Late political pioneer's son shares memories of Mom with teachers in Champaign


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CHAMPAIGN — The son of one of Illinois' female political pioneers shared memories of his mom during a meeting with teachers Monday in Champaign.

Joseph Baar Topinka, a 1990 University of Illinois graduate, recently published a biography about his late mother, Judy Baar Topinka, a journalist turned elected official who became the first woman elected state treasurer (1995-2007).

The "Just Judy" author believes the principles his mother lived by — good government, civility, ethics and a love of heritage — will resonate with readers, particularly those who aren't familiar with her career, which also included terms as a state representative, state senator and comptroller and a 2006 run for governor. The first Republican nominated for that office lost to Rod Blagojevich.

"I thought a good thing for promoting my mother's legacy was going after the young people," Topinka said. "The biography is about her with lots of lessons, essay questions, references and pictures. It's designed to be something school teachers can use in their classes to illustrate some of the standards that Illinois is promoting in terms of civics."

Topinka, who teaches employment law at Texas State University, was invited to Champaign by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation to speak to more than 40 school teachers on civics, standards and curriculum design at the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition dinner Monday evening.

It's the foundation's third year hosting the training sessions, which were arranged in response to the 2016 state law requiring high school students to complete a semester-long civics course.

MaryEllen Daneels, a high school civics teacher from West Chicago, said the law gives students options to envision how to engage in civil conversations.

She planned on incorporating "Just Judy" into her lesson plans as a way to teach kids an understandable way to be an active member of their community, she said.

Topinka said he hopes his mother's story will help students be open-minded when faced with issues.

"My mother made me a better open-minded thinker," he said, "and I think that's what we need more of in this world."