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One couple's decades-long commitment to a safer, more equitable Bloomington-Normal

 A finely dressed couple smiles at the camera
McLean County Museum of History
Charles, left, and Willie Halbert are part of the 2023 class of McLean County History Makers. Both have been active civil servants during and beyond their professional careers.

The selection committee for this year’s class of History Makers recognized Willie and Charles Halbert’s decades of activism and commitment to making Bloomington-Normal a safer, more equitable place to live.

Willie Holton and Charles Halbert grew up near the south Chicago suburb of Harvey. Despite attending the same small-town schools, they didn’t know one another. Both attended Illinois State University, but they didn’t meet there either. One reason is the couple's eight-year age difference.

“I was going to quit school,” said Willie Halbert, who originally declared as a drama major at ISU. She got a job at Heritage Nursing Home, where she first came across what she describes as a tall, dark, handsome man down the hall, pushing a cart.

“When I saw him, I touched my girlfriend,” said Willie. “I said, ‘You see that guy over there? I’m going to marry him.’”

Six months later, Charles and Willie got married. Willie eventually went back to ISU and let fate decide on a change of major.

“I said, 'OK God, I’m going to open this catalog and wherever it turns to, that’s what I’m going to major in,'” she said. The catalog flipped to criminal justice, which led to Willie Halbert’s long career supporting incarcerated people and those on parole. She retired as assistant superintendent with the Illinois Department of Corrections.

“I remember my first day at Pontiac Correctional Center,” Willie said. She was alone with an inmate while a corrections officer briefly stepped out of the room. The inmate stole something from the officer’s jacket, in plain view of Willie Halbert.

“I said, 'If you are that stupid to do that in front of me, it shows a lack of respect for yourself and for me,'” she said. “I didn’t look like the typical person that would work in a prison environment. From that day on, I had gained their respect.”

Charles graduated with a degree in economics, “by default,” he said. He was a business major in the 1970s and was drafted into the Army. He served his tour of duty as a medic and operating room technician, returning to ISU on the G.I. Bill.

“I got out and came back to ISU to finish my last year, but to finish in business would take me two years. So, I opened the catalog," he said, referencing Willie's journey. By declaring an economics major, Charles finished school in less than a year.

Charles worked his way up the ladder at State Farm, leaning on his medical expertise to work in its now-shuttered health insurance division and retiring as a manager.

“I’ll tell anybody that will listen that I had good years and not-as-good years, but I didn’t have any bad years,” he said. “State Farm was very good to me.”

Shared moral compass

Charles has six siblings; Willie has nine. Both of their fathers were pastors and steel workers. Their similarities form a shared moral compass, but it’s their differences that ground them.

“My wife is a visionary,” said Charles Halbert, “and I’m not. But I’m a good partner for her. We often say that neither one of us is perfect, but together we are perfect.”

“He’s more on the quiet side, but he really is not quiet,” Willie said.

Together, the Halberts have continually spoken out against injustice, through grassroots protesting and government service. Willie held a spot in the Human Relations Commission for over a decade. Charles served multiple terms on Bloomington’s Police and Fire Commission. They are both active in the Bloomington-Normal NAACP and helped establish the local chapter of Not in Our Town. And in her spare time, Willie ran for city council and authored three books.

“In today’s vernacular it’s often said that if you see something, say something,” Charles said. “Willie and I have always practiced that, but we add, if you see something, say something and do something.”

After decades of "doing something," the Halberts say there has been progress toward racial equality, but there is still work to be done.

Charles recalled an incident in 1984. Legislation declaring Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday had passed the year before, but it was not yet observed by State Farm, so he took the day off.

“I took my two daughters to the Castle Theatre,” he said. “I parked in the parking lot across the street and took my two daughters by the hand to walk them safely across the street. Somebody drove by in a pickup truck, rolled the window down, and yelled, ‘Martin Luther King sucks!’ My daughters immediately started questioning me. I didn’t have an answer.”

Far more recently, Charles cut someone off while driving and was subjected to an onslaught of repeated n-words. Meanwhile, health indicators such as infant morbidity, incidence of disease and mortality rates among pregnant women are significantly higher for Black people in Illinois.

But Willie Halbert is encouraged by forward-thinking work in access to employment for people of color and initiatives such as the NAACP’s Youth Council. Having witnessed strong opposition to naming sections of Hershey road after Martin Luther King Jr. in 1985 (the existing MLK Drive on Bloomington’s west side was approved two years later), they saw broad support for streets honoring local civil rights leaders Merlin Kennedy and Henry Gay, Sr. — in the heart of downtown.

“There are things that we need to work on,” Willie said, “but at least what I have found when I sit down with the police chief or I sit down with the McLean County Health Department, they’re open to the dialogue. We’re invited to the table. To me, that’s a difference.”

The History Makers Gala takes place June 21 at the Bone Student Center at Illinois State University. Tickets and details are at mchistory.org.

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Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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