Tom's Mailbag Jan. 31, 2014

“Disappointed” is probably the one-word description for this week’s mailbag entries.

People are disappointed with the ugly, stupid Tweets sent out last Sunday night and Monday morning after Urbana campus Chancellor Phyllis Wise said that classes would be held, despite the cold, at the University of Illinois Monday.

Others are disappointed with the site selected for a new Champaign Central High School. That one was a no-win for the school board, given the minimum size requirement (30 acres), the limited options (nearly all on the city’s fringe), and the fact that any option — including staying in the nearly 80-year-old Central High School building — would cost money.

Reaction to the unwise Wise-related comments on Twitter was unanimous:

“I am totally horrified and embarrassed that anyone connected with the UIUC would stoop to using racial epithets and such low-class remarks as many directed to Phyllis Wise. Where is the ‘world-class’ example in these types of rhetoric? I sincerely hope that these folks would apologize to our chancellor but due to their lack of good manners I doubt this will happen.”

“It was really saddening and disheartening to see students from such a reputed institution disrespecting our chancellor.”

“We are lucky to have Chancellor Wise in our community. What a shame.”

“Racism is still an issue and its strongly disturbs me that some students of the UI think its appropriate and justified all because they were not granted a snow day. In the real world rain/shine/snow people still go to work. The real question is, what if the chancellor was a white male I really wonder if it would have gotten to this point?”

“Grow up, students, you rarely get a snow day as a working citizen in the real world. If you think it’s too cold to go to class, put on your big boy and big girl pants and don’t go. End of story. When I was an undergrad at EIU we had one snow day the whole time.”

“Basically students like an excuse to miss class. Check the traffic walking to and from bars and they’ll be out there.”


I can’t disagree with any of those comments. It’s a sad fact that social media make it much too easy to act impulsively and write crude, hateful things that are quickly amplified and magnified. My theory about last weekend’s Wise-centered Tweets was that it started as simple gripes about having to attend class on Monday, then exploded into something much worse as alcohol and the desire to be more outrageous than others fueled Twitter.

Phyllis Wise handled the controversy with extraordinary grace and dignity. The UI and Champaign-Urbana is indeed lucky to have her.

Next up, the non-central Central High School:

“I would like to know who is making money on the sale of the land for the proposed new high school. It is very fishy that the land can be purchased without voter approval. I don’t think this site makes any sense and it seems most people agree. Why in the world would you build a school that nobody can walk or ride their bike to?”

“If the taxpayers knew how much the proposed high school tax increase would increase their already high property taxes for Unit 4, they would most certainly vote no in the November referendum.”


The land, which already has been purchased, belonged to the Atkins Group (40 acres) and the Ponder family (40 acres).

As for building on the fringe, I will point out that 100 years ago when Urbana High School was being built, it was on the fringe of Urbana. Fifty years ago when Centennial High School was being built it was on the fringe of Champaign.

The original Champaign High School, now known as Edison Middle School, wasn’t on the fringe of Champaign. But when it was being built — also 100 years ago — it didn’t require athletic fields and parking lots.

As for cost estimates, earlier the school district ran a couple of scenarios for potential property tax ramifications of a capital program. One, including a variety of construction and renovation programs totaling $193 million, would increase property taxes about $250 a year for the owner of a home with an assessed valuation of $100,000.

A more modest plan, with a $139 million bond issue, would raise property taxes $180 a year for the owner of a $100,000 home.

The current school board is taking the bullet for years of delay and dawdling by past boards and administrators.

Two casino gambling-related questions:

“Do you think the gambling expansion bill will pass this spring?”

“With Illinois in a complete mess for revenue, what about gambling expansion, especially online like New Jersey, and marijuana legalization being excellent ideas to raise significant revenue?”


Regarding the marijuana legalization question, absolutely no this year. Sponsors had a tough time passing a medical marijuana bill last year; approval of a marijuana legalization bill in an election year has no chance. Lawmakers will watch what happens in Colorado and Washington state first. If those states have good outcomes — however you define that — Illinois could follow in 5 to 10 years.

As for casino gambling expansion, that effort seems to have lost momentum. And the immense popularity of video poker, and the way that it is boosting tax revenue for hundreds of cities and villages, won’t help casino expansion efforts.

“It’s Groundhog Dog this Sunday, Feb. 2. Do you think Punxsutawney Phil will or won’t see his shadow?”

There’s a 70 percent chance of rain and snow in Punxsutawney, Pa., Sunday, which means he probably won’t see his shadow which means that we won’t have another six weeks of winter.

But that doesn’t mean we won’t have another 5 1/2 weeks of winter. The National Weather Service’s 8-14 day outlook for Illinois calls for below average temperatures and equal chances of above and below average precipitation. The month-long outlook shows no trend in either temperatures or precipitation.

My favorite question of the week:

Who in Champaign’s history did the most for the city: Griggs, McKinley, Zuppke, Harris or someone else?

I’m always partial to Clark Griggs, in part because he was a scoundrel. You can make a good case for the wealthy, industrious, politically powerful William McKinley too.

But here’s why I go with Griggs: he almost singlehandedly brought the University of Illinois to Champaign-Urbana, and if it wasn’t for the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana would be Paxton or Tolono or Thomasboro.

Here’s part of a talk I gave about Griggs about five years ago ...

“He certainly was a wily operator — not unlike some Illinois politicians in the 20th century — and he may even have been a corrupt one. But as they like to say in Chicago, at least he’s our guy.

“President Lincoln in 1862 signed the Morrill Land Grant Act, which provided Illinois with 480,000 acres of public lands which it was to sell as an endowment to establish an agricultural and mechanical college. Unlike some other states, but not unlike the way things get done — or don’t get done — in Springfield today, Illinois’ leaders took their time deciding how and where to establish the college.

“And that was a good thing because Clark Griggs was otherwise occupied during the first half of the 1860s. But once he had returned to Urbana after the Civil War, it wasn’t long before he had gotten himself elected as a Republican to the Illinois House of Representatives and soon was working with other influential Champaign County citizens to put a large seminary building and the surrounding grounds back into use as the Illinois Industrial University.

“The conditions in Springfield in 1867 could not have been better for the kind of wheeling and dealing that Clark Griggs would have to do. First, the Legislature at that time met just once every two years and then for only 45 days. It had a lot of work to do and a short time in which to do it.

“Second, nearly every corner of the state seemed to want some kind of public work or institution: a ferry for Crawford County, a soldier’s home for Chicago, a bridge to
St. Louis, a system of parks for Chicago, removal of the State Capitol to Decatur, a system of boulevards for Chicago, a new prison for Cairo in southern Illinois, a new Capitol Building in Springfield.

“Third, on the day before the legislative session began in early January, a grand opening ball was held at the Leland Hotel, a few blocks from the old State Capitol.
The Chicago Tribune called it ‘a truly magnificent hotel’ and said its opening night included not only a elegant dance but a feast with supper rooms that included a collection of meats, game, oysters, fruits, wines, etc.” The Leland Hotel would become one of Clark Griggs’ secret weapons.

“If you followed the stories from Springfield in the Tribune that winter you would have been under the impression that Champaign County had the inside track all along for what was variously called ‘the industrial college’ and ‘the agricultural
college.’ On Jan. 11, the Tribune correspondent — and he truly was a correspondent; his stories not only covered the legislative happenings but also reported the weather — said that two agricultural college bills had been introduced.

One bill left the selection up to a special commission. The other bill specifically mentioned Urbana and the seminary building — which also was known uncharitably as “the elephant” — plus about 800 acres of land. Wrote the Tribune correspondent: "The Champaign people who make this offer regard the property as worth full $300,000. It is a handsome offer and other sections of the state will have to do better than this or it will go in that direction."

Two days later the Tribune correspondent added, "It now looks as if the Champaign people would capture the prize. Their offer is a liberal one and in a tangible shape, and I have not seen or heard of any other that meets the requirement. The Champaign offer has a strong representation here, who will labor assiduously for its success."

“One reason the Champaign proposal had so much support, Griggs said in an interview about 50 years later, is that he had spent weeks after his election in November traveling around the state, introducing himself to other legislators and asking for their help. He said he had met about 40 representatives and gotten about 15 pledges. He also met the governor and lieutenant governor, and even introduced himself to the state chairmen of the Democratic and Republican parties, even making them what he called ‘paid servants’ of the Champaign County Committee."

Further, that Champaign County Committee, which included the supervisors of Champaign and Urbana townships, gave Griggs $40,000 — which detractors called a "slush fund" — but with which he ran a campaign that included the use of the principal reception room at the Leland Hotel, along with several suites of parlors and bedrooms on the second floor. The rooms were to be used for entertaining. Drinks, light refreshments, huge dinners, cigars and theater tickets were supplied.

“‘During the week,’ Griggs told interviewer Allan Nevins in 1915, ‘three or four of the Champaign County committee were always on the ground and at week ends, when entertainment was at its height, eight or 10 would come over.’ No other community had fitted up a headquarters like Champaign’s, Griggs recalled.

“It was later charged by some of the sore losers in the effort to win the industrial college that Champaign had not only bought off politicians but had influenced reporters as well. Judging by some of the newspaper stories written about Champaign’s offer, that might have been true.”

There was plenty more intrigue but when the Illinois House and Senate voted in February 1867, Champaign County won the Illinois Industrial University.

The school has grown from 50 students in 1868 to a world-class public university that this semester has 40,495 students from every county in Illinois, every state in the union and 124 nations from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

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pattsi wrote on February 01, 2014 at 12:02 pm

Maybe Mr. Kacich just made the best argument against the chosen site for the replacement of Central HS by pointing out that the original Central and Urbana HS were both built on what was the edge of those communities, respectively. So taking history into account, the growth of Champaign is going to be north beyond the identfied site. This will result in more prime farmland being covered, taking out this economic value to the community; need for more schools; need for park district facilities; expansion of MTD; expansion of infrastructure, need for roadway expansions, etc. Tha alternative of cementing infill, centralizing a community facility, revitaliing the chosen infill area, minimizing transportation needs, expanding economic infill, etc.