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Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017 12:00 am

‘You’ve got a friend’

M.T. VANN: July 28, 1961 - Dec. 31, 2016


Strictly on paper, no one should have given much of a rat about Mary Therese Vann.

She was a recovering alcoholic and perpetually late. A person who flitted between jobs and businesses and appointments like a hummingbird on methamphetamine. She held no public office, accumulated no power, was rarely quoted in newspapers and kissed no rings. She played poker late into the night and rose late in the day. In a world that too often measures status by the size of the bank account and the neighborhood lived in and the job titles held, Vann was nothing special. On paper.

And yet, Vann’s memorial service at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, held midmorning on a weekday, was standing room only, hundreds upon hundreds of people in a massive hall normally used for the city’s biggest weddings and banquets. The mayor was there. So, too, were scores of other politicians and business leaders and priests, sitting or standing amid just plain folk who showed up in just plain clothes. They were there because Vann had the rarest of human qualities: She was genuine.

“She was a real person,” recalls Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill. “I’m smiling, just talking about her – I’m smiling.”

Manar can’t recall just how or when they met – it was during his first campaign for the Senate in 2011. She would, occasionally, tell him, in straightforward fashion, when he was screwing up. She said thanks when he got things right. She helped convince him that voting to legalize gay marriage was the right call.

“She was a motivator for a lot of people,” Manar says. “For me, as a public official, she made me want to do my job better. She was someone I could count on to give me blunt, honest advice.”

Raised in a Catholic family, Vann had five brothers, one of whom is the bishop of Orange County, California. Another became general manager of a Fox television station in Florida. Vann remained in her hometown, where she became one of the city’s most well-known people, although she never was a celebrity.

No one called her by her given name. She was always M.T. She was handy with tools. She owned coffee houses in the 1990s. She was also an auctioneer. She sold real estate and was a principal at Prairie Property Solutions. She was active in charities, including Positive Outcomes, Referrals and Alternatives (PORA), a now-defunct organization that helped prostitutes, and Phoenix Center, which offers support to drug addicts and gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual youth. Her pickup truck was her office. If someone needed a few bucks for work clothes, Vann quietly gave it, and she didn’t worry about getting repaid.

Vann quit drinking in the early 1990s, but she never stopped helping others who needed encouragement to do the same. “She was funny, and she was genuine, and the thing that was crazy was that she kept coming in and laying down the law and telling people, ‘This isn’t going to happen, this isn’t going to continue’ – she’d tell that to people in recovery, she’d set them straight and they loved her anyway,” recalls Jonna Cooley, Phoenix Center executive director.

Kaitlyn Cearlock says that her widowed mother stopped drinking thanks in part to Vann, who didn’t stop at encouraging her mom to get sober. She helped her mom land a job at Patricia Doyle Auction Service, says Cearlock, where Vann worked as an auctioneer. When her mom needed a car, Vann helped again, selling her mother her own 2001 GMC Jimmy. “We still have it,” Cearlock says. “I drive it almost every day.” Cearlock lives with her mom in a house they bought with Vann acting as the real estate broker. When the pipes backed up, Vann came over, went down to the basement and dismantled the clogged plumbing herself. “She didn’t charge us,” Cearlock says.

She also fixed people, or, more accurately, showed them how to fix themselves, or convinced them that, really, they were fine just as they were. Eighteen when she met Vann, Cearlock was struggling with being a lesbian. Vann, she says, changed that. “She just put a whole different aspect on it: I’m going to be who I’m going to be and people are going to be who they’re going to be and think like they’re going to think,” Cearlock recalls. “M.T. was very out there. She was open with who she was. She made everybody feel comfortable, no matter who you were.”

Vann talked of traveling, Cooley said, but she never did. There was always something that needed doing in Springfield. She took care of both of her parents in their dying years, Cooley said, somehow finding the time between her other obligations. “I’d see her for 10 minutes, then she’d say ‘I’ve got to go’ for some other place she needed to be,” Cooley recalls. She figures a full plate may have been part of a plan. “Most people in recovery, it’s a daily struggle,” Cooley says. “I think that’s why she was always kept herself so darn busy.”

The end came suddenly. Cooley got the call at 7:01 a.m. on New Year’s Eve. Instantly, she knew something was wrong – Vann was never up at that hour. I’m not feeling well, Vann told Cooley – I may need to go to the hospital. Cooley and her partner rushed over, but Vann was already gone when they reached her house. Cooley figures it was a stroke or heart problems.

Cooley wasn’t surprised that so many people came to sing “You’ve Got A Friend” and recite the serenity prayer together at Vann’s memorial service. “I can’t even imagine how many people would have been there if it hadn’t been during work hours,” she says. Cearlock also expected a big crowd.

“If it was 10 a.m. on a weekday, she’d be there helping people, so people are going to be there for her,” Cearlock says. “She was a wonderful woman.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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