Despite making an impassioned pitch to create an elaborate permanent exhibit honoring his late mother, Judy Baar Topinka, inside and outside the Riverside Township Hall auditorium, Joseph Topinka will have to settle for a plaque and maybe a display case of items in the hallway.
The Riverside Township Board of Trustees, on Aug. 11, brushed aside Topinka’s request for an exhibit showcasing the accomplishments of his mother, who served as a state legislator and as Illinois treasurer and comptroller prior to her death late in 2014 at the age of 70.
Instead, trustees have agreed to move forward with a plaque, though it’s unclear how the board will proceed with that and when.
“What we were thinking was something on the inside of the auditorium because it is for the auditorium,” said Riverside Township Supervisor Richard Tuscher. “It’ll be a nice-size bronze plaque with a picture and her accomplishments.”
In July, the township board agreed to dedicate the second-floor auditorium to Judy Baar Topinka, who also served as Riverside Township Republican committeeman and was critical in slating candidates for the GOP, which has dominated Riverside Township for decades.
However, the decision to reject the suggestion of a grand memorial to the late politician on the second floor of the building was a blow to Joseph Topinka, who has thrown himself into finding ways to honor his mother.
“It’s obvious Riverside Township doesn’t see where I’m going with promoting her legacy vis-à-vis the township,” Topinka said. “I don’t know how to feel at this point.”
On Aug. 11, Topinka appeared before the township board to pitch his plan for a memorial, which would include a plaque and a display of items related to his mother’s legacy, which would be on permanent loan to the township.
The items could be located both inside and outside the auditorium, Topinka said, and would focus on what he described as “the four major parts of her life: family, public service, education and heritage.”
Topinka said the display could be used to educate children of the township not only about his mother but about township government. He also suggested using the township’s web page to educate the public about Judy Baar Topinka’s legacy and serve as a virtual memorial.
“Those things were so critical to her life and, more importantly, those are critical things that can be a role model for young people,” Topinka said. “It’s important to attract young people and tell them the importance of township government.
“When it’s all said and done, I wish it could be more than just a plaque.”
Although Topinka said that a charitable foundation he recently set up could help pay for expenses related to the display, township officials were not interested in such an elaborate memorial.
“The auditorium is dedicated to [Judy Baar Topinka],” said Trustee John Ertler. “You can’t take the whole second floor.”
Tuscher suggested that perhaps one locked display case — which would have to be provided and maintained by Topinka — might suffice as a memorial display in the hallway outside the auditorium.
Trustee Mary Rob Clarke suggested a short-term display, perhaps for six months.
“I don’t think our intent is to make a shrine to your mother,” Clarke told Topinka at the township board’s Aug. 11 meeting. “I’m not sure if a permanent display of her things is the appropriate thing to do.”
But Topinka didn’t appear to be interested in a small display or a short-term memorial, telling trustees his offer “is for the long term, not the short term. It’ll go into storage until I can find a venue that appropriately recognizes my mother.”
While both Topinka and the township board have agreed on the appropriateness of a plaque, it’s not clear how that will move forward.
Topinka requested that he be given leave to write the inscription on the plaque, and township officials appeared to be willing to work with Topinka in that regard, but ultimately, the decision will fall into the hands of the township board.
Tuscher estimated that a plaque could end up costing between $1,500 and $3,000, so the plaque’s inscription had to be concise.
“We will make the decision,” Tuscher said in a separate interview. “We will try to placate him and do something nice for the community.”
Asked when the township board would move forward with the plaque, Tuscher said he was waiting to hear from Topinka about the inscription.
“All I’ve got to do is hear from him,” Tuscher said. “I’m waiting to see what he’s coming up with.”
In the meantime, Topinka said he will be putting his efforts toward finishing a book about his mother, aimed at 9- to 12-year-olds. He also has founded the Judy Baar Topinka Foundation and is building a website for it.
As for his hope for a memorial display inside township hall, Topinka said he’s giving that up for now.
“Maybe I’ll pursue this after the next township election,” Topinka said.