Sunday, September 02, 2012

Lillis-Albina Park expedition

Lillis-Albina Park

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Today's adventure takes us to North Portland's Lillis-Albina Park, which is sort of your basic neighborhood park: Baseball fields, playground equipment, and picnic benches. I usually don't bother with places like this, but this one offers an excuse to dive into the Oregonian archives and read up on the guy the park's named for, and this turns out to be a fairly interesting topic.

The city parks website describes the place thusly:

Until 1947, this was known as Albina Park, since it is in what was once the City of Albina. In 1941, some residents requested that the park be renamed Mike Lillis Park. Michael Edward Lillis was a police officer on the Albina Park beat who was well-liked in that neighborhood. He had been a strong advocate for the park and the children in that area. Other neighbors felt that the park should keep its original name. In 1947, there was a compromise and since then the park has been named Lillis-Albina Park.

Lillis-Albina Park

The more I read about Officer Lillis, the more he sounds like a stock character from a corny old black and white movie: The kindly Irish policeman who looked after the neighborhood's juvenile delinquents, like something right out of "The Little Rascals". His obituary in the October 10, 1941 Oregonian sang his praises:

Lillis, who was born in Portland on Christmas day, 1880, moved against Albina's high rate of juvenile delinquency by joining with business men in organizing the Central East Side Portland Community club, which now has more than 500 members among the district's youngsters.

He was the principal force behind the successful drive for a community house, where the children of the district could be entertained, and was working by day and dreaming by night at the time of his death for a park, complete with all the facilities for amusing his young pals.

His greatest day was graduation day at Elliott school, when he signed all the diplomas with gold ink.

Lillis seldom, if ever, took a delinquent boy to court, preferring to sit down with the young accused and straighten the matter out "man to man". Parents often sent their children to him for advice, which always flowed freely and wisely from the "blue knight".

Halloween, once a night of terror in Albina, was turned into an evening of fun and frolic by the smiling Irish patrolman, who got all the youngsters together in the community house, where he served cider and cookies.

"Mike Lillis was my idea of a good policeman," Mayor Earl Riley said. "By courtesy and cooperation with the people on his beat he commanded respect and support of all. While he was the law in Albina, he was at the same time a part of the community, a leader and a worker for general and individual improvement. He will be missed not only by the district but by the police department."

Christmas day found the officer busily engaged in providing for the district's needy, but it wasn't only on Christmas that he treated the youngsters. He was always "good" for a piece of candy or some ice cream.

The next day's Oregonian continued the kind words, with an editorial and a cartoon in his memory.

In later years several reader testimonials about Officer Lillis appeared in the Oregonian's pages:

A letter published December 26th, 1949:

It was with real satisfaction that I read that the city council has named the recreational area at N. Russell and Flint, "Lillis Albina" park.

Every time I traverse Vancouver avenue at the Eliot school crossing I conjure up the memory of that smiling burly Irish "cop" as he escorted the youngsters across that safety lane with solicitude and many a kindly word.

It is only a few paces from there that on many occasions we held court in a small office down an alley way and many are the lads who were saved from going to court by an informal hearing and admonition.

If he were living today he would rejoice over the advent of Micky Pease and the Pal club to that section. Your cartoon of October 11, 1941, drawn by Ralph Lee entitled "There'll always be Mike LIllis" is one of the treasured items in my scrap book.

John G. Kilpack

Another letter, dated June 19th, 1981:

I read with a great deal of interest your articles on the Portland Police Bureau, especially about problems in the Albina district. I wonder if the bureau might be smart to do a little research into its past.

I came to Portland in the mid-1920s, and Albina had problems then -- the Poles, the Finns, the Danes, the Germans -- never a dull moment. There was one difference -- Police Officer Mike LIllis.

In his many years in that district, the courts routinely paroled many people to Lillis, and it's hard to say how many he helped on his own.

He was a soft-spoken, compassionate man. His friends were many, and he was held in high regard by all. There's a park named in his honor (LIllis Albina Park, North Russell Street and Flint Avenue).

In these two-fisted opossum-throwing times maybe the bureau would do well to read its own history. What it is doing is not working.

Harold Luebke

Lillis-Albina Park

So, I'm an incorrigible cynic, and I when I run across a story this sappy and old-fashioned-sounding, I immediately wonder what the rest of the story is. You can't have a police career that's just nothing but juvenile social work, right? I figured there's bound to be a more complex story here somewhere. But if there was, it went unreported by the local paper of record; the Oregonian basically shows a long unblemished career of tireless do-gooding. Some examples:

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