.” He beat each one.
“A lot of people wanted me to run again,” he said.
Asked the secret to success, he said “I try to treat people the way I’d want to be treated.”
“I never looked down on anybody,” he said.
Secretary Marlene Burgan has been working with Siegel every step of the way. She’s also retiring.
She’s been impressed by his dedication to detail over the years as the village population grew from 2,000 to 15,000 people.
Through the years Siegel did it his way, much like Frank Sinatra — another celebrity whose autographed photo adorns a wall.
But unlike “Ol’ Blue Eyes,” when it comes to regrets, he has none.
“I think I’ve accomplished a lot for a guy who didn’t have a college degree,” the former Illinois Municipal League president said.
There’s a road near village hall named for Siegel’s first wife, Virginia, who died in 1996. She was involved in many village activities.
His wife of 12 years, Linda, is often with him at village events including Christmas lunches for seniors and the children’s Christmas party he hosts.
Glancing around his expansive collection of memorabilia, he said with a smile that Linda may have a thing or two to say about what he brings home from work after that last day.