A man who fought racial injustice with lessons he learned from the segregated south, a nurse who traveled the globe to heal not just bodies - but hearts and minds, and a Bloomington-Normal power couple who worked inside and outside government are all being honored for their decades of dedication to making life better in McLean County - and beyond.
The McLean County Museum of History introduced this year’s McLean County History Makers.
You’d be hard pressed to find a couple who has done more for Bloomington-Normal than Rich and Judy Buchanan. He as a mayor, liquor commissioner and longtime public servant, she as a teacher, advocate and caregiver.
Rich Buchanan served six years on the Bloomington City Council, close to four decades on the city liquor commission and later on the McLean County Board. But he figures the crown jewel of his political career was his two terms as Bloomington mayor from 1977 to 1985.
“I just loved being mayor,” Buchanan said. “I think I was well received. People didn’t beat up on me too much.”
If there was tension at the time it was between Bloomington and Normal, two fast-growing cities that at the time had competing interests.
“There was a lot of competition to see who could give away the most inducements to entice a good industry, a good business,” he said.
Buchanan believes his friendship with then-Normal mayor Richard Godfrey helped thaw the ice and see how working together was better for both.
“This is one community, and don’t go trying to torpedo (the project),” Buchanan said. “If the town of Normal lands a great employer, join them because the Blooomingonians are going to be working there too.”
Another lengthy contribution is Rich Buchanan's work on the city's liquor commission.
“I loved going in the bars,” he conceded. “I’d come home at 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning after watching the bars close.”
Oh, but he was a teetotaler.
“You don’t have to drink to enjoy things,” he replied.
Buchanan said he visited every liquor establishment in the city to get to know the owners and make sure they were playing by the rules. He wanted to build trust.
“It showed and I think I left a legacy, be open and straight forward with the people you are impacting as far as the license holders,” Buchanan said.
He said he saw enough about the tavern biz to realize he'd never want to own a bar. He said only twice did he ever have an owners' license revoked.
Now in retirement, Buchanan said what he misses most is campaigning, that's why after being out of elected office for years he ran for McLean County Board.
“If you have Judy Buchanan as your campaign manager, you are going to win,” he said.
Judy Buchanan ran many more political campaigns than just those for her husband. She said she learned something from every campaign she ran, win or lose.
“I might say tongue-in-cheek I didn’t usually lose, which was good,” she quipped. “I give the credit to the candidate. They are the one that’s putting themselves out there.”
Those who benefited from Judy Buchanan's campaign expertise included Governor Jim Thompson, Congressman Tom Ewing, Dan Rutherford when he was a state Senator and state treasurer and President George H.W. Bush, whom she introduced when he campaigned in Bloomington-Normal.
Judy Buchanan got a taste for politics early in life growing up on the south side of Chicago where her father worked for the city and became friends with mayor Richard J. Daley. In those years Judy said she also developed her passion to help others. In high school, she read a book called "The Snake Pit" which depicted deplorable conditions at a mental institution.
“I remember speaking with my dad about how horrible that was and these are people that are sick, they are not weird, they are not criminals, they are not dangerous,” Buchanan said. “That began a lifelong – to this day – sense of advocacy for people, particularly (those) who have behavioral health issues.”
Buchanan said that area of service became especially challenging when the state began closing mental hospitals with the promise to pay for local programs to reintegrate people with mental illness into the community.
“They said (the money) would follow and it did not follow those patients and that really stepped up my advocacy because we were sending people back to our communities (and) they are becoming homeless, becoming street people, becoming dangerous, difficult to handle in their homes,” she said.
Buchanan spent years lobbying on mental health issues. She successfully led an effort to override the governor's veto of funding for Alzheimer's Disease Centers.
More recently, Buchanan has been a vocal advocate for McLean County efforts to boost mental health service. She has spoken to dozens of organizations through her role on the county Board of Health. She said she believes the jail expansion and 24-hour mental health triage could become a model for other communities.
“I give them a great deal of credit for the county to step up and take a lead role in putting this out on the horizon, putting it out on the public stage,” Buchanan said. “(It’s) not saying we have all the answers, but this is a serious issue and we all have to come together and look at it.”
Judy Buchanan has also taken her role as an advocate for the disadvantaged to the Bloomington-Normal Public Transit System, now known as Connect Transit.
She plans to leave the board this summer after 11 years with the agency re-energized and more visible.
“When we rebranded and put the buses out there with the blue and the green and starting promoting it, a number of people said ‘Oh man, I didn’t know we had a bus system,’” she said.
Buchanan said she has tried to lead by example in every area she has worked.
“You have to have the political will and that’s not always easy to come by for a lot of people,” she said. “I’m hoping that maybe by stepping out and raising the awareness and helping work toward resolution of problems that people know are out there that maybe will encourage others to join that effort.”
After a lifetime spent helping the public and the community, Judy Buchanan has now taken on the role of caregiver for her husband Rich, who has Alzheimer's disease. She's deeply familiar with it. Judy lost her mom to Alzheimer's at a young age and served as the state lobbyist for the Illinois Alzheimer’s Association.
“I bring perhaps a bit more understanding, but one of the things that strikes me – and I get reminded of, particularly by my adult children, is all the good advice I used to give other caregivers that I don’t take myself. (They would say) take care of yourself mom.”
Judy said she wasn't surprised by Rich's diagnosis, saying she's noticed his short-term memory loss and erratic decision making. It wasn't long after that they had the conversation about Rich giving up his seat on the County Board.
“We talked with him about and shared with him some of the people on the board who I had talked to who were concerned and we said this may be the time to retire from public service,” she said. “You’ve got that record, you don’t want to be retiring when someone puts that hand on your shoulder and says ‘Rich, it’s probably time to go.’”
Rich retired from political life, a second time, in 2017.
“I would not be able to be proud of my County Board service given my abilities and some lack of abilities with this disease,” he said. “No, I’m happy.”
Then, there was the difficult conversation Rich's doctor had about no longer being able to drive.
“Rich was about to differ with her a little bit and argue,” Judy recalled. “She said ‘Do you want me to lose my license? If I don’t tell you that you can’t drive – and you drive – I am going to be held responsible. If you drive and get lost or hurt someone.’ So she told him at that time, ‘If you drive and I find out about it, I am going to call the Secretary of State and turn you in.’”
“I understood what she was saying,” Rich recalled. “I could get out and get in the car right now and drive but I wouldn’t be safe.”
And that was that. Rich still takes joy in traveling with Judy supporting her the way she always supported him.
“I’ve always enjoyed everything she has done,” he added. “When she would be committed to one of these functions or activities I felt part of it and I was expected to support her and as our kids were growing up, including being a caregiver at home with the (three) kids.
"I think we are a match made in heaven.”
Another one of McLean County's history makers has lived a life in health care and abroad. Jana Edge, a nurse and health educator, helped lead the first delegation of the Bloomington-Normal Sister Cities partnership with Vladimir, Russia thirty years ago. It's still going strong today.
Edge made more than 20 trips to Vladimir but it took some cajoling just to get her to make that first voyage. The Bloomington-Normal delegation called upon her to respond to Vladimir's request for humanitarian aid, as the Russian economy faltered during the Cold War.
“I declined because what did I know?" Edge recalled. “I am a nurse I can write great care plans but I had never done any international education and I had only been out of the country once.”
On the third ask, Edge accepted and helped to round up about a half-million dollars in medical supplies, many of which were donated by the community.
“We had grandmothers who knit sweaters for babies. We had pharmaceutical establishments who gave us medications,” Edge said. “We had civic organizations who bought cases of formulas. We had hospitals that allowed us to make purchase with the money that was given to us to by IV solutions.”
She said some of the most appreciated items were mops and buckets with levers to wring them out to clean better.
Edge coordinated with a national organization called Physicians for Social Responsibility, to ship the supplies to Russia.
Edge said these trips were far from vacations, but all well worth it.
“I would ask you to give up two weeks of your time, pay for your own ticket, work 12 to 14 hours a day and if you had fun it was an accident,” Edge said. “We did homestays rather than hotels We did public transportation. But we were given the gift of learning about another culture,” Edge said.
Once in Russia, she saw deplorable conditions in many hospitals. She said the Russian government had been woefully underfunding its health care system for decades.
“You can survive without input for a while, but then things deteriorate greatly,” Edge said. “Their hospitals had cement floors. The windows didn’t have screens. There might be one restroom on the whole floor of the hospital.”
Edge said she sought to make connections with the medical professionals in Russia and it wasn't always easy to be sensitive in that communication.
“There were forbidden words that ‘In America we do it this way,’” Edge said. “We know how America does it. We are going there to learn about how they do it and how can we have common language. And medicine was a good way to do that.”
She said it helped that many medical terms have Latin roots, which helped overcome language barriers.
Above all, Edge felt the disjointed Russian healthcare system needed a culture change. Cleaning staff would sometimes transport people through a hospital instead of nurses. She said nurses there were treated as second-class citizens, underpaid and disrespected. She worked to change that.
“We did demonstrations, we did side-by-side,” Edge said. “Our humanity came through, rather than the stereotypes of the propaganda.”
Edge said she also wanted to dispel a myth in Russia that all Americans did was count money.
She wanted nurses in Russia to understand the nobility of their profession and they should have the confidence to demand better pay and working conditions.
“We said ‘Yes that’s a hard road, but you can do that, the more you learn to communicate, the better you learn to write, the better you learn to negotiate within the system you can do this for yourself professionally and also for the patient.’”
Edge said it helped that she had witnessed a transformation in the U.S. in how nurses were treated since she got out of school in the 1950s. She said nurses were then referred to as handmaidens to physicians.
Edge said she saw working conditions gradually improve for nurses in Russia in the three decades since that first trip to Vladimir. She said she's grateful for the chance to lay a foundation that so many others have built upon - as she borrows from Russian folklore to explain how it all came to be.
“It wouldn’t have been possible without all of them, but I was the Baba Yaga,” Edge said. “Someone had to be the leader, somebody had to make the decisions, somebody had to call the shots and this community rose above and beyond anything we could have ever dreamed.
The fourth member of this year's cohort of History Makers has also seen conditions improve for him since he was raised as the son of sharecropper parents in Shreveport, La., during the Great Depression. But, Henry Gay said it has not been an easy journey toward racial justice, nor one that is finished.
Gay has made improving race relations one of his life goals. Once the youngest member of the Bloomington-Normal NAACP, he's now it's oldest, at 94.
Gay remembers life in the segregated south living out on the farm, knowing it wasn't safe for someone of color to go into the city for something as simple as buying groceries.
“We couldn’t go to town because they didn’t want us there and you weren’t going to go somewhere they didn’t want you to be and call you all kind of names,” Gay said. “It didn’t suit me.”
Gay came to Bloomington in 1945. He said conditions weren't much better.
“When I first came here to Bloomington-Normal is was about as bad as where I came from,” Gay recalled. “We had outside plumbing, there houses were real bad. You can sit in your living room and count the stars in the roof.”
Gay said conditions for many blacks and low-income families didn't start to improve until 1967 when Bloomington passed a Fair Housing Act. He helped push for the measure to force landlords to fix unlivable slum properties.
Another turning point in race relations in Bloomington-Normal had come a year earlier in 1966 when an African American man named Merlin Kennedy dressed as black Santa atop a float in the Bloomington-Normal Christmas parade. Gay recalled Kennedy's appearance was brief but made a lasting impact.
“You should have seen the people try to talk to their kids. Those kids were everywhere,” Gay said. “He was only there for about two seconds because police made us take the float out, but Merlin Kennedy still walked with the black suit on.”
Police threatened to arrest Ole Saint Nick. Kennedy became a McLean County History Maker in 2015.
While Gay said he doesn't see discrimination ending soon, he said people can expect to face discrimination for “the rest of their lives.”
“It was here when I was born. It will be here when I’m gone,” Gay said. “A lot of people discriminate and don’t realize they are discriminating.”
While Gay has called out and tried to correct injustices his entire life, he said he has tried to do it in a way that fosters understanding rather than anger.
“You’ve got to be positive, you can’t be hot-headed like a lot of people,” Gay said. “That’s the problem, nobody respects anybody. If people would respect one another, the world would be a lot better place.”
Gay said it all goes back to how he was raised, and it was how he and his wife raised their six children, noting in 1966 he was named ‘Meanest Dad in Bloomington.’
He said you have to be a good citizen, work hard, raise your family and treat others right.
“You’ve got to teach kids while they are young,” Gay said. “That’s the problem we’ve got right now. All this stuff we’ve got going on right now. It’s just ridiculous. It’s because they weren’t raised.”
Gay said he's troubled by recent violence in Bloomington-Normal. He said mistrust of police only perpetuates violence.
“Nobody will turn (the perpetrators) in. Police can’t be everywhere,” Gay said. “I wished people would come out of their shells and tell on these people to get them off the streets, because they’ve got to fool around.
“A stray bullet doesn’t care who it hits.”
Gay insists on personal responsibility, words he said he lives by every day. At age 94, he still works, driving a hearse for a Bloomington funeral home. Gay said he worries the welfare system has made it too easy for some.
“You’ve got people who could be working, but they are not working because they can get stuff too easy,” Gay said. “I still say you should work two days when you go to these food pantries. Why should you drive up there in a brand new car at a food pantry when you are not working?”
For Gay it's not about the money. He makes that clear when he explains what being named a McLean County History Maker means to him.
“I think I’d turn a million dollars down for this, that’s how much it means to be honored for all of McLean County,” Gay said. “Who wouldn’t?”
Gay added a sign of racial progress in Bloomington-Normal is that the local NAACP has more white members than black. The chapter awards a college scholarship every year in Gay's honor.
All of this year's history makers named by the McLean County Museum of History have made their contributions to Bloomington Normal in the way they have lived out their beliefs and passions.
The History Makers Gala is June 19 at the Brown Ballroom of Illinois State University’s Bone Student Center.
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