Nearly 14 years out from his last year as mayor of Champaign, Dan McCollum is still thinking about ways to make the city more interesting, more memorable and to link its lively past to its vibrant present.
One chimerical idea, acquired on a recent trip to Greenville, is to help place murals featuring historical figures of the city on walls, particularly in downtown Champaign.
"You have descendants of some of these pioneering families of Champaign still around, like the Robesons and the Kuhns," said McCollum, a true Champaign-Urbana townie who was mayor from 1987 to 1999. "You have survivors of the Harris family, like Newt and Donald Dodds."
Other figures of Champaign's past, like Sen. William McKinley, who founded the downstate interurban railroad system, was a utility baron and who is the only Champaign-Urbana resident to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate, may not have any descendants but still merits recognition, McCollum said.
They all could be featured on murals similar to the lifelike trompe l'oeil pieces scattered about downtown Greenville, he said.
"I haven't talked to any of the historic families here but it just seems like they really warmed up the downtown," McCollum said. "They weren't overpowering. They were just here and there, creating a little excitement when you turned the corner and there was one of them."
Danville and Arcola have murals done by Walldogs, a group of artists and mural painters who design and paint old-fashioned advertisements in an event each summer.
Greenville's murals were created by a local artist, John Hubbell, who is a professor at Greenville College. He's painted similar murals in Salem and Virden.
"I had done one at a commercial building in town and (a woman's club that was responsible for beautifying the downtown) liked it and wanted to continue with it. We had a local newspaper with a 150-year history and they wanted to replicate the building they originally had been in, and it just snowballed from there," said Hubbell.
There are seven murals in Greenville, all about 10 years old.
"I operate a sign business also, and this is sort of an offshoot of that," Hubbell said. "There aren't too many sign people who work in the fine arts like this."
To do the murals today, which are actually painted onto aluminum panels, probably would cost $5,000 or $6,000 each, Hubbell estimated. And they may require some extra care in downtown Champaign.
"In a small town like Greenville there's not so much a chance of vandalism. In fact no one's ever bothered any of these but in a bigger town like Champaign you might have that problem, with someone trying to rip them off the wall or something," he said.
But McCollum thinks families, art groups, business organizations and others would be interested in the mural project, particularly in nominating historical figures to be featured.
"I wouldn't want anyone contemporary, except for maybe one person. (Retiring City Manager) Steve Carter. That man is exceptional," he said. "But I really think we should reserve this for the historic characters of Champaign."
McCollum and I brainstormed for a few minutes and came up with a group that could include banker B.F. Harris, merchants Isaac Kuhn, Frank Robeson and J.J. Sholem, Sen. McKinley, philanthropist Julia Burnham, attorney John Franklin, media pioneers D.W. Stevick and August C. Meyer, the Christie brothers who founded Christie Clinic, A.W. Stoolman, who built the Virginia Theatre and even — defying McCollum's "no contemporaries" rule — musician Alison Krauss. (Maybe even Roger Ebert — he's from Urbana, but his film festival brings life to downtown Champaign every year.)
"The downtown was the place where everything happened, except where people lived, The lodges were here, the city government, the post office, the theaters, the churches. Everything was downtown," McCollum said. "The downtown has come back economically, but this would be a way of putting a little more flesh on it. That's my idea, I'm just trying to personalize the downtown with the people and the characters who were down here."
T.J. Blakeman, a youthful city planner with an already impressive knowledge of the city's history, said he likes McCollum's idea but that it will have to be another group, not the city government, that takes up the cause.
"It's a great idea but it's going to need a champion," he said.
Local art groups already have discussed brightening the viaducts under the Illinois Central/Canadian National Railroad tracks — another important tie to Champaign's history — with artwork, Blakeman said. Maybe those blank walls, as well as brick walls downtown, could be brightened with murals.
County board town hall meeting
Residents of Champaign County Board District 6, represented by Champaign Democrats Pattsi Petrie and Josh Hartke, are invited to a town hall meeting from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday at the Champaign Public Library room C.
The two board members say they'll be there to talk about any of the issues coming up before the board, including the future of the county's correctional facilities and the upcoming consultant and task forces reports, the county nursing home, energy efficiency items at county-owned buildings, the future of Willard Airport, and any other topics.
The town meeting is scheduled before a county board study session on energy efficiency at 6 p.m. Tuesday March 26, and a public meeting on the jail issue, scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday April 1 at the Urbana Civic Center.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at email@example.com.