About seven years ago I started to write a series of 200 short biographies of famous Illinoisans from business, government, sports, labor, the military, entertainment, and many walks of life and I called it the Illinois Hall of Fame. The articles still are stored on two web sites, the Illinois Review and the History blog of the Illinois State Society of Washington, DC. The reason I wanted to write the series was to help students understand that the history of Illinois and to appreciate the positive and rich heritage that I was introduced to when I was growing up so they would not be too discouraged about modern problems in our state.
I receive back wonderful emails from Illinois students and teachers who say they find the series of short biographies helps them with their school assignments and that makes the effort worthwhile. Not all the profiles are for positive role models but many are. What strikes me now when I look back on the series is the colorful range of characters and their accomplishments as they took advantage of the opportunities that came their way in a free country. The amazing diversity of names includes Wyatt Earp, Mother Jones, Wild Bill Hikock, Red Grange, Frances Willard, Bonnie Blair, Enrico Fermi, Ernie Banks, Louis Sullivan, Butch O'Hare, Gen. Ulyses S. Grant, Marshall Field, Nat King Cole, George Halas, Jimmy Petrillo, Abraham Lincoln, Montgomery Ward, Gov. Frank Lowden, Oscar Stanton De Priest, Ernest Hemmingway, Bob Newhart, Betty White, Eliot Ness, Mayor Anton Cermak, Gov. Henry Horner, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Barack and Michelle Obama, George Gobel, Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck, Joseph L. Kraft, Knute Rockne, Josephine Baker, Jack Benny, Richard J. Daley, Potter and Bertha Palmer, Oscar Mayer, Gene Krupa, Ann-Margaret, Charlton Heston, Admiral Hyman Rickover, Lorado Taft, Joe Louis, Edgar Rice Burroughs, L. Frank Baum, Carl Sandburg, Walt Disney, Edna Ferber, Gen. Andrew Goodpaster, Burl Ives, Benny Goodman, Milton Friedman, Billy Graham, Saul Bellow, Jane Addams, William Jennings Bryan, Adlai E. Stevenson, Long John Wentworth, Astronaut Gene Cernan, Charles Comiskey, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Marva Collins, and aviation pioneer Bessie Coleman. There are heroes and villains from Illinois just as with all states but the mosaic of personalities makes up a facscinating story that is more positive than negative over more than almost 194 years since statehood.
Our students need to know that Illinois has had its share of crime and corruption but also an ample share of business innovators, athletes, scientists, architects, musicians, artists, law breakers, and law enforcers. Out of the whole series of 200, there are enough positive role models for Illinois students to learn from and enough negative ones to reject but on balance the Illinois story still evolving is as inspriational as the national ideals we honor.