Everyone that passes through the boundaries of our little Midwestern community leaves some impression behind, some mark on the rest of us. People come and go, do some good and some harm, and it’s left to the living to sort out the way forward. These are a few of the figures that Smile Politely would like to recognize for their impact on the community. This list is, of course, not exhaustive, and the editors would encourage readers to submit their own memorials in the comments below.
David Foster Wallace
Despite having spent many of his formative years in Champaign-Urbana, we would be greedy to claim David Foster Wallace as our own. He may have grown up here, attending Yankee Ridge and later Uni High, but Wallace quickly outgrew the confines of C-U, first making a name for himself at the age of 25 by publishing The Broom of the System. The critically praised debut announced Wallace as an emerging voice in contemporary arts and letters. Then, in 1996, while working as a professor at Illinois State University, he began to define the broad range of that voice with the publication of Infinite Jest, which despite its density and its breadth (or perhaps because of it) became hugely famous.
Jest, as you could expect, made Wallace something of a literary celebrity, and yet, amist this extra attention, his work thrived. Wallace continued to redefine his writing while managing to maintain a charming thread of familiarity that remained recognizable in his non-fiction. Publishing prolifically in an array of magazines ranging from Harper’s to the Paris Review, he began putting out essays on everything from the porn industry to English prescriptive grammar. As an artist, this was who David Foster Wallace was — he refused to stay in one place. He published novels, short fiction and creative non-fiction. He resided on the East coast, the West coast and the Midwest, all the while living in a world few could ever understand, and when he took his own life on September 12, 2008, the knowable limits of that world were immediately confined to the work he left behind. On that day, C-U lost one of its most successful sons, but we shared our loss with the world at large, which doesn’t necessarily make it easier for those individuals who knew and loved him. David Foster Wallace is survived by his wife Karen Green, sister Amy Wallace Havens, father James Wallace and his mother Sally Wallace.
John Lee Johnson
In 2006, Champaign-Urbana lost one of its most prominent voices. John Lee Johnson was an activist and agitator, an African-American leader in the fight for social justice, and a thorn in the eye to the establishment. Johnson served for several years on the Champaign City Council. He brought a number of suits against the Champaign School District, culminating in the adoption of the consent decree, the purpose of which was to provide equitable education across racial lines, and which has only just recently expired. Until his death, Johnson worked tirelessly for the cause of racial justice. Perhaps it is best to let him speak for himself.
Jay was a genius and quite likely the greatest guitarist of our generation. He was definitely the most talented and amazing guitarist I have ever seen (and I am to this day stunned he took it upon himself to allow my rudimentary talents to intertwine with his brilliance for the year-and-a-half or so we lived and played together). I honestly believe Titanic Love Affair’s “No Charisma” and Steve Pride & His Blood Kin’s “Pride on Pride” are every bit as remarkable as anything he did with Wilco.
I miss him and his stupid habit for crapping everything up with his ketchup packets, cigarette butts and those awful, stinky turtles. I miss his crooked, gatemouth smile and cracking-voice cackle. I miss his habit of hugging everybody. Hell, I even miss carrying his damn amp for him all the time right now.
In recent months Jay had gone on occasional jags of emailing me intensely. He told me he thought the year we played with Steve may very well have been the most purely joyous time of making music he had ever had. He reminisced about our penchant for rehearsing for hours and hours several days a week and how the camaraderie we shared filled him with contentment. He even spoke of wanting to look to reuniting the band some day for some shows.
He also queried as to my lot in life, the dynamic I had with my ex-wife and what my life was like with my children. He was warm and funny and I knew at some point he would retreat to his lair and I might never hear from him again.
A few weeks ago my son, Will, and I were dropping of Mike Rader at his home – in the same Buena Vista Court group of housing in which Jay resided – after an Illini baseball game and we say Jay pulling out. Jay did not seem to recognize us, however, Will (who has a picture of himself as an infant being held by a grinning, disheveled Bennett) got a good look at him. When we walked into our house Will spoke not of the game or his day, but immediately gushed in a star-struck tone rarely heard from a 12-year-old who just saw one of his father’s friends, “We saw Jay Bennett!“
I am grateful Lars, Ken, Mike and Leroy were here with us yesterday. I wonder if years from now those who were hear sharing food and drink and stories and tears will think back at how the sun-drenched day was briefly interrupted by a shower once all had arrived.
Godspeed, my friend.
— Don Gerard
There are few, if any, people who first lived in Champaign, achieved any real level of national or worldwide notoreity, and actually stayed put to keep it in the community. Chef Ra was one of those people. Known for his column in High Times magazine — Chef Ra’s Psychedelic Kitchen — and for being one of the most influential of all spokespeople for the Cannabis movement, folks in C-U could most often find Ra hanging out at Mike ‘N Molly’s, or spinning records at Barfly, and yes, even catch a cab when he was driving. Here in town, he was a legend, sure — but not once did he ever make anyone feel as if they weren’t good enough to be around him. He was truly a man of the people, and his untimely passing in 2006 was one of the more saddening times of the decade for the downtown Champaign community.
The founder and editor of High Times, Steve Hager, grew up with Chef Ra, whose real name was Jim Wilson Jr., in Urbana. Upon learning of his passing, he memorialized him here. It’s definitely worth the read.
Marajen Stevick Chinigo
Champaign-Urbana’s very own Rupert Murdoch, Marajen Stevick Chinigo assumed ownership of The News Gazette in 1967, after the death of her mother. Chinigo helped build and solidify the conservative media empire known collectively as Professional Impressions Media Group, which controlled not only The News Gazette, but also WDWS 1400 AM and WHMS 97.5 FM. The first of her four marriages was to actor Buddy Rogers, and she never did lose her taste for hobnobbing with the Old Hollywood C-list. She later married an Italian count, which is why she is still lovingly referred to as “the Contessa” around these parts. She had a house in Palm Springs, CA, as well as a villa along the Amalfi coast of Italy, yet she still enjoyed returning to her humble roots in the Midwest to filter and direct the flow of information. Her other interests included making campaign contributions, rebuilding Solomon’s Temple for the fine folks at Oral Roberts University (see “Futuristic architecture“), studying paranormal activity, and caring for her precious little dogs. For further reading, see this lovely eulogy, written by one of her former employees.
The Local Soldier
While we are saddened by all of our losses, these lives should give us special pause. We share some responsibility for the deaths of all of our military servicemen and women. There is a lot of talk these days about “the government,” about what and who it is, what it should do, and whether it should be trusted. Take a look in the mirror, folks. It matters little what party you voted for, or whether you participate at all. Whether you’re Republican, Democrat, Communist, Ron Paulite, or Amish, you are part of the social machinery that has sent these men and women to fight and die overseas. Let us remember this as the “anti-war” candidate prepares to send 40,000 more combat troops to Afghanistan. Most of all, let us remember these names and faces. (We made a good faith effort to identify the Champaign County soldiers who died in war zones this decade. If we missed someone, please notify us and we’ll be happy to update the post.)
Cpl. Nathaniel K. Moore of Champaign, IL
Cpl. Moore was a Marine serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He died January 26, 2005 at the age of 22 when a Marine Corps transport helicopter crashed during a sandstorm near Rutbah.
Sgt. Shawna M. Morrison of Champaign, IL
Sgt. Morrison served in the Army National Guard in Operation Iraqi Freedom. She died September 5, 2004 at the age of 26. Sgt. Morrison was killed during a mortar attack in Baghdad.
Spec. Cory A. Hubbell of Urbana, IL
Spec. Hubbell was a carpentry and masonry specialist with the army, serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He died June 26, 2003 at the age of 20 from non-combat related causes while stationed at Camden Yards, Kuwait.
Pfc. Robert A. Liggett of Urbana, IL
Pfc. Liggett served in the Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He died May 29, 2007 at the age of 23 from a non-combat related incident in Rustamiyah.
Spec. Justin O. Penrod of Mahomet, IL
Spec. Penrod served in the Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He died August 11, 2007 at the age of 24. Spec. Penrod was killed by a makeshift bomb in Arab Jabour.
Pfc. Danny L. Kimme of Fisher, IL
Pfc. Kimme served in the Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He died January 16, 2008 at the age of 27. Pfc. Kimme was killed in Balad when attacked by grenade and small arms fire during combat operations.
Sgt. Christopher M. Rudzinski of Rantoul, IL
Sgt. Rudzinski served in the Army in Operation Enduring Freedom. He died October 16, 2009 at the age of 28 from wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked his vehicle with a makeshift bomb.
Many may be familiar with the McCollum name because her son Dannel served as Champaign’s mayor from 1987-1999, but Vashti McCollum altered the very fabric of American society. McCollum’s lawsuit against Champaign schools led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling on the separation of church and state. McCollum refused to let her children attend religious classes taught at a Champaign public school. She brought suit, and in 1948 the Supreme Court, in an 8-1 ruling, ended religious instruction in public schools. McCollum detailed the case in her book One Woman’s Fight. She also served two terms as president of the American Humanist Association. She died in 2006 at the age of 93.
When Scott Mutter decided to figuratively give up on his Masters in Chinese History and start creating photomontages with superimosing images on top of each other, I doubt he thought he’d do much else than impress a few friends with his innovative and interesting take on what a camera can accomplish. He couldn’t have known it at the time, but his work would end up revolutionizing the industry, as well as college dorm rooms across the world. In creating what he would end up calling “Surrational Images,” Mutter took his view of the world and dressed them up as what he envisioned it be, and in the process, entranced the minds of millions.
Dorothy Vickers-Shelley, the longtime librarian at Yankee Ridge Elementary in Urbana, passed away on July 24th of this year. She was 74. Mrs. Vickers-Shelley influenced many young minds during her tenure. Mrs. Vickers-Shelley promoted progressive, free thought to very young children, and never let her faith in children waver over her many years at the school. I recently looked up the adage she recited with her students, sure that she borrowed from a notable poet, only to find that the composition is apparently her own. I’ll leave it here for those who did not have the pleasure. May she rest in peace. —Zack Adcock
“Life is short — therefore, I shall be a crusader in the fight against ignorance and fear, beginning with myself.“