A giant of Illinois agriculture has died. Former state representative, state agriculture director and longtime 4-H booster Gordon Ropp was 87 years old.
“Gordon Ropp never knew a stranger.” Almost everyone talked to for this story said those words.
“Everyone, when they think of Gordy Ropp, thinks of an energetic individual with his ever-present smile and his warm personality and his laughter and his storytelling," said state Rep. Keith Sommer, R-Morton. "Anyone who ever came across Gordy Ropp will remember him for that, and how he treated them and made them feel warm, also.”
Ropp, who died Tuesday, was raised on his parents’ dairy farm in Normal Township and milked cows by hand starting at age 6, he told the McLean County Museum of History in 2016. After a few years of that, his dad bought a milking machine.
He never left agriculture, even when he was a state representative for 14 years in the 1980s and early '90s. Sommer said Ropp was one of the few farmers in the General Assembly in the 1980s. They sat together in the front row in the House.
“And they called it ‘Farmers Row’ and they made a point of standing up for ag interests. They were not reticent at all as you can understand when you think about Gordy to speak for ag,” said Sommer.
State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, said Ropp’s approachable style has inflected his own political approach to government service.
“If he had not met you when he entered the room, he’d know you before he left, and visit with you and make you feel good about yourself,” said Brady.
Ropp was known for building bridges instead of burning them, something that could seem quaint today.
“He would always lead the Legislature, the House of Representatives in the Pledge of Allegiance to begin a session. That was Gordon. In many ways in this age of hyperpartisanship, we really need people like him that could reach across the aisle,” said Bill Kemp, McLean County Museum of History librarian and archivist.
Ropp lost his House seat in 1992 in the Republican primary to Bill Brady, who is now Senate Minority leader. It was famously close -- a seven-vote margin after a laborious three-month recount process.
Even after the loss, Ropp remained connected. Retired Illinois State University political scientist Bob Bradley was a golfing buddy of Ropp’s.
“He was part of what we call the Prune Juice League. He always loved to talk about politics with me when we played, about the priorities of the state, what to do about the budget, which shows that the budget problems of the state are not new and not just a current phenomenon,” said Bradley.
Ropp's service in the General Assembly was not Ropp’s first act.
He was Illinois' agriculture director from 1970 to 1974 under then-Gov. Richard Ogilvie. Ropp began the centennial farm program to recognize families that have a rich history on the land. He initiated development of an infrared soybean tester to measure oil content in the beans. And he worked to stop Hog Cholera, which would force the eradication of every pig on a farm when it appeared.
“He led the charge as secretary of agriculture for the state to really address this pernicious disease that was (impacting) and to some extent still does impact hogs,” said Kemp.
Ropp also spent more than 60 years as the leader of the Silverleaf 4-H Club.
“What a giver, what he gave back to the community and its youth. His efforts in 4-H, even in his last years, was so enthusiastic with the kids. They went to him as a leader,” said fellow 4-H leader and oftentimes McLean County Fair Livestock Superintendent Mike O’Grady.
Ropp also spent decades as a 4-H judge and served in many other roles at the fair. O’Grady said Ropp epitomized the 4-H tradition.
“You never step down, we just reassign jobs (laugh). I think that’s a true statement,” said O’Grady.
“He was always there. When you called on Gordy to help he was there to help, I think even as late as last year at the county fair. Just an amazing bundle of energy,” added Don Meyer, retired McLean County Extension director.
Longtime friend and former Illinois Farm Bureau official Danny Leifel said Ropp was as dedicated to the public as anybody could be.
“He served as a charitable auctioneer at virtually every organization he belonged to and he always started off with a joke, usually very corny. He never told an off-color joke, but boy was it cornball,” said Leifel.
Leifel said Ropp was nominated for an honor in the Scottish Rite Masonic Order and he asked Leifel to do the introduction at the presentation, but Ropp forgot to attend the meeting. Leifel said Ropp was more about the work than the awards.
“He would have been perfectly happy to be at he meeting if I got an award than his own. That’s just Gordy,” said Leifel.
Sommer said to understand Ropp’s deep involvement in community, you have to look at more than the individual.
“When I think of Gordy, I think of the entire Ropp family, the Ropp clan. To this day the entire Ropp family is involved in so many issues and participates in the community,” said Sommer.
The Ropp Agriculture building at Illinois State University is named for Ropp’s father, Clarence, a former member of the ISU board. Gordon Ropp’s brother, Ray, continues to serve on the Normal Township board of trustees, and the entire family has been deeply involved in 4-H for decades.
Kemp said Ropp and the rest of the family stretching back generations is emblematic of how community is constructed and nurtured.
“They represent the Swiss German-speaking influx of Mennonites that settled in McLean and Woodford counties. And the Ropps were integral in telling that story. A lot of these Mennonites became leading farmers in the community, progressive farmers, leaders in the church, and also as we see with Gordon Ropp several generations later, political leaders as well,” said Kemp
The history museum honored Ropp in 2016 as one of its History Makers.
Dan Brady said Ropp simply loved people and everything else flowed from that.
“I learned quite a bit from Gordon. I learned that if you treat people the way you want them to treat you, it will take you a long way in government. And I learned that patience is a virtue,” said Brady, adding that Ropp never put on airs, or considered himself above anyone else.
“He was as common as they come," said Brady. "He was as personable as they come, and he was passionate about everything he did.”
Ropp leaves behind daughter Diana, son Darren, eight grandchildren and five great grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending due to COVID-19 concerns. A celebration of life will be held in the near future when social restrictions are reduced.
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