History class: Ex-teacher Barbara Wysocki

History class: Ex-teacher Barbara Wysocki

Barbara Wysocki has spent much of her life applying her love for American history in a variety of ways to benefit the community — be it her three decades of teaching, chairing the Champaign County Board or leading the Champaign County League of Women Voters.

On Saturday, she received the Women in American History award from the Daughters of the American Revolution, marking "a lifetime of contributions making a difference in the community."

We sat down with Wysocki, 70, who has lived in Urbana with husband Dwain Berggren since 1986.

Who is your personal hero in U.S. history?

Oh, gosh. Without a doubt, it is Abraham Lincoln. He certainly is one of the pivotal characters of American history.

I think he just came on the scene in such a volatile period of our history.

I admire the way he conducted the Civil War, the story of the Emancipation Proclamation and his role with the 13th Amendment.

Beyond the Civil War, I admire his involvement with the Homestead Act, the building of the Transcontinental Railroad and the fact that Lincoln is such a local person for those of us who live in East Central Illinois.

What did you learn from Lincoln that you were able to apply in your role as an elected official?

When I was in county government, I became aware of the fact that Lincoln's career really started when he was a circuit rider. Surprise, surprise, Champaign County was on the circuit.

Lincoln's time here, I think, had so much to do with the kind of leadership he grew to exert.

That's sort of an untold story. I was on the county board during the time when plans were getting ready for the Lincoln bicentennial. The communities that were part of the circuit were encouraged to find ways to celebrate Lincoln's presence here.

He had a real knack for engaging with the people that he met. Not only the ones he defended or interacted with in the courthouse, but certainly those in the county seats who became his friends.

As board chair and county board member, I got an opportunity to have access to individuals and work being done in the community that most of the time is never recognized or celebrated. I got to know groups like the Developmental Services Center, which does incredible work in helping the disabled in our community live with dignity and live productive lives.

I got to know people very engaged in environmental issues, and they are so happy when a public official shows up at their meetings.

Lo and behold, there is a county official there interested in what they are doing.

What is your advice to young people who want to teach history?

When I look back on my career, one of the things that got me excited was this: Any lesson in history that you can possibly teach or learn can probably be found in your own community.

In the teaching business, we don't utilize our communities as laboratories. For people coming into the field, you can bring a lot of interest and a lot of energy to your teaching by knowing what is going on, whether it be the politics of the area, the particular historical development of an area, or the social organizations and social programs.

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