The first and so far only woman Mayor of Normal has passed away at the age of 83. Carol Reitan had more than a half century of public involvement that continues to shape the broader McLean County community today. WGLT's Charlie Schlenker has this appreciation of Reitan's life.
Carol Reitan came to Bloomington Normal in 1956. In the nearly six decades since, she had her fingerprints on dozens of changes in the community. Here are: McLean County Museum of History Director Greg Koos, Normal Town Council Member Cheryl Gaines, Former Mayor of Normal Paul Harmon, and Current Mayor Chris Koos.
Greg Koos "Carol Reitan was a person who had so many good ideas that most of us wouldn't have a lifetime in which we could play those out."
Cheryl Gaines "She was a woman in charge. That really sums it up with Carol."
Paul Harmon "When she saw a problem she tried to solve it."
Chris Koos "She was a futurist, a visionary."
Cheryl Gaines "She was an idea person and she was constantly thinking. But with that she was also a mentor to those to try to figure out how to get things done. She was an activist in many ways."
Greg Koos "She was the kind of a person who was a kickstarter, she got things movin'."
Perhaps obscured by the climate today is the significance of Reitan's 1972 election as Mayor. Today many women serve in elected office around Illinois at all levels. But, when Reitan became Mayor, figures from Northern Illinois University indicate less than one percent of Illinois Mayors and Village Presidents were women. And attitudes toward women were...well they were different. Dave Anderson was City Manager under Reitan.
"Well, right after she was elected I said I'd like to set a time and get together with you so we can go over some things. I said how about Wednesday at ten and she said Oh I can't. I have a hair appointment. I started to laugh. She said you better get used to those kinds of things."
Public officials eventually did shift their mindsets on the role of women in public life, though former Mayor Paul Harmon says, it did not happen overnight.
"They stopped telling dirty jokes when she went to Mayor's Association meetings, so she reformed the central Illinois Mayor's Association."
Reitan ushered in the City Manager form of government in Normal. That first City Manager Dave Anderson says Reitan was an energetic interesting mayor, a great person who was a friend to hundreds of people; a well educated and involved public official, particularly interested in planning and code issues and development. Anderson says many of the things she accomplished are still in place, development standards for instance.
"Involvement with people in the neighborhood, making sure they were involved in the process rather than automatic approval for most anything in a development area."
There were many issues back then, Anderson says, with multiple-family and student housing mixed among single family residential dwellings. Living styles conflicted. Reitan knew her own mind and Anderson says he and Reitan occasionally clashed.
"Oh goodness yes! But, Carol was the type of an individual you know if somebody didn't agree with her she would listen to their point of view and then say with a very straight face, well I think you're wrong. (laughs) But, that was a strong point of hers. She could disagree but not be disagreeable."
Reitan appointed Paul Harmon to the Planning Commission. He went on to become a 17 year member of the Town Council and Mayor himself.
"I guess I would say that she is the reason that I got involved in Public Service."
Her model, Harmon says, was to have the highest level of integrity in public service. She wanted to make the world a better place, and her world was, Harmon says, McLean County.
"She certainly spent four years trying to modernize a small town (laughs) when she was Mayor."
Harmon says Reitan was a reform Mayor in a way, who looked at structures of the town and how it should operate. Council Member Cheryl Gaines says Reitan was more than just a big picture player, though. Here is a specific example to increase traffic flow.
"You know the underpass the train tracks there on Main, I believe. That came to fruition because she decided we had to have that in this town if it was ever going to be a town that could prosper."
Reitan also took Normal from being a dry town to a wet one. After her term as Mayor, Reitan ran twice for State Senate and lost. And not all her ideas panned out. She tried to get a solar energy residential housing addition off the ground, though Paul Harmon says it never came to fruition.
"You have to say she was well ahead of most of us in terms of looking to the future in terms of energy sources."
After her time in public office ended, Reitan spent the rest of her life working to improve the community. She helped start Neville House - a refuge for women from domestic violence. She helped start the Heartland Theater Company, which still does professional theater in a black box venue. She was involved with the League of Women Voters, the Ecology Action Center, and helped found the Prairie Community Foundation which now directs millions in charitable giving. She directed Mid Central Community Action for years. She promoted the alternatives to jail effort which led to Drug Court, Mental Health Court, and home monitoring programs in the County legal system. Museum of History Director Greg Koos says each of those was once only a good idea and they are now running solidly as integral parts of the community.
"I think she modeled public service on the just really good nature of how she went about it. She reminded me of Hubert Humphrey, the politics of joy. She loved being there. She loved being out and seeing things happen and saw a positive good and actually created a positive good about the things that were happening and the things that a community could challenge itself to do."
Reitan had a lot of big vision items. Here is Paul Harmon.
"That's why when I was Mayor I asked her to chair the town's 2015 report because I knew that she somebody who could sort of look 25 years into the future and imagine what it could be."
Even lately, Mayor Chris Koos of Normal says Reitan was part of the committee studying mental health services for the County Board.
"And she worked very very hard up until a few days ago, I would say, to really keep the vision and vibrancy of this community moving."
Reitan's friend and business partner is Cheryl Gaines. With another woman they founded the Institute for Collaborative Solutions serving adults and at risk youth. One of the programs they ran tries to break the cycle of domestic violence by offering counseling to abusers, not an easy or popular service segment. Gaines says for all her public accomplishments, Reitan was impish in private.
"She was funnier than heck. And she just loved to have a good time and she loved to tell a good story. And she had the best little laugh when she was being silly like that little huh huh huh laugh."
Gaines says she hasn't been too tearful because Reitan was getting tired and labored in ill health. She told Gaines she was ready to go and Gaines says she is happy Reitan is at rest.
"She was bigger than life. I mean she is leaving a huge huge huge hole here in McLean County that um will take a lot more people than one to be able to fill."
Reitan received many awards throughout her life: Woman of Distinction, the Martin Luther King Award, a Conference Center in Uptown Normal is named for her, and she will be honored later this year as a History Maker by the McLean County Museum of History, all reflective of her care and service to better the community. Carol Reitan passed away Monday evening at age 83. She is survived by her husband Earl, two children and two grandchildren.
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