Life Remembered: Ex-Champaign mayor loved politics, travel

Life Remembered: Ex-Champaign mayor loved politics, travel

CHAMPAIGN — Longtime Champaign residents will remember Virgil Wikoff as a war veteran, two-term mayor and state representative. His wife of 64 years will remember him as a travel partner, Illini sports fan and her high school sweetheart.

Mr. Wikoff died on Friday at a rehabilitation center in Savoy after battling an illness for years. He was 85.

He loved to travel with his wife, Helen. But after the trips, Mr. Wikoff always ended up back in Champaign County, where he had been a political leader for years. He first won a seat on the Champaign City Council in 1963, followed by two terms as mayor from 1967 through 1975.

He presided over the city during a time of intense political unrest. Former Champaign Mayor Dan McCollum will never forget the night of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, when Mr. Wikoff spoke to the congregation at Bethel AME Church in Champaign.

Not long after, the city passed a groundbreaking fair-housing ordinance, which protects renters against discrimination based on factors like race, religion and gender.

And, considering its proximity to a college campus, Champaign was not always peaceful during the Vietnam War. McCollum said he participated in movements opposed to the war, but Mr. Wikoff was always trying to maintain law and order.

Despite their political differences, McCollum did not take Mr. Wikoff's job for granted.

"I think we had probably somewhat different political philosophies," McCollum said. "But it's kind of an interesting phenomenon that when you hold the same office as another person, you develop a certain level of camaraderie."

Mr. Wikoff's political leadership in Champaign was followed by three terms in the Illinois state House of Representatives — that was plenty, his wife said.

"He always said that being in the Legislature was one of the most interesting jobs he ever had, but he wouldn't do it nowadays for any amount of money," Helen Wikoff said.

Political interaction was different in the late '70s, she said.

"At that time, they could argue on the floor all they wanted," she said. "But when they were done, they could go out and get dinner."

Mr. Wikoff stayed active in the local community after the House districts were redrawn and he lost his seat. He ran a construction business and, for decades, helped maintain his father's farm outside Maroa.

"He didn't want to stay on the farm, but he couldn't get away from it either," his wife said.

Maroa is where he and Helen met when they were in high school, and they never parted. She said they took frequent trips together and loved golf.

"We traveled when we could," she said. "We had done some foreign travel, but our favorite was to just get in the motor home and take off."

Mr. Wikoff graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in architectural engineering after serving with the Navy during World War II and the Korean War.

Decades later, he and his wife rarely missed a big sporting event. Until this year, they had basketball season tickets since the Assembly Hall opened, and they've held on to their football season tickets since the 1950s.

Mr. Wikoff was an amateur photographer. His wife said she had probably 10,000 slides and "scads of trip scrapbooks."