Published June 26, 2014
Community House's lineage of leadership
Only three executive directors have shepherded the organization in
the past five decades
By Pamela Lannom
Jeni Fabian has heard the stories about the day Ly Hotchkin had to trample through snowbanks to get to work at The Community House.
“I walked through snow over my knees because no one could get through,” said Hotchkin, recalling the blizzard of 1967. “I wanted to make sure the boilers were working. If they weren’t working, I don’t know what I would have done.”
That was almost 50 years ago.
But the story lives on because that’s the kind of place The Community House is, a place where stories are told and treasured and people are remembered.
And the women who have led it — first Hotchkin, then Theresa Forthofer and now Jeni Fabian — have shepherded The Community House from an organization that primarily rented out space to one that serves thousands of individuals each year through programs ranging from recreation to counseling to support for families with autism.
In its 73-year history, The Community House has had dozens of board chairmen.
Its roll of executive directors is just three names long.
In the beginning
Ly Hotchkin started working for The Community House as a temporary bookkeeper and house chairman in 1956. By 1958, she had been named director and in 1961 she had been named the agency’s first executive director.
Prior to her arrival, two gentleman — Arthur Bell and Talky Blank — had run the organization under the title of director.
When she joined the staff, Hotchkin said The Community House was engaged mainly in one task: renting space to community organizations like women’s clubs and school groups.
“We had no services,” Hotchkin said.
That wasn’t the case for long. When friends at the United Way suggested she add a social work component to The Community House, she was happy to comply.
“It was right up my alley,” said Hotckhin, who studied sociology in college.
“We started with job placement, youth employment services and then we went to counseling. From counseling (we) worked with police, (and offered) foster care. We actually took kids up to a three-week period in homes.
“Then I started a committee to do a senior program and they all teased me and said that’s because you’re going to be one,” she said. “It took 10 years for the board to approve a senior center setup. Once they did it took off like lightning.
“I think it’s been one of the best programs,” added Hotchkin, who will celebrate her 90th birthday later this summer. “It’s very popular with we old folk.”
Making the transition
As Hotchkin was planning to end her 37-year career at The Community House in 1995, Theresa Forthofer was working as director of the Wheaton Park District’s Senior Center.
“I loved my job, absolutely loved it,” she said.
Then fate stepped in.
“There was a gentleman who did financial courses for me at the senior center who also was doing work at The Community House and heard the executive director there was retiring and thought that might be something I would like,” she said.
The timing wasn’t the best for a job change, as Forthofer had just given birth to her oldest son, but she decided to put in her resume.
“Then I started learning about The Community House and got really excited about all the things it did,” she said. “Social work, recreation, seniors, kids — all of the things that I liked and was interested in were in one organization, which I thought was pretty cool and unique, and I loved the fact that it was a community-based organization — not unlike a park district, where you really get ingrained in the community, and I got the job.
“I was very young,” she added. “I think I was 25 or 26.”
And she had some big shoes to fill.
“I remember Ly, when I started, making me sit in her desk and how uncomfortable that was as we transitioned. How do you replace somebody who has been there for 37 years and knew everybody and I didn’t know anybody?
“She made it so easy and comfortable and really encouraged me and supported me. It’s hard. How do you replace a legend?”
Moving toward the future
“Try replacing two,” Jeni Fabian replied to Forthofer’s comments about taking the reigns from Hotchkin. “Everything you’ve just said about Ly I want to echo about both of you. It’s such a gift to have this lineage here, all of us alive, everyone still coming to the table to support this wonderful organization. It’s a little intimidating and it’s a little exciting to think of where we can go next.”
And just where The Community House will go next is now the responsibility of Fabian, who became the agency’s third executive director in September 2011. Forthofer had left to become president and chief executive officer of Easter Seals DuPage Fox Valley.
A Pennsylvania native, Fabian came to Chicago after college to do volunteer work with homeless adults in Chicago as part of a church-based program. She’s worked at a variety of nonprofit organizations and churches and has experience with community theater and community music organizations.
“I’m really moved by the way communities come together to identify ways to work together, ways to solve problems, ways to build relationships. That’s what was most compelling about The Community House. It’s just a wonderful example of what communities can create and the amazing talent and passion and impact that can come out of that.”
A strong supporting cast
All three women attribute The Community House’s success to its board of directors. Forthofer credits Hotchkin for setting the standard of what that board would look like.
“One of the things that Ly did so incredibly well was create a solid board of directors that really were and are just real leaders in the community, real quality board members, and that is something that is so vital to a community organization,” she said.
Hotchkin agrees about the importance of the board but characteristically minimizes her influence.
“Frankly I think it was the board that made The Community House run, and that’s about the only smart thing I did was schmooze up to the right people,” she said. “If you get a Howie Dean on the board as chairman, there are many guys in the community who want to do business with him. They would say yes to me (to serve on the board) because of him and because of The Community House, not because of me.
“I can remember asking Fred Krehbiel and Phil Rooney to be on our stationery,” she recalled. “Their names appearing on the stationery had great power.”
Forthofer said it can be intimidating to work with “amazingly smart” board members, but she appreciated learning from people like Sally Porter and Ann Grube.
“Ann Grube, I consider her my mentor to this day,” Forthofer said.
Fabian said board members have provided brilliant oversight of the organization’s investments, which has allowed The Community House to weather the ups and downs nonprofits face from time to time.
“It’s a unique opportunity to be able to lead with so many talented people,” Fabian added. “That’s not something you find in many places.”
As plans are in the works for The Community House’s 75th anniversary in 2016, Fabian said she’s not sure what the future holds for the building at Eighth and Madison streets.
“I see The Community House as reflecting the passions and the interests of the community,” she said. “I think it’s our role to tap into those conversations to listen to what people are excited about and how we can be a reflection of that.
“I don’t know what the next new thing will be for The Community House. We’re thinking about arts programming or recreation offerings. If we match what people are excited about, then the help will follow.”
Whatever path the agency follows, the three women are confident it will always be a central part of the community.
“I think it’s a part of what makes Hinsdale feel a little bit like Mayberry,” Forthofer said. “I think it really exemplifies what’s great about Hinsdale and the surrounding communities.”
The Community House does exude that small-town vibe — especially when unusual requests come in.
“People would call The Community House like people would call 411,” Forthofer said. “Our rule at the front desk was look it up and give them what they want. We literally would look things up in the phone book to be able to answer their question.”
Fabian remembered a caller who wanted to know if someone could water her plants while she was on vacation.
“We found a volunteer to do it,” she said.
The Community House is able to offer that assistance and the much-needed support for people in need because of the many generous individuals who support it, Hotchkin said. That makes The Community House a very special place in her opinion.
“What an asset,” she said. “Where would we be without it? I just think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
Executive director: 1961-95
Education: bachelor’s in social studies/sociology from the University of Chicago
Self-description: a pushy broad
Greatest accomplishment at TCH: moving from renting space to providing social services and other programs
“It gave us a chance to do social things like seniors and youth employment,” she said. “It wasn’t some other organization renting it. We were doing it.”
Thoughts on TCH: “Thirty-seven years at The Community House were an absolute delight. I met some of the finest people on this planet, and I am forever indebted to The Community House and to the community for that.”
Executive director: 1995-2011
Education: bachelor’s in gerontology and master’s in education and special recreation from Bowling Green State University
Childhood aspiration: wanted to be a veterinarian
Greatest accomplishment at TCH: the $9 million renovation and expansion project, broadening the organization’s impact and making Charlie’s Gift Autism Center part of TCH
“That was really important and meaningful both personally and professionally,” said Forthofer, who discovered not long before that both her sons had autism.
Thoughts on TCH: “It really exemplifies the best of what a community can accomplish when they come to together, whether it’s to have fun, to throw a party, to recreate, to seek services that are needed, and just how people come together to support it.”
Executive director: 2011-present
Education: bachelor’s in biology from Penn State University, master’s in public health from the University of Illinois at Chicago
Childhood aspiration: wanted to be a figure skater or join the Peace Corps
Greatest accomplishment at TCH: creating a junior board of 60 high school students to help steer the organization.
“That is such an amazing and wonderful connection that opens up those relationships that we’ve already had from volunteers and events,” she said. “Launching that as a formal arm of The Community House has been a wonderful thing.”
Thoughts on TCH: “The Community House is a place where people come to have fun, to learn new things, meet their neighbors and also a place where they turn in tough times. I think that combination is part of the beauty and the treasure that (the organization) is for the community.”