© 2024 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Retired labor legend John Penn is McLean County's first second-generation History Maker

An older man with short white hair and a red shirt sits in a radio studio near a microphone labeled "WGLT." He is seated at a table with pink chairs and a white wall in the background.
Lauren Warnecke
The 2024 class of McLean County History Makers is John Penn, pictured, Bob and Julie Dobski, Jan Lancaster and Barb and Bob Hathway. Penn is the first person to become a second-generation History Maker; his father Paul received the award in 2012.

John Penn is a family man, a laborer, a Democrat and a veteran. Now, he can add History Maker to that list of attributes, as the first second-generation recipient of one of McLean County’s highest honors.

The 2024 class of McLean County History Makers are the guests of honor at the McLean County Museum of History's gala on June 18.

John's father Paul Penn was part of the inaugural class of History Makers in 2012, a World War II veteran lauded for negotiating the first health/welfare and pension packages for Bloomington Laborers Local 362. He added a non-discrimination clause to labor contracts in the late 1950s—when parts of Bloomington-Normal were still racially segregated and jobs once extended to African Americans and women during World War II became less available.

Following in his father’s footsteps was not an expectation, but John Penn did it anyway.

“Without a doubt, my father was my hero,” he said. Paul Penn died in 2015.

“He served this community so well, caring about people. That’s one of the things he brought to the family. You always find something good in everybody, and you try to make sure you help everybody.”

The power of numbers

Penn retired last year after nearly five decades in union leadership, making his own mark pushing for worker safety and community involvement. Penn organized volunteer projects and revived Bloomington-Normal’s Labor Day Parade. In a surprising move, he spearheaded Local 362's membership in the McLean County Chamber of Commerce.

“We’ve got the same interests,” he said. “We want businesses to grow; we want to retain business; we want to bring in new business. We want good health insurance. We want good education. We want good paying jobs. We’re citizens of this county and we want what’s best for this county.”

Penn started working as a laborer as a teenager, first taking a two-week job as a flagger on a south Bloomington bridge. He wasn’t too keen on school and enlisted in the Air Force. By age 19, he'd served in two war zones, deployed to Korea and Vietnam. Penn came home, married his high school sweetheart, Mary, and at age 25, became the business manager at Local 362. There was no question the young couple would raise their family in Bloomington.

“I tell our membership, if you’re going to be a construction laborer, this is the right state and the right community to live in,” he said. “The people accept you and respect you—great partnerships throughout labor management. It’s just a great community.”

Penn moved up the ranks to retire as vice president and Midwest regional manager for Laborers International after 49 years in union leadership. As his career increasingly lengthened his tether to Local 362, he remained steadfastly committed to McLean county’s laborers.

Case in point: Visiting WGLT’s studios to discuss his History Makers award, Penn first stopped to talk with construction workers resurfacing our parking lot.

He continued going to local meetings—and business manager meetings within his 10-state district. And Penn saw his last position as a more powerful way to lobby on behalf of McLean County workers.

“At the local level, I was able to do certain things because I had 500 members,” he said. “When I went to the district council, now I’ve got 3,000 members and I can do a little bit more because of the power of numbers. When I went to the region, now I’ve got 58,000 members. By me moving on, I was in a better position to help the people back home.”

Working across party lines

The power of numbers and Penn’s keen negotiating skills frequently put him in the room with mayors, the county board, members of congress and governors. Through much of his career, Penn chaired the McLean County Democrats, moving deeply red Central Illinois toward the purple hue it is today. But Penn found ways to work across the aisle and build relationships with Republicans and Democrats alike on behalf of the union.

“We were smart enough to know we’ve got to work both sides of the aisle,” Penn said. “When you have a good person, regardless of their politics, we want to make sure we support that person.”

Penn credits Republicans Ed Madigan and Ray LaHood for “opening the door for labor in Central Illinois.” Former Republican U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger is another example. Penn was one of his first calls going into his 12-year stretch in Congress.

“He said, ‘You didn’t think I could do it, John, did you?’” Penn said. “I actually did not. He ended up being a great congressman for us. His voting record, and Rodney Davis’ voting record, were not good for labor. But they gave us key votes. You weren’t gonna beat ‘em, so why would you go out and attack a person and then go in there and ask for a key vote? We worked with them, and they’d actually argue on our behalf.”

Recognized for his panache for organizing, Penn would argue it’s the members of Local 362 who are the real History Makers.

“When [McLean County Museum of History] went to do the bio on me, they said John Penn’s going to grab a shovel,” he said. “I said don’t put that in there. My God, the membership would laugh. I just knew I could commit because I knew we had a membership that would follow through with it.”

The History Makers Gala takes place June 18 in the Bone Student Center at Illinois State University. Tickets are $74-$100 at 309-827-0428 and mchistory.org.

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