CITY BEAT: FIRST-HAND VIEW OF WOMEN’S EMERGENCE AS DECATUR LEADERS OVER PAST HALF-CENTURY
Mark Sorensen has an interesting article on “Women’s Suffrage in Decatur” in this week’s Scrapbook feature on pages 4 and 5 of the print edition of our Decatur Tribune newspaper. August 18 and 26 mark the 100th anniversary of the ratification and certification of the 19th Amendment. Decatur and Macon County were active places in the midst of the effort to give women the right to vote.
Over the half century-plus that I’ve been editor and publisher of this newspaper, I’ve had a ringside seat in watching the gender barriers fall locally. Through my role as newspaper editor, and the years spent in the mayor’s office, I have been able to observe many women emerge into leadership roles that have impacted our community.
Here are just a few of the women “pioneers” that were, and are, long-time friends and are a few mentioned by Mark in his “Scrapbook” article:
• CAROL BRANDT, who passed away earlier this year, was the first woman elected to the Decatur City Council in 1975. As I recalled in this column at the time of her death, I was one of the people she talked with about running for the council. I encouraged and supported her and we remained friends until her passing. I still remember our initial conversation and her commitment to running for office to have a voice to improve her community. Carol served with distinction for years and was a great public servant.
• SENATOR PENNY SEVERNS was the first woman elected by Decatur voters to serve in the Illinois General Assembly in 1985. It’s been 22 years since she passed away in 1998 at the age of 46, but had she lived, there isn’t much doubt she was destined for higher office.
I met Penny, when at the age of 20, she served as an alternate delegate to the 1972 Democratic National Convention. I interviewed her in 1980 when she ran for Congress against Ed Madigan but lost, but that didn’t stop her. A lot of people have probably forgotten that her second attempt for public office, was in a race for a Decatur City Council seat. Not only did she win, but won with the largest number of votes in the city’s history at that time. I found her to be very media-savvy and ran the council race like it was for a national office.
In 1986, she ran for the state senate seat held by Jim Rupp, a former mayor of Decatur and 10-year incumbent. Rupp was also a long-time friend and I ended up with two friends running against each other. I hosted the only debate between the two of them on my nightly “Newsline” television program on WFHL-TV 23. I know that she really got under Rupp’s skin after he heard that she had made some disparaging remarks about him, which really didn’t seem to me like something she would do.
When I met with the two candidates and their assistants in my conference room to go over the details of the debate, it was an awkward meeting but a civil one. After I left the room to go unlock the front door of the Tribune (it was on a Saturday so the office was closed) I thought they were right behind me.
Suddenly, I heard Rupp, in an angry voice, yelling at her “You called me a fat S.O.B! Why don’t you admit it?” I rushed back to the room as Severns was walking out the door and cooly saying as she left the room: “Jim, I don’t think that is worthy of a response.”
After they left, I figured the televised debate would be a real humdinger, an angry piece of work. However, it was not. Both candidates performed well and Rupp had gotten his composure back from the time he had exploded in my office and was quite calm and deliberate in his answers. There was no anger that surfaced.
I remember being in a Downtown Decatur Council business meeting when the subject of the senate race between Jim Rupp and Penny Severns was brought up by one of the businessmen. He said, “that little girl” was going to find out that she has taken on too much to run for that office.” She, of course, won the election. He didn’t know that “the times they were a changin’” right here in Decatur and across the state.
After she won that election, she became one of the most frequent guests on my television program. There were times she came to the studio almost exhausted from her battles in Springfield, but she was never too tired to do the show with me that night. Later she was also a candidate for lt. governor when Dawn Clark Netsch ran for governor. We remained friends until she passed away.
Today, the Penny Severns Transfer Center at 353 E. William St., in Decatur is a reminder of her public service and the portion of Interstate 72 between Springfield and Decatur is named in her honor — just a few of the many ways that she is remembered across the state. That’s a pretty strong legacy for “that little girl” whose life was cut so short by breast cancer at 46.
• PRESENT Decatur Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe was appointed mayor by the council (she was mayor pro-tem before the untimely death of Mayor Mike McElroy 5 years ago) and then was elected to a two-year term in 2017 and a four-year term in 2019, becoming the first woman elected to the office where she still serves during an extremely tough time in this city’s (and the nation’s) history.
I’ve known Julie for many years and she was very supportive during the years I served as mayor and is still a good friend today. The number of former mayors in Decatur is very limited so a conversation between the present mayor and a former mayor is one where both understand the challenges of being mayor and can discuss them freely with each other.
Julie came to my office after Mayor Mike McElroy passed away and, as mayor pro-tem she was not only grieving the loss of our mutual friend, but getting advice from me and others she talked with, on whether she should accept appointment to fill out the remainder of McElroy’s term until the next election. As she told me when she was thinking over her decision on whether to be appointed to the mayor’s position, “I never intended to be mayor” but, obviously, the death of Mayor McElroy changed that and she felt she needed to step up at a critical time. She had served on the city council for several years before being appointed mayor.
She was appointed by her fellow council members, then ran successfully for the two-year unexpired term and won — becoming the first female mayor in our city’s history. She also ran for a full four-year term and won re-election. There’s no doubt that she is mayor during an extremely rough time with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic making it hard on our community — and communities all over the nation. Julie remains not only a long-time friend, but someone I admire for handling so much that has been thrown at her because of the pandemic. Believe me, from personal experience, a lot of people are experts on what it takes to make difficult decisions — as long as they don’t have to make them and be criticized and personally attacked for those decisions. This is a difficult time to be mayor of any city because of the impact of the pandemic.
• TODAY, about everywhere I look in local, state and national governments, women are serving in public office because voters chose them to do so. I’ve mentioned only a few, but we have so many women in our community serving in leadership positions that would have been unheard of when I started as the young editor of this newspaper over a half century ago. In fact, it is so common today that when people go to the polls, or appointments are made, gender is no longer a consideration in choosing the people we want to represent us — at least in our community.
It seems like only yesterday that Carol Brandt walked into my office and told me that she was going to run for city council. Good for her!!!
• SORRY to learn of the sudden passing of former Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson, Friday night, who passed away in the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in downtown Chicago. He was 84. He was there because he had been having some heart problems, and, apparently his heart just stopped and CPR efforts by medical staff and fire department personnel failed. Thompson, a Republican from Chicago, was first elected governor in 1976 and served four consecutive terms, an Illinois record.
I covered “Big Jim” in my role as editor of this newspaper during those years and I was one of the journalists invited to the governor’s mansion a few times, where, after dinner and a short speech by Thompson, we had the opportunity to chat informally with him and his wife, Jane, in the mansion’s library and a few other rooms. I remember, as I was walking into a room adjacent to the mansion’s library, that Jane Thompson asked if I could go inform her husband that it was time for Samantha (their young daughter) to go to bed and she needed him to help with that nightly chore. When I went back into the library, I discreetly told the governor what his wife had told me, and he immediately departed the room!
I also remember when Governor Thompson was holding a news conference at the Decatur Club and he looked really tired. He opened the conference by saying how pleased he was to be in Peoria…and then, when we had a puzzled look on our faces, he continued by saying, “I’m pleased to be anywhere today.”
Another memory was the time he was late for the ground breaking ceremony for Richland Community College and all of us were burning up from the 100 degree heat and there was no shade in that open field. When the governor finally arrived, he went on the stage and waved at everyone and then proceeded to sit on one of the metal chairs that had been baking in the sun, with the rest of us, for a long time. As soon as he sat down on the chair, the expression on his face…well you can imagine! I think everyone who had waited for so long for him to arrive, maybe felt a little “payback” had occurred. Ouch!!!!
• FOUNTAIN: Thanks to City Councilman Bill Faber for sending me two photos of the restored drinking fountain in Fairview Park, which are printed on page 15 of this week’s Tribune. When he sent the email he mentioned the fountain had only recently become operational.
• CITY PLEA: The City of Decatur has issued the following plea: “Please continue to avoid large gatherings and wear masks. If you or your business needs masks, contact the City to see what we can provide to you. We have had a lot of different types and have provided tens of thousands to the community already in the past 4 months.
“We know as humans we are resistant to change but we can make it a habit to adhere to the CDC guidelines. It doesn’t become real until we know it can happen to someone close to us.
“If you haven’t completed the 2020 census you can go to 2020 census.gov. The head count for the 2020 Census will have a direct input on the City’s 2021 budget, taxes and bottom line. If you have not responded to the Census, there will be Census workers going door to door to talk with the people who have not yet responded.”
• SO SORRY to hear of the passing of Clinton Joe Keller, one of my classmates at Roosevelt Junior High School when we were growing up. (Obituary on page 19 of print edition.) It seems like only yesterday that we were in the same home room at Roosevelt. He and Carol celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary on June 19th. We printed their photo and write up in our June 10th edition. My condolences and prayers to Carol and their family on their loss.
• HOOOORAYYYY!!!! Work on U. S. 51 South out of Decatur is starting this week! The Illinois Department of Transportation announced last week that construction on U.S. 51 from Business U.S. 51 southwest of Decatur to just north of the Shelby County line begins this week. If you have ever had the “opportunity” to travel this road out of Decatur (many of you have including me) you know that it is like traveling by stagecoach to drive to your destination! The only drawback is that it won’t be finished until next spring but it will be worth the wait and inconvenience once it is completed.
• WHAT’S SUD? Our newspaper’s business offices in Suite 424 at the Millikin Court Building, 132 South Water Street, have been closed to public access since the middle of March. I just want to make sure that my staff and those who come to our offices are not exposed needlessly to the coronavirus. Fortunately, most of our contacts are through the mail at P. O. Box 1490, Decatur, IL 62525-1490, by phone at 217/422-9702 (Mon.-Thurs. from 9:00 until 4:30) or fax 217/422-7320 or through our newspaper’s email address at firstname.lastname@example.org
However, there is still a need for some to deliver documents, renewals, news releases, etc. to our office. So, we have been taking care of those needs with SUD (Slide Under Door) of our office. That’s what some of you are doing and I appreciate it. Maybe I just created a new term — SUD! (Not to be confused with DUD.)
I can’t wait for the first note or email from a reader who writes: “Tried to slide under your door, but my head wouldn’t fit!” (smile)
• I ENJOY joining (by phone) Brian Byers on WSOY’s Byers & Co., every Thursday morning at 7:00. I’m pleased that the “City Hall Insider” part of his program has continued through the pandemic. It will be great to get back in the studio once it is safe for some regular routines to start.
STAY SAFE EVERYONE!