A Life Remembered: 'I've never met anyone who did not like my dad'

A Life Remembered: 'I've never met anyone who did not like my dad'

RANTOUL — Bonnie Henderson was a young girl, but she remembers it as if it were yesterday. Her father, Wilbur Flessner, climbed up the steps of his combine, ready to harvest.

Nothing special about that. Normally.

But this was different.

Having been struck in 1954 with polio, an infectious disease that often affects the legs, Mr. Flessner was doing something that some thought he would never be able to. A crowd of people was on hand at the Flessner farm waiting to erupt.

"There must have been hundreds of people there" to watch, Henderson said. "All these people were in the barnyard, and he was climbing up into the cab of a combine. The roar (from the people) could have been heard in Champaign."

While Mr. Flessner was able to farm for a few more years, it was difficult. That's why friends urged him to run for justice of the peace. He did and was elected in 1960.

Several friends recall Mr. Flessner as a teller of stories — and a man who was well-loved and respected.

"I've never met anyone who did not like my dad," Henderson said.

Mr. Flessner, of Rantoul, died May 18. He was 90 years old.

Allen Jones Sr. was a young police dispatcher when Mr. Flessner served as judge in the upstairs courtroom at the building that also housed the police station.

"He'd go upstairs and hear city ordinances, violations and traffic cases," Jones said. "He'd leave his robe hanging downstairs in the investigator's office at night."

Jones remembers he would often talk sports with the judge. One day during the state basketball playoffs, Mr. Flessner handed Jones a portable TV and told Jones if he put it in the knee hole of his desk with the sound off, Jones could watch the games and no one would know.

Later, Mr. Flessner wrote a letter of recommendation when Jones applied to become a Rantoul police officer. Jones said Mr. Flessner "was always fair. You'd better be prepared (if you went before him as judge). He knew the community, knew the people he was dealing with."

Earl Smith of Gifford remembers appearing before Mr. Flessner when Smith had been charged following an accident. Smith contended the state trooper who investigated the wreck was lying that Smith was at fault. He said the judge's familiarity with him and where the accident happened caused him to know that the trooper was not telling the truth.

"He (told the trooper), 'I know this young man and his family, and I know he's not lying,'" Smith said.

But even more important was that Mr. Flessner knew the accident intersection and that the trooper's account of what happened had to be false.

He told the trooper he would find him in contempt of court if he said another word and that he could forget his pension. It was the only time Smith saw Mr. Flessner angry.

"He was one of the kindest, fairest" people, Smith said. "He always had a smile and good words to say. He always had a story. He was just good people. Very rare to find that caliber of people any more."

Smith knew Mr. Flessner for 63 years. He knows that because Mr. Flessner contracted polio in December 1954 and was in the hospital when Smith's mother was delivering Smith and his twin sister. Bryce Morris got to know Mr. Flessner from attending American Lutheran Church, where he said Mr. Flessner was "very active."

Mr. Flessner sang in the Lutheran men's choir, taught confirmation classes, served as a church elder and on the church board.

But Mr. Flessner's diabetes and health problems related to polio limited his ability to get around in later years. "He was a very personable guy," Morris said. "He told me stories about when he was on the bench. He just had a high school education, but he was justice of the peace. He was very fair."

Morris said Mr. Flessner mainly presided in Rantoul but did hear some cases in Urbana. Henderson said after her father contracted polio, he received therapy in Nebraska and later at Huff Hall at the University of Illinois.

Neighbors helped to keep the Flessner farm running while he was debilitated. He was farming with his father when Al Engleman, "gave a fresh kid a good start" by letting him farm his land.

"He grew up a farmer's kid," Henderson said. "He farmed in the Royal and Flatville area on his dad's farm. He raised beef cattle, milk cattle, pigs, chickens, sheep and farmed the land. He had a big interest in the development of a strong line of beef cattle. He worked with Doc Freeman of Rantoul to develop that."

Henderson said her father farmed as long as he could after being struck with polio. He was 27.

"I think he would have loved to continue farming," said Henderson, who noted members of the community approached him about running for justice of the peace because they knew of his condition. The Flessners then moved from the farm to a home on Highland Drive. He served for 18 years until 1978 when non-attorneys were no longer allowed to serve as judges.

Despite not having a law degree, "I remember he studied law books all the time," Henderson said. "He had them in our family room on the shelf."

Henderson said she had a wonderful childhood.

"He was the best father a person could have," she said. "He was fair. He was even-keeled. He never yelled. He was loving and firm. He was a lot of fun."

Henderson's only memory of her father before he came down with polio was him carrying her around on his shoulders outside on the farm. She said she never thought of her dad as having a disability. After he came home from his polio treatment, "I just knew I still had my daddy, and that's all I cared about. It had been extremely difficult."

Dave Hinton is editor of the Rantoul Press, a News-Gazette Media community newspaper. For more, visit rantoulpress.com.

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