Sunday, August 2, 2009

Happy 21st Birthday RURAL

Twenty-one years ago, my life took a little jog in the road. I haven't been the same since. My daughter Jenny was only 8; my son Chris was 7. I'm a grandmother now. I have found peace in retirement, in the State of Arkansas where my husband John and I moved almost five years ago. But as much as my life has changed, the steadfast resolve that grew out of that day remains unyielding.

Aug. 2, 1988 was the day RURAL (Residents United to Retain Agricultural Land) was born. That was the official day, yet the real change had taken place weeks earlier -- in the spring -- when John and I attended our first airport meeting. John was so angry he rarely attended another one. I on the other hand can't count the number of meetings I have attended over the years. John's anger turned into pure hatred. Mine started that way too but was tempered, unbeknownst to me at the time, by a strong desire to mother a movement.

John was incensed when state consultants Marjorie and Suhail alChalabi, who are still with the project, painting a rosy picture of a successful airport with thousands of jobs and thousands of passengers eager to shun Chicago airports just to fly out of Peotone. Suhail argued that planes would not make noise in the future. He said there would be "noisless jets." That was the first time I ever laid eyes on Aldo DeAngelis, the late state senator, the beloved Italian who charmed everyone around him, as long as you agreed with him. I didn't.

There were 13 of us at that first meeting, who were all appalled at what we had heard. We stood in the parking lot at the Beecher Community Hall where we held our own little 'after the meeting' meeting. I later learned these were necessary to de-program us after such a meeting where there was always a purposeful assault to our intelligence. I suggested we pass our phone numbers around. Brenda Thunhurst whipped out a tablet and pen where we all signed names and numbers. She typed it up at work and sent it to all of us. I wonder where that piece of paper is now? I had all that information on another computer -- one that is no longer compatible with today's systems. If only technology hadn't moved so quickly, I could just search my computer for it. Hah, if transportation technology had advanced at a similar rate we'd be taking bullet trains. Or if Illinois politics would have matured past its historical pay to play mentality, eastern Will County would be a very different place today.

RURAL guiding principles, formed during those early days of the opposition to build a new airpor never wavered. Still in tact, they were transferred to STAND (Shut This Airport Nightmare Down). The overlying fact is that if something already exists -- airports in Gary on the east, Milwaukee on the north, Rockford on the west, and Kankakee on the south -- why build a new one? If a farm economy is working and contributing to the region, why destroy it for an airport that could turn out like the state's white elephant Mid-America at Mascoutah? To be fair, we didn't know about Mid-America then. But once we learned about it, what a great poster child it turned out to be for what not to do.

The Peotone airport project has seen countless promoters over the years, all state-sponsored, paid by tax dollars, who have come and gone. They have taken as much from the taxpayers as they could get before they moved on, probably for more steady work or bigger paychecks. They have never looked back at the chaos they helped create or the people, property, community, and more that they have destroyed.

Even the project has changed. It has changed boundaries, size and focus. The state is searching for a winnable solution and so far, has not found one. I doubt it ever will. I have said for 21 years that an airport will not be built. I'd like to stand by that statement. But I can't. I have learned that all things are possible when the equation includes greed, power, corruption, dishonesty, and lack of responsibility, integrity, and morality. There is money and power to be amassed, so they continue.

Not only was RURAL life-changing in itself, but it also sparked my career. On Sept. 2, 1988, after never writing any more than letters to the editor, I achieved my first byline on a story published in Kankakee's Daily Journal. I was a correspondent until 1997 when I went to work full time there. That was when I convinced George Ochsenfeld to take over RURAL. I entrusted him with something I considered very special, but I had been a volunteer long enough. My kids were getting older. Money was an issue, so I voluntarily gave up RURAL to work as a journalist. My association with the Journal continued for two years. In '99 I went to work for Russell Publications, the weekly paper that covers several towns. Because of Russell's stance against the airport, I was more able to write about what I knew about the project without having to kowtow to the multitude of official press releases that touted unsubstantiated claims about the project. I continued to report the facts.

One of the hardest things I have ever had to do was walk that fine line. But to the best of my ability I never compromised my integrity as a journalist based on my personal feelings. I did however; inject facts I knew into stories. Over time, reporters went to other papers or other jobs and the real meat of the airport story became lost in all those press releases with a few quotes thrown in from our side. The knowledge of past events that shaped today's happenings had all been lost. At that point, I became an advocacy journalist, reporting from a historical perspective.

Laid off now, I continue to write on-line and in this and other blogs. I still consult with George and STAND. And I have a lot of time for reflection. Perhaps one day I will announce a new book in this very blog.