What's in a name?

What's in a name?

DANVILLE — As a young woman beginning her career as a legal-aid attorney in Vermilion County in the late 1960s, Rita Garman never imagined the courthouse would someday be named after her.

"Even to become a judge was something that seemed out of the realm of possibility for a young lawyer," said Garman, who'd go on to become chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court four decades later.

When the county board voted earlier this month to change the name of its busiest building to the Rita B. Garman Vermilion County Courthouse, it was a local first. Never before had the board even considered renaming a county building.

That led to a process that didn't go quite as smoothly as it has in other area towns and counties.

While every board member who was part of the discussion agreed Garman is more than worthy of a high honor, not everyone was a fan of the original idea, which left "Vermilion County" out of the title entirely. The process raised questions about how future requests might be handled.

Should any government building be eligible for renaming? Can any person — living or deceased, public official or private citizen, area native or transplant — be nominated? What makes a person worthy?

Vermilion officials believe the name change they agreed to marks the first time a county courthouse in Illinois has been renamed for a person.

Other judicial giants have been saluted in different ways.

Take Piatt County, where a community committee was formed just last year to decide how to honor in memoriam John Shonkwiler, who was elected as a resident circuit judge for Piatt in 1974 and served on the bench until his death in 2012.

Colleen Kidd, who recently retired after 38 years as Piatt's county clerk, said the committee discussed renaming the courthouse — or a courtroom — after Mr. Shonkwiler. But it ultimately decided against those options — partly because the county has been home to more than one esteemed judge, partly because committee members preferred a memorial that people could see without stepping foot in the courthouse.

"So we wanted a monument outside," said Kidd, part of the committee that's leaning toward honoring the judge with a gazebo and monument. Nothing's been settled yet, as discussions continue.

Dimit: Policy helps process

Similar talks played out two years ago in the Urbana school district — which already had a building naming policy — when the board decided to rename Prairie Elementary as Dr. Preston L. Williams Jr. Elementary School in honor of the former district superintendent.

Urbana school board President John Dimit said that discussion prompted the board to tweak its policy, basically giving board members more options for honoring a person rather than just saying "yes" or "no" to a request to name, or rename, a building.

Now, the policy states that the "committee's recommendation may reflect the wishes in the nominating letter, or the committee may suggest other methods of honoring the nominated individual."

Dimit said a written policy is vital in making such decisions.

"Because it helps frame the discussion. Everybody then knows the process. It levels the playing field and makes it fair. And it helps with the transparency of the situation as well," he said.

"It doesn't make the decision for you, but it just helps people along the way as they reach the decision."

A joint committee of the Vermilion County Board met earlier this month to discuss doing just that.

But whatever it decides, all agreed the Garman resolution would meet and exceed any criteria, so their work would only affect future nominations.

Proposal: Need 800 signatures

"I'm really genuinely concerned about making criteria," said Vermilion County Board member Wes Bieritz, who fears attaching specific parameters or qualifications for who or what a nominee should be could eliminate future worthy nominees.

Board member Becky Stark disagreed, saying she believes there should be clear criteria established for a nominee.

But the committee ultimately favored leaving it up to the board to decide whether a nominee is worthy of a building name, and instead, created a high threshold for a person to be nominated — a petition requiring at least 800 signatures of county residents, or 1 percent of the population.

Any nomination would also require two-thirds majority for approval at the committee level and the full county board.

The policy will be discussed and voted on by the full county board at its April meeting.

Board member Kevin Green, who suggested the petition idea, said doing so would weed out any frivolous nominations, and the two-thirds' majority requirement would ensure that a small group of people couldn't push through a nomination.

Board member Darren Duncan said that would also ensure that any nomination would need support from both Republicans and Democrats on the board.

Rantoul: 2 of 9 criteria a must

Urbana schools' policy states that any district facility can be nominated for renaming in honor of any living or deceased person "who has made significant contributions to the district through longevity or service, exemplary leadership, philanthropic contributions or other significant means."

But it stipulates that "nominations will not be considered until three years after the service, contribution or death of the individual or the last designation of a name for the facility."

Nominations must be submitted to the superintendent via a formal letter and include a minimum of 10 signatures or supporting letters, to be reviewed by a committee appointed by the superintendent and approved by the school board.

That panel then makes a recommendation to the board, which has final say.

Rantoul, which late last year renamed a city retention pond that's used recreationally in memoriam of former Mayor and Champaign County Sheriff Joe Brown, created its policy in 2006, when the village decided to name the boardroom after Comptroller Louis B. Schelling.

Any nominee must meet at least two of nine established criteria.

Among them: a person must have had a leadership role in a local governing body, and a person must have actively promoted or directed community events that added to the enrichment and cultural life of the village.

Koester: No building requests

In the city of Champaign, anyone can request a street be named after an individual with letters of support from the community. Approval rests with the city council, which can designate up to four streets per year — but not permanently.

That part was changed in 2014 — all honorary street names now expire after 10 years.

Kris Koester with public works, the department that compiles all such requests, said the policy has been tweaked a few times. There are currently 39 honorary street designations in the city.

"It's a neat idea," he said, adding that the city has never received a formal request to rename any municipal buildings after an individual.

Champaign's honorary street designation program eliminates the permanence of renaming a facility, which is "tough to do," Urbana's Dimit said.

"When you rename a facility," he added, "you have the forces of tradition behind the old name and yet people wanting a change with the new name, and sometimes it's hard to balance those interests."

Look no further than the University of Illinois' State Farm Center, Dimit said. The sign may have changed but to many, it will always be the Assembly Hall.

For those in Urbana concerned with preserving in name the history of Prairie Elementary, the board compromised. It named the facility after Williams; the district property around it is known as The Prairie Campus.

Back in Vermilion County, a separate committee of community leaders will meet soon to decide how to dedicate the newly named courthouse.

County board Chairman Mike Marron said that group will also decide whether there will be a plaque or monument recognizing the Rita B. Garman Vermilion County Courthouse, and lead the effort to raise private funds to pay for any physical changes.

Local businesses have already volunteered to help, Marron said.

"It's exactly what we hoped: that the entire community would get behind this," he said.

Special salutes

It’s been two years since Champaign named a street after someone (Alison Krauss Way), but officials elsewhere have dedicated awards, buildings, even small ponds to those who had major impacts. Among the honored in recent years:

Joe Brown. Rantoul paid tribute to its late mayor in November, renaming Maplewood pond the Joseph T. Brown Memorial Lake.
Donna Giertz. Parkland College named its art gallery after the faculty member, donor and outgoing board member.
John Lockard. Since 2014, Urbana’s top cop has received the John E. Lockard Officer of the Year Award.
The superintendents. The former district heads in Danville (Mark Denman) and Urbana (Preston Williams) had elementary schools renamed in their honor.