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The Levy Lecture Series held its final lecture of the spring season on June 11, when Leslie Goddard spoke to the crowd at the Levy Senior Center about “Ten People from Illinois Who Changed History.”
Dr. Goddard prefaced her talk by stating Abraham Lincoln was such an obvious candidate that she would examine people from history in addition to our country’s 16th president.
The trailblazers she discussed were all leaders and innovators in their chosen fields, but their areas of expertise shared little in common. What piqued her interest was exploring how living in Illinois influenced these visionaries.
First were inventors who changed how people spend their leisure time, work, eat and shop.
Walt Disney, born in Chicago in 1901, invented Mickey Mouse and the concept of theme parks, and forever redefined family entertainment.
John Deere, a blacksmith who moved to Grand Detour in his 30s, manufactured innovative, ready-made farm equipment and transformed the business of farming around the world.
Ray Kroc, the genius behind McDonald’s, grew up in Oak Park. He brought the idea of consistent predictability to food and the dining experience.
Charles Walgreen, born in Knoxville, embraced innovation and fast delivery with his drug stores. One of those innovations was selling malted milkshakes in his stores, which became so popular that lines formed outside each one.
Another group included politicians and social reformers who influenced political consciences.
Jane Addams, peace activist and America’s first social worker, catered to her clients at Chicago’s Hull House Settlement.
Barack Obama, the nation’s 44th president, who campaigned on the promise of hope and change, worked in Chicago as a community organizer, taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School and represented Illinois in the Senate.
Ronald Reagan, movie actor and 40th president of the United States, known for his sunny optimism and called “the great communicator,” was born in Dixon.
Betty Friedan, born in Peoria, graduated from Smith College summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and wrote “The Feminine Mystique,” a book that sparked second-wave feminism and changed the course of human history.
The two final luminaries Dr. Goddard discussed were George Halas and Oprah Winfrey.
Mr. Halas, a lifelong Illinoisan, was one of the founding members of the American Professional Football Association, which later became the National Football League, and the owner and coach of the multi-championship-winning Chicago Bears.
Ms. Winfrey hosted and produced The Oprah Winfrey Show for 25 years in Chicago while winning 18 Daytime Emmy Awards, and in the process redefined what made for good television.
Ms. Winfrey’s shows were compelling to watch, Dr. Goddard said: She was honest, empathetic, transparent and authentic, and audiences loved her. She embraced her vulnerability and shared with all of us her continual quest for self-improvement.
Dr. Goddard returned to her original question, “How did Illinois influence these people?” Despite their differences, she said, “their early experiences living in Illinois and other places in the Midwest contributed to their success.
“Illinois shaped who they were. They did not see themselves as sophisticated; they saw themselves as grounded, honest, down-to-earth.
“All these values came from the towns they grew up in and the people they met here before they achieved worldwide fame and success.”
Dr. Goddard shared a list of 50 other Illinoisans who could just as easily been included in this group of influencers. The list can be found on the Levy Senior Center Foundation website, levyseniorcenterfoundation.org.
Dr. Goddard’s lecture was the fourth this spring with a focus on Illinois. The three preceding lectures examined African American communities on the North Shore (Dino Robinson), a portrayal of Jane Addams (Annette Baldwin) and an overview of Walter Burt Adams’ paintings (Eden Juron Pearlman).
All lectures are free and sponsored by the Levy Senior Center Foundation.