In a vote that surprised many locals and fans of Judy Baar Topinka, a special naming committee seeking to honor the late Illinois Comptroller and Riverside resident voted against renaming the Riverside Township Hall in her honor, July 1.
The committee, which comprised nine Riverside Township trustees and township residents, voted 5-3 against renaming the building for Topinka.
The vote came as a shock to many in the audience, including Topinka’s son, Joseph Topinka.
Prior to the vote, Topinka addressed the group, expressing his excitement that a Riverside committee might honor his mother, who devoted her life to the people of Illinois and never forgot the people of Riverside Township.
“We’re hearing a lot of bad things in the news about state and federal government, and mom really was about local government,” Topinka said. “Local government is probably where our future lies because, obviously, our state and federal governments just don’t seem to be doing anything right. Local government is the soul of our states [and] I think my mother would be really honored that so many people are here today.”
Topinka went on to explain how in his opinion, Riverside over the years had not done well in remembering residents who went on to do great things. He mentioned that though Riverside is famous for American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, he was not even a Riverside resident and remarked that on Riverside’s Wikipedia page, his mother’s name appears in a section titled “Notable People” alongside “Screwy” Claude Maddox and Frank Nitti, both criminal allies of notable Chicago mobster Al Capone.
“It’s not my place to tell you as the leaders of this committee what you should recognize,” he said. “I just ask you to think about Judy, my mother, what she represented to this town, and more importantly, what she represents to the young generation.”
Topinka talked about how even in times of setback, including when she lost the race for governor in 2006, she never gave up and came back even stronger and ready to help the people of her hometown and state.
“Here’s an opportunity to send a message to the next generation when they come to this town hall and see something about this woman who was a product of District 96 and went on to do some incredibly great things,” he added. “I tell people all over the place [that] she didn’t give up. If that is not something for future generations to send a message about, then I don’t know what is.”In voting against naming the township building after Topinka, the committee ended up with a 4-4 split vote. Mary Rob Clarke, a Riverside Township trustee and head of the special committee, cast the deciding vote that struck down the proposal.
A vote on naming a specific room within the township building passed unanimously. The committee will present that recommendation to the Riverside Township board to vote on at their meeting on July 14.
Clarke was pleased with the final outcome of the vote and hopes the Riverside Township board will OK naming a room in the township building for Topinka.
“I think we had a lot of good citizen input,” Clarke said, “and we had a diverse board, so I think we made the correct decision. We as a committee looked at many different ways to memorialize her and we felt naming the Riverside Township Hall after her was not the proper way. Dedicating a room inside the building is the proper way to [memorialize] her.”
Ann Kubiczky, a committee member who is also a township trustee, agreed with Clarke on the final outcome.
“Based on what I heard people say at meetings and outside of the meetings, I think this was the best decision,” she said. “I think most important for me is to cast my vote with the township and as it respects this building. On the outside, I’d probably be more inclined to leave that to other residents of the village. It seems like Joe [Topinka] is more interested in the village, and Judy was a resident, that it should be a committee made up of residents and not necessarily elected officials.”
Kevin Burke, vice president of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 in Countryside, which hosted Topinka’s public memorial service, expressed his dissent after the committee’s vote.
“Judy always served the state of Illinois and Riverside [and] her name should be here,” he said. “I have two children who, when they have a holiday off from school, I ask them ‘Who are we memorializing? What is the special occasion?’ Our children do not know history anymore. Somebody like Judy Baar Topinka should be remembered.”
Joseph Topinka offered the final audience remarks at the end of the meeting, saying that while he was disappointed with the outcome, he is pleased that his mother will still be remembered somehow in the village. He also addressed those who mentioned that Topinka would not be the first Riverside resident who would not have a building named after her. Some mentioned Riverside war veterans who have never been publicly memorialized.
“If [we want to name] veterans on a municipal building,” Topinka said, “I’ll be more than happy to walk out on Longcommon with a sign and raise money for a wonderful working memorial that we should have in the park,” he said. “This is a municipal building, not a war building. Mom was about municipal government. The family does not care about state buildings; the family cares about where mom was personified. This building and the library meant the world to my mother. If the board of trustees will decide on naming the hall after my mother, I would be very supportive of that.”
Joe Topinka marched in Riverside’s Fourth of July Parade with his mother’s Mini-Cooper adorned with signs thanking the community for its continued support since his mother’s passing.