When Leonard Cobey, who died Dec. 7 at 92, sold his traditional men's clothing store, Cobey's, in downtown Highland Park in 1986 after 31 years of operation, his influence on the city's central business district was only beginning.
It was Cobey's vision and good nature that enabled him to work with an assortment of people to plant the seeds that have grown into the partnership of property owners, merchants and government that is the Downtown Business Alliance in Highland Park today.
"He got property owners and retailers to work together to beautify downtown Highland Park," said Cobey's son, Mitch.
What Leonard Cobey had no way of knowing was how his initial foray into developing partnerships with people with common interests would transform Highland Park just as his role changed almost accidentally from merchant to both retailer and property owner.
After 20 years in one location on Central Avenue in Highland Park with the familiar windmill on the roof and an old-time bar inside with free pretzels for his customers, he was forced to move a few doors down the street when the landlord decided to become a competitor.
"He was there 20 years and the landlord would not renew his lease," Mitch Cobey said. "So he bought the building a few doors down and moved the store."
Cobey's former landlord removed the windmill but the competition never materialized.
That is when Leonard Cobey became a property owner, too, and began to see things differently, melding efforts of both interests into a stronger central business district for Highland Park.
"Len was the first one to put all three groups together," said Rick Nelson, a downtown Highland Park property owner since 1985 and a force within the Highland Park CBD (Central Business District) Property Owner's Association. "He got us all together to meet with the mayor to discuss central business district issues."
Nelson first met Leonard Cobey as a customer shortly after he moved to Highland Park in 1967.
"I'd take my kids by the store every Saturday for the pretzels. Sometimes I'd buy something and sometimes I wouldn't, but Len was always warm," said Nelson referring to the personality that made it easy to be drawn into Cobey's group.
A fixture in Highland Park for 31 years, the store closed in 1986 although Cobey remained the building's owner and continued his promotion of downtown Highland Park. Eventually, the property owner's association became an official organization and a few years later the Downtown Business Alliance came into being.
By 2008 the property owners decided to give an annual award to the person, "who provides an outstanding contribution to our association and enhances the civic and cultural benefits of our organization," according to Nelson.
Not only was the award named for Leonard Cobey, he was its first recipient on March 23, 2009. "Len was our patriarch," Nelson said. "It was an easy choice."
The following year the award went to both Richard and John Cortesi of Sunset Foods as well as the people whose vision led to the creation of Port Clinton Square: the late Steven Amdur, Paul Cocose, Monte Strusiner and Rick Strusiner.
The family of Leonard Cobey will hold a memorial service on Sunday at 2 p.m., Congregation Solel, 1301 Clavey Road, Highland Park.