Two things were unique about Judy Baar Topinka: her hair color and everything else.
Both endeared her to nearly everyone she met. For many years, Judy sported a burnt orange to mahogany hair color that was as much a part of her personality as anything else. She cared deeply for the people of Illinois – all of them. Every single person she met over the course of her political career mattered to Judy, and in most cases they knew it and loved her all the more for it.
But you didn’t just know Judy, you experienced her. She radiated energy, enthusiasm and a passion for open, honest and accountable government. That's what won her decades of support from voters in both parties and from all regions of Illinois.
And that's why the news of her death Wednesday morning from complications of a stroke hit so hard. She was 70.
I first encountered Judy when she was a state senator from the blue-collar suburbs of Chicago and I was a young reporter looking to build my contacts with important newsmakers. Judy obliged and treated me like the most important reporter in the state – which was clearly far from the truth.
Even after she was elected to office, Judy never stopped being the journalist she had been for several years. When she was a state senator, Judy constantly called --- and sent -- reporters news articles that she had clipped about issues she thought they should be reporting on.
She also served as her own press secretary -- something I would learn both to love and hate when I briefly took that post many years later in the treasurer’s office.
Even after decades in public office, she would sound like she was on deadline, breaking a big story, when she found some wrong that needed to be righted. Her trademarks were exposing wasteful spending and pursuing common-sense solutions, regardless of party affiliation. So much so, that even President Barack Obama remembered Topinka, a Republican, in a statement as “blunt, pragmatic, unfailingly cheerful and energetic, and always willing to put politics aside to find common-sense solutions that made a difference for the people of Illinois.”
She was proud of her frugality and would return, from time to time, to the treasurer’s office to show off a new article of clothing after visiting a nearby thrift shop. In both public and private matters, she believed there was no reason to spend money that you didn’t have to spend when a good deal could be had.
Judy was genuinely down to earth, even during the most formal of occasions. In addressing the public during her first inaugural as treasurer, she talked about the long campaign and how she and a campaign worker traveled the state in her van. Sometimes, she recalled, they had to roll down the windows after several chicken and bean dinners on the campaign trail. Only Judy could make such a comment in an inaugural address and win even more admiration.
Of the many passions for which she’ll be remembered is her quixotic effort to have the remains of President Ulysses S. Grant moved to Illinois from his tomb in New York. During the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, she led the Illinois delegation to Grant’s Tomb to shame the city to clean it up or consider sending his remains home to Galena, Ill. As far as anyone knows, Grant is still buried in his tomb, despite Judy’s best efforts to bring him home.
To hear people say that someone, particularly a public official, will be missed when they die is not uncommon. But what is uncommon is just how many people from all across Illinois will say that about Judy Baar Topinka and mean it.