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Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 12:27 am

Just Judy, a politician we miss

Her son’s loving tribute to Judy Baar Topinka’s leadership and style


Judy Barr Topinka had a distinguished career in politics, serving as Illinois representative, senator, state treasurer and comptroller. She was often called “colorful” so it is fitting that a new book about her is colorfully designed, from the front cover, filled with items representing her life, to each page bordered in red and filled with photos. The book is a light, lively and living document of Topinka, which combines her biography and thoughts on leadership with activities teachers can use and questions students can discuss.

Just Judy – a Citizen and Leader for Illinois was written by Joseph Topinka, Judy’s only son. He was always close to his mother, and when she died, he and his wife, Christina, founded the Judy Barr Topinka Charitable Foundation, raising money to support leadership, education and training for people in public affairs.

The cover is filled with images that represent Topinka: Joseph’s favorite picture of his mother; a red and white title, Topinka’s campaign colors; a bunny image that she often drew on letters to friends; a border replicating the design one sees when looking up into the Capitol dome from the rotunda, and two buildings where she spent a lot of time, the State Capitol and Riverside Township Courthouse.

Just Judy has an appeal for anyone, although it is written with both teachers and students in mind, and is perfect for parents, grandparents and caregivers. It lists curriculum ideas, activities, main concepts and questions for thought or discussion. Each is accompanied with one of eight symbols identifying a topic: government institutions, current and controversial issues, service learning, democratic processes, heritage, compromise, leadership and critical thinking. Topinka’s views of each are presented, and each chapter touches on these with examples of her experiences and work.

Chapters take us through her life, growing up in Riverside, Illinois, learning to play the accordion, going to Northwestern University, becoming a newspaper reporter, then entering politics and serving in elected positions. She ran for governor in 2003 but lost to Rod Blagojevich. She retired for a bit although kept active in many projects, but in typical Topinka style, undeterred and dedicated, she reentered politics and was elected comptroller in 2010. It was shortly after she won re-election in 2014 that she died unexpectedly of a stroke.

Red borders on each page are filled with pictures, captions and short explanations, serving as mini-lessons. For example, a picture of Joe Topinka as a page in the Illinois House is accompanied by a blurb explaining what a legislative page does. Another border shows the symbol of the Catholic church, Topinka’s religion, a photo of the British House of Parliament and Westminster Abbey that she had visited, and a snippet of the history of Czechoslovakia, a place she visited to research her family heritage. Another border is filled with pictures representing Topinka’s favorite Illinois foods: a Tootsie Roll, Eli’s cheesecake, Vienna beef hot dogs, and a favorite hamburger stop, the Billy Goat Tavern. These lively, colorful borders provide insights into an amazing woman.

Topinka was known to be blunt, to the point, funny and sometimes brash. She was also known, and respected, for her tenacity, her integrity and her energy. Interspersed throughout the book are letters from people who admired Topinka: Jesse White, current Illinois secretary of state, Susana Mendoza, current state comptroller, and Adlai Stevenson III, former U.S. senator. All are Democrats, remarkable since Topinka was a staunch Republican. Topinka, though, believed in working together, and their remarks are indicative of the influence she had on members of both parties.

Joe Topinka has lovingly written a book memorializing his mother. It is as colorful as she was. For those who knew Topinka, it captures her life and her views expertly. For those who never really knew her, and for young people who are learning about our Illinois history and the people who have made a difference, this book provides great lessons in what it means to be a leader.

Cinda Ackerman Klickna knew Judy Baar Topinka and was always impressed by her knowledge, interest in others, and her pursuit of collaboration between the parties. She knows Topinka had ideas to fix the underfunding of pensions and the state budget and believes if Topinka were still with us, we might have found solutions.


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