Ex-Urbana mayor wins state award

Ex-Urbana mayor wins state award

URBANA – A mayor who changed Urbana has won a statewide award from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Hiram Paley, a University of Illinois mathematics professor who was elected Urbana's second Democratic mayor in 1973, will be awarded the Roger Baldwin Award Oct. 1.

He was raised on The Advance, a union paper his immigrant father subscribed to in Rochester, N.Y.

"As a senior at Rochester University, I was taking a course in constitutional law and the McCarthy hearings were going on at the same time. To me, studying constitutional law and watching those hearings showed how fragile our Bill of Rights could be when many Americans were scared out of their wits," he said.

After earning a doctorate in mathematics, Paley came to Urbana as a new professor. Even before he was an alderman and mayor, Paley fought discrimination.

He advocated for open housing in Urbana in 1961 and demonstrated against Urbana stores over hiring practices. While he was mayor, Urbana passed and Paley signed a human rights ordinance prohibiting discrimination, including the category "sexual orientation."

Paley doesn't take credit for the ordinance, but says he was "proud to be the one to sign it."

He also was criticized for his progressive views.

When asked as mayor to sign a proclamation honoring an anti-abortion group, Hiram refused. He said he wouldn't sign one promoting a pro-abortion organization, either. He recalls that The News-Gazette "clobbered me" for that stand in editorials.

Again and again, Paley said, he has looked to the values of his Russian immigrant family.

At the height of the Depression, the professor's father ran a small food store.

"Whatever produce was left at the end of the day, management told him to throw it out," to his father's disgust at the waste of good food.

It was principles rather than nuts-and-bolts knowledge of politics that made him run for office.

"I knew nothing about zoning and code enforcement" when he ran for city council in 1967 as a write-in.

"Then I studied. I had the responsibility to learn these things," he said.

The council was overwhelmingly Republican in the 1960s, but by the time Paley became mayor in 1973, Democrats were beginning to take control.

Republican Alderman Robert Johnson, father of U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, introduced a resolution to back President Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam war policies in June 1967; Democrat Paley was one of two to vote against the Democrat president.

"A lot of people blame the (current) Democrats for all the resolutions," including peace and anti-nuke resolves, but, Paley said, "it was the Republicans who started all that."

In the '80s, Paley served a term on the Urban League board here. He also was president of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Champaign County.

As an ACLU member since 1960, he has served as chapter representative from Champaign, as well as on the ACLU's state board.

Paley said he didn't deserve singling out, but accepted the award "on behalf of all the little-noted people who do many small things that, when added up, strengthen civil liberties."

In times of fear after events like Sept. 11, 2001, Paley said, "we need to work harder than ever to guard our liberties."

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