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A First Lady Comes Home
Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 1997 hometown celebration in Park Ridge, Illinois, launched an unprecedented political career and a neighborhood frenzy.
This is the second and final part of the story “Park Ridge Is the ‘Village’ That Helped Raise Hillary Rodham Clinton.” Read the first part here.
It was a cold late-October day in 1997 and the Saccomannos’ Park Ridge, Illinois, home at the corner of Elm and Wisner streets was teeming with Secret Service agents. The agents’ eyes were locked on the Georgian brick house directly across the tree-lined street. They were prepping for the arrival of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had grown up in the Georgian.
Sue Saccomanno and her husband, Joe, who worked for the city, remember the day well. Clinton was returning to her childhood home in the community that had shaped her to celebrate her 50th birthday. Outside, the streets were closed off and folding chairs were set out for hundreds of neighbors and guests at the exclusive invitation of the first lady.
“There was more security than I could ever imagine,” Sue Saccomanno tells East Wing Magazine, adding that she allowed her then-teenage daughter to stay home from school and her sons to come home at lunch to watch the hoopla unfold around them. The Saccomannos’ daughter attended Main South High School, where Hillary Clinton graduated in 1965 in the top 5 percent of her class.
Across the street from the Saccomannos’ home, preparations were underway for the catered tea party, hosted by the woman living in the former Rodham home located in the Republican-leaning neighborhood. Sue Saccomanno will never forget her neighbor’s comment about the first lady she was hosting: “I’m really not sure I want a woman president.” Even to Sue Saccomanno at the time, this nostalgic visit to Park Ridge by the first lady signaled something more than just a milestone birthday party.
At the time, media accounts reported Hillary Clinton addressing attendees at the party and reminiscing about Park Ridge. "I can hear in the back of my head all the yells and screams of all of us playing here all those years ago," Hillary Clinton said.
The birthday celebration spurred other action in the community, like at the Pickwick Restaurant across the street from the Park Ridge Public Library that served a special Hillary Burger with chopped green olives, which she even ordered while in town for the party.
In 1997, city officials had placed a street marker on the corner of Elm and Wisner named Rodham Corner. Similar commemorative signs, one after another, would come and go over time for various reasons. In 2016, when Clinton won the Democratic nomination for president, the local school board named the Field Elementary School Learning Resource Center after her in recognition of the historic candidacy. Clinton attended Field from kindergarten through sixth grade.
“We believe the rich and rigorous education [Clinton] received in District 64 inspired her to discover her strength, become a lifelong learner, strive for personal excellence and demonstrate caring as a member of our global society,” District 64 Superintendent Laurie Heinz said in a statement at the time of the naming.
The education she received in Park Ridge shouldn’t be discounted, according to Allida Black, historian and advisor to Clinton. Black believes the community set the tone for Clinton to stand up for herself and be confident in what she thinks. “You had public schools that were extraordinarily effective,” Black says.
The “Hillary” experience
More than 25 years later, the Saccomannos reflect on that historic day in 1997, how the neighborhood has evolved and how, in many ways, it has stayed the same.
Sitting on her living room sofa on a quiet Sunday morning this past August, Sue Saccomanno calls out to her husband down the hall: “Do you want to say anything about the ‘Hillary’ experience?”
Joe Saccomanno hesitates before getting up from playing with his grandchildren saying, “Bill Clinton was in this house, too.” He pauses and then candidly addresses the question. “I mean, it was interesting. At times, it was difficult because this is a very Republican area, and a lot of people didn’t like Hillary in this neighborhood.” Indeed, Clinton was a Barry Goldwater Republican until she changed her views in 1968 while attending Wellesley College.
Joe Saccomanno recalls another time standing at his front door next to his teenage daughter when he spotted Clinton, then the first lady, walking down their street with media in tow. Suddenly, he says, Clinton turned, stopped and said, “Hi, Joe!” She then spoke with him briefly.
“She was a wonderful woman. Very, very nice,” he says of Clinton.
His wife nods in agreement.
“She couldn’t have been more gracious,” echoes Sue Saccomanno. “She won me over.”
The impressions of the spectacle of that 1997 autumn day still linger.
The curiosity of Park Ridge
As time went by and Clinton’s political profile grew, the neighborhood once again hosted a frenzy of activity. This time it came in the form of tourists. The Saccomannos, outwardly friendly folks, became accustomed to a steady stream of tourists outside their home. Cars would drive by “real slow,” remembers Sue Saccomanno, pull over and take pictures of the Rodham house and sign. And if the Saccomannos happened to be outside, tourists would turn to them and ask: “Did you know her?” Notably, Sue Saccomanno recalls a lot of foreign tourists, particularly a large German family that piled out in front of the home. Sue Saccomanno, who happened to be outside, offered to take their group picture. “‘Oh my God, yeah!’ They were so happy,” she says.
For quite a while, there was a lot of traffic back and forth. Not so much now. The Rodham Corner sign, designed with white lettering against a green background, has been resituated up high on a streetlight pole. It can be easily overlooked by passersby, hidden in the tree canopy.
“I think after the last [election loss] people kind of fell off,” Sue Saccomanno says, shaking her head about that 2016 presidential election against Donald J. Trump. “It’s too bad. I would have liked to have seen her as president. I think that would have been very interesting.”
Had the 2016 presidential election turned out differently, Black believes other preservation efforts — like considering the Rodham home a historical site — might have been put into action. “There would have been no question that this would have been done had 2016 turned out differently,” Black told East Wing Magazine in a recent Zoom interview.
Data from the 2016 presidential election shows that Clinton won a majority of the votes in her hometown, although not by a large margin. She garnered 54 percent of the votes cast in Park Ridge’s precincts, according to the Chicago Tribune.
The story of Park Ridge, in terms of Clinton, is complicated, Black goes on to say. It’s not simply a story of a young girl with loving yet fierce and demanding parents. It’s not just a story of a girl with great friends and phenomenal teachers.
“It’s what she did with it,” Black says. “Hillary challenged the women and the girls of the world to stand up and not take abuse. And to use their voice to build more just communities.”
With that in mind, Black believes any future commemorative sites for Clinton should be dedicated to deep interpretation of her global contributions. Despite all her accomplishments, Clinton still remains a lightning rod in America. Black says the reason is that she doesn’t quit, adding that her work, much of it behind the scenes, demonstrates her unfathomable commitment to advance the work she believes in.
It may not be understood now, but Black believes the second wave of history, perhaps 20 years from now, will show the kind of watershed person Clinton came to be. “Hillary is that force.”
“It does take a village”
For now, though, the Saccomannos enjoy reminiscing about their proximity to the beginnings of a political powerhouse. Sue Saccomanno contemplates Clinton’s 1996 book “It Takes a Village,” in which she presents her vision for America’s future by focusing on the impact individuals and groups outside the family have on children, for better or worse.
Sue Saccomanno remembers the mixed reaction to the book when it was published, how people around her in Park Ridge took issue with it because they felt families should raise their own kids and not rely on the forces around them. Sue Saccomanno thought about that for a long time afterward.
“As you get a little bit older and you see your kids grow up and the influence other people have — good or bad — it does take a village, I think,” she says. “And this was always a nice community to raise kids.”
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