Jean Burkholder

Jean Burkholder

URBANA – Jean Annette Fox Burkholder, lifelong volunteer, longtime member of the Urbana School Board, and first chair of the Urbana Human Relations Commission, died peacefully on Monday morning (June 12, 2017) in Urbana. She was 87.

Jean was born on July 23, 1929, in Philadelphia, Pa., the only child of Theodore Harold and Edith (Barnes) Fox. Her father, a British citizen, came to Philadelphia in 1906 and served for decades in the British Consulate there, rising to vice consul. Her mother was a community organizer and volunteer. Both spent their lives helping others, and Jean followed their example.

Jean's mother was actively involved in school and housing integration issues in Philadelphia, serving as vice president of the local equivalent of the PTA and leading a neighborhood association to promote integration and combat discriminatory mortgage lending practices. Jean later wrote that what she learned from observing and talking with her mother "saved me ten years of learning patience and taking the long view. She was my mentor and model."

In 1947, Jean graduated from the Philadelphia High School for Girls (Girls' High), a public high school with a diverse student body where she made several lifelong friends. That year she enrolled in Earlham College, a predominantly Quaker college in Richmond, Ind. There she met her husband-to-be, Donald Lyman Burkholder, and began to study and research areas that became lifelong concerns: segregation and discrimination, educational psychology and family dynamics, and community organization.

After their wedding in June 1950, Jean and Don attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison as graduate students in sociology, where their first child, Kathy, was born in 1953. That same year they went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Don completed a Ph.D. in statistics. Their second child, Peter, was born in 1954.

In 1955, the family moved to Urbana, where Don taught in the Mathematics Department at the University of Illinois for his entire career. Their third child, Bill, was born in Urbana in 1963.

In Urbana, Jean worked as a volunteer in human relations and community action. From 1956 to 1968, she was a member and chair of the Champaign County League of Women Voters Committee on Housing, which sought to study and address unfair housing practices and shameful housing conditions in predominantly minority neighborhoods, working in partnership with local community leaders.

Jean also focused on housing issues as a member of the Council for Community Integration and the Neighborhood Services Committee, which sought to bring community leaders together with directors of public and private agencies to find common ground on community issues and develop multi-agency programs for delivering social services.

She helped to create a similar partnership of social service agency professionals and community members to improve social and mental health services for the community as a member of the Champaign County Committee for the White House Conference on Children and Youth, an endeavor that again became a lifelong focus.

In 1968, Jean became the first chair of the Urbana Human Relations Commission, whose focus was to address community issues by building, in her words, "a community feeling of understanding and response to need."

She became increasingly interested in the approach to social psychology developed by Alfred Adler, inspired by its focus on constructive approaches for problem solving and conflict resolution within families and communities.

Jean believed that a well-educated citizenry is fundamental for democracy, and therefore there is nothing more important than good public education for all. Her interests in education led her to become involved in the Urbana Parent-Teacher-Student Association, serving for a time as chair of the Council of the Urbana PTSA and on committees that assisted in recruiting and hiring superintendents for the district.

In 1975, Jean ran for and was elected to the Urbana School Board, where she served for 22 years until she stepped down in 1997. Her concern for fundamental issues of equality that motivated her early work on fairness in housing also informed all of her work on public education, and converged with her educational philosophy.

Jean believed deeply that schools must be committed to help every child learn, to take each child where they were, with their individual life experiences and styles of learning, and provide them with the resources they needed to learn and grow from there. She believed that public schools should - and could - provide an environment founded on respect, with high expectations, with teachers, administrators, students and parents actively learning how to avoid presuming that the potential of any child is somehow limited or predetermined.

To achieve these goals, she emphasized the importance of adequately funding public schools, providing time and opportunities for teachers to work together to improve their knowledge and skills and to design and implement more effective strategies and services, and most importantly building a school community that seeks to collaborate and learn together and from each other.

She emphasized, especially when discussions around school issues threatened to be overwhelmed by financial concerns, that creating such an educational environment "makes the critical difference for students' self-esteem and learning, yet of itself it costs nothing." She said, "I remain convinced that all children can learn, and all children are brighter than we think they are."

As a school board member, Jean regularly attended school functions and concerts, observed classes and participated in teacher training workshops.

She was a strong supporter of the arts and was known as a good listener, always open to everyone's opinion. Her colleagues on the board and the administrators, teachers and parents she worked with credited her with fostering openness, teamwork, cooperation and mutual respect.

Upon her retirement from the board in 1997, the Urbana School District honored her by naming the administrative center at 205 N. Race St. as the Jean F. Burkholder Administrative Service Center.

Jean showed by example that so much of the good that we can do in the world comes simply from showing up, and then listening with respect, inquisitiveness and appreciation. Her papers are in the Champaign County Historical Archives.

Jean is survived by her son J. Peter Burkholder and son-in-law P. Douglas McKinney of Bloomington, Ind.; her son William F. Burkholder, daughter-in-law Joanne (McLean) Burkholder and granddaughter Sylvie Kathleen Burkholder, who have recently moved from Singapore to Oakland, Calif.; her sisters-in-law Anne Burkholder and Donna Burkholder of McPherson, Kan., and Leona Burkholder of Madison, Wis.; her brother-in-law Ernie Dale of Auburn, Wash.; and 17 nieces and nephews.

Her daughter Kathleen Linda Burkholder died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1981, and she was predeceased by husband Don, her brothers-in-law Robert, John and Wendell Burkholder and sister-in-law Helen Dale.

A memorial service is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday, July 22, at Renner-Wikoff Chapel, 1900 S. Philo Road, Urbana.

In lieu of other expressions of sympathy, donations are welcomed for the Kathleen L. Burkholder Graduate Student Award Fund at the University of Illinois Foundation; the Urbana Free Library Foundation; the League of Women Voters of Champaign County; or the CU Schools Foundation.

Condolences may be offered at