90 and not slowing down
Noel B. Cummings has been Hodgkins’ mayor since 1979
By Steve Metsch
Noel B. Cummings was hard at work on Oct. 19, pretty much like every day since he was first elected mayor of Hodgkins in 1979.
He probably chatted up a few developers interested in the village, or call a few himself. He likely talked with a resident or two who stops at the village hall with a problem.
He visited with longtime friend and village attorney John O’Connell, whose office is down the hall. And probably joined O’Connell for lunch at Buck’s Pit Stop, a short walk from the dazzling Noel B. Cummings Administration Center.
And he did enjoy a slice of birthday cake. After all, he turned 90 on Oct. 19.
Yes, Cummings is still mayor at an age when most men – provided they are in good health – are fishing, playing bingo, or simply enjoying their retirement. He’s a bit hard of hearing, but has bright eyes, a quick smile, and a firm handshake.
Cummings, who retired years ago from International Harvester in Chicago, has been elected mayor 10 times. When his current term ends in 2019, will have been village president for 40 years.
“I just enjoy what I’m doing. I enjoy helping people. I want to help people live together, love and respect each other,” he said Monday in his office.
Cummings, who grew up on a farm in Mississippi, said his family survived the Great Depression because they lived off the land, needing only to buy sugar and coffee. He and Nelda Benick were 17 and 16 when they married.
He was drafted into the Army for World War II, serving in Germany from 1945 to 1947.
It was in the Army that Cummings received two important lessons, about working together and respect, that he said have helped him as mayor.
One was a tough, physical lesson in which groups of soldiers were asked, using ropes, to pull out a truck stuck in a muddy creek bed.
“At first, they had two groups of solders, 10 on each rope. We couldn’t move that truck. So out came another group, and another,” he recalled.
So it went until 100 soldiers “pulled that truck right through the mud and up on dry ground. When we got it up there and stopped, our instructor said, ‘Soldiers, this shows you what you can do when the whole team works together. There’s no limit to what you can do.’ He said, ‘That’s how we won the war’,” Cummings recalled. “What a message.”
He remembered it years later, inviting political opponents to join the administration.
“After the election, I called them in and said, ‘You guys want to do something good for Hodgkins? I do, too. I want you to join me. I want to form a planning committee and put all of you on it’,” he recalled.
“They asked, ‘What are we going to do?’ I pointed over to the motor freight terminal and said, ‘We’re going to make a shopping center out of that’,” he said.
The Quarry Shopping Center, at Joliet and LaGrange roads, has a Walmart, Sam’s Club, Target and other stores, restaurants and an AMC movie theater.
When he called Sam’s Club headquarters to lure them, he wound up talking with Sam Walton. Cummings’ Southern accent greased the skids.
Walton perked up when Cummings told him Hodgkins, population 2,300, had 1 million people in a 10-mile radius.
“He said, ‘If it’s like that, we’ll bring both of them, Walmart and Sam’s Club’,” Cummings said.
It’s among his crowning achievements, up there with a huge UPS distribution center, a sprawling Menard’s, Continental Toyota, Point Blank gun range, an OTB parlor, and a large industrial park.
The other Army lesson was about treating others with respect.
“Our job was to patrol the streets in Germany. Our instructor told us, ‘Soldiers, if you stop a lady, you treat her with the same respect as if she was your mother or your sister. If you stop a man, you treat him like he was your father, grandfather or brother, with all the respect in the world’,” Cummings said.
He’s used that approach dealing with people like Sam Walton or a disgruntled resident.
“That’s what got us where we’re at. They respect us. All the businesses give us a good name because we’re out there to help them. When you move into the village, business or resident, you become a Hodgkinite and become part of our team,” he said.
“I think of that tow rope around our village. Every resident, every business has a hand on that rope and we’ve pulled our village up onto solid ground.”
Village employee Jodi Ellsworth fondly recalls when she and husband Terry, a UPS driver, moved into town three years ago. They had dinner at Buck’s Pit Stop. Owner Buck Roderick called the mayor when he learned they were new residents.
“The mayor came down at 8 o’clock at night, shook our hands and welcomed us. This is like a family here,” she said.
Cummings, who still has a home in Burnsville, Miss., moved to Chicago after the war “because that’s where the jobs were.” He was a welder at Electro-Motive and then at International Harvester, eventually retiring from there as a supervisor.
He moved his family from Chicago to Hodgkins in 1961 after Nelda learned Lyons Township High School was considered one of the best in the state.
They wanted the best possible education for son Dan and daughter Sherry.
He first ran for village trustee in 1975 after “my friends talked me into it.” He won and never looked back.
O’Connell said Cummings has succeeded “because he’s has no preconceived attitudes.”
“You come up with a good idea, he’ll take it. Now he may take credit for it,” O’Connell said with a laugh, “but he’s always had an open attitude.”
“This town,” he added, “is nothing like it was 35 years ago.”
Cummings offers this advice: “If someone comes up with a better idea and you don’t accept it, then you’re a fool.
“There’s nobody on Earth who is perfect. We’ve only had one perfect person and He was crucified.
“If we go looking for things people did wrong and complain about, that brings everybody down. If you get up and meet your neighbor and talk to them, find that good stuff and brag about it,” Cummings said. “That’s what I’ve tried to do as mayor.”
Asked if he’ll seek an 11th term in 2019, he smiled and said, “It depends how I’m feeling. We’ll leave it up the guy up there.”
— Desplaines Valley News