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March is Women's History Month, and WGLT is recognizing 21 women who shaped Bloomington-Normal. New episodes every weekday in March.

Carol Reitan was an energetic visionary with a finger on many pulses

Carol Reitan headshot
Carol Reitan was the first female mayor of Normal, elected in 1972.

Some leaders lean into one or two areas deeply and use that expertise to inflect all their public service. Others dive in everywhere they see need. The late Carol Reitan planted many seeds.

“Carol was a woman who had a million ideas and the energy behind them to get people to see her vision. And she rallied people to make it happen,” said Reitan’s friend and former Normal Town Council member Sonja Reece.

Domestic violence, experimental theater, the corrections system, the environment, municipal government — you name it, Reitan made it better. Reece said one of Reitan’s gifts was to engage people who had not been involved in the past and convince them to serve.

A woman in a dress cutting a ribbon
McLean County Museum of History
Normal Mayor Carol Reitan at a 1974 ribbon cutting.

“She was energetic. She was enthusiastic and she simply made you believe that you were needed in that project,” said Reece.

Reitan helped found Heartland Theater, the Ecology Action Center, the Illinois Prairie Community Foundation, Habitat for Humanity in McLean County, and a solar housing project long before it became popular. Oh yes, she was also the first female mayor of Normal, elected in 1972.

“She was very much a visionary. I don’t think I’ve ever personally known anybody who could look into the future as clearly as Carol could,” said former Mayor Paul Harmon, who got his start in public service because of Reitan.

She saw the need for the town to modernize the way the municipality did business. She brought legal services in house, started on code updates and the process that led to a professional engineering department. She separated the duties of the Planning Commission and Zoning board, said Harmon.

She was instrumental in putting up the town’s first city hall and library buildings that were designed for those purposes, said Reece.

Harmon said Reitan was tough and willing to filibuster town government, refusing to adjourn council meetings until she got her way.

“They’d meet till midnight some nights just because she was going to move them. She would just keep explaining her position and working on it. Instead of calling for a vote she would try to address the concerns that people were having and just try to push it forward,” said Harmon.

In 1976 Reitan ran for State Senate but did not win.

She went on to direct Mid Central Community Action in the 1980s and ‘90s, and Reitan founded the Neville House family violence shelter.

Carol Reitan 1991
McLean County Museum of History
Carol Reitan 1991

“She saw the need for women who were in an abusive situation to have a place to go which was not identified in terms of location in order to get out of situations. Nobody else was doing that at the time in Bloomington-Normal,” said Harmon.

In 1990 Harmon appointed Reitan to chair the 2015 committee which developed Normal’s first 25-year plan. That document presaged public use of mobile phones, but Reitan talked about being out on the Constitution Trail and talking with someone back home, something that you could not yet do, said Harmon.

“She got going on that plan and I can remember Mark Peterson, who was then the assistant city manager, saying, ‘Carol how can I get all of that done?’ She said, ‘I don’t know dearie, that’s your job,” said Harmon.

She was active at the intersection of the legal system and human services. She co-founded a counseling firm, the Institute for Collaborative Solutions. She helped found the Alternatives to Jail Commission which lead to measures to reduce overcrowding at the McLean County Jail, inflected what became a jail expansion project, and indirectly laid groundwork for a later effort to create the county mental health plan.

She helped found "First Night," a family-friendly New Year’s Eve festival aimed at shifting the culture of New Year’s Eve away from alcohol. That ran for many years.

Reitan passed away in 2014.

“I don’t think you can think of something that didn’t have her fingerprints all over it,” said Sonja Reece.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.