Updated: June 10, 2013 10:57AM
My recent visit to the small, nondescript office of the Little Village Community Council on 26th Street was briefly interrupted by a local businessman looking for August Sallas, the council president.
The man told Sallas he knew of two area residents down on their luck and in need of financial assistance with gas and electric bills.
“I know someone who can help with that,” Sallas said, pulling a name and number from a seemingly endless list of connections. In this case he directed the man to someone who assists the poor with applications for utility company hardship programs.
Whether a student volunteer for the council needs a letter of recommendation or a poor elderly resident with a rotting tooth needs a dentist willing to do an extraction nearly for free, Sallas is there to help.
He is a neighborhood old-timer and problem-solver for the community. He declined to give his age, saying, “I’m too old.”
It helps to have connections in this world, and Sallas has many that he acquired first as a Chicago printers’ union leader, then as a staff assistant for Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Office of Inquiry and Information. He spent several years as a greeter and tour guide in the information booth at City Hall.
Far more than a friendly face, he went out of his way to be helpful. He told me about a Chicago Housing Authority resident who came in to complain about hallway lights that had not worked for months.
Sallas called the building manager, who told him the lighting vendor kept putting her off. Sallas stepped in and the vendor followed through.
When elderly folks were being scammed by contractors or mechanics, Sallas wrote up complaints for them for the Department of Consumer Services.
Some City Hall staffers told Sallas not to get involved. “Just tell them to call 311,” he remembers hearing. He scoffed at the suggestion. “They were going to get the run-around.”
He has a soft spot for the poor, perhaps because he is familiar with their struggles. He spent most of his childhood in an orphanage after his father died of tuberculosis and his mother became too sick from the disease to care for him. From humble beginnings, he grew well acquainted with politicians and business leaders because of his union work.
In retirement, he has written The Hispanic Times newsletter that he contributes to the North Lawndale Community News, but the top priority is the council.
Among its services for residents, the council gives away clothes, puts on legal clinics and health fairs, brings in beauty school students to give haircuts and gives out school supplies and backpacks in August.
“We’re helping people any which way we can,” he said.
Truth be known, the council is always on the verge of extinction. It relies on donations, and Sallas might be the most generous. A business owner told me Sallas pays the property taxes on the building.
I asked Sallas about that, and he reluctantly confirmed it. If the building closed, all the services and the Museum of Mexican Culture and History housed in the same building would probably vanish, he said.
“I’m trying to keep the doors open and the lights on,” he added.
Another problem that needs solving is surely on the way.