The end of a civic journey

Mary Harkrader

Mary Harkrader, Peoria environmentalist and elected official, hikes a trail in New Zealand. (PHOTO BY AL HARKRADER)

Mary Harkrader taught her children they owed themselves and others their active participation in civic life –– both as a responsibility and a pleasure. She taught by example.

Harkrader died Jan. 30 at age 86.

Her husband Al, long-time photographer at the Peoria Journal Star, said Mary had been a co-founder of Coenact, a recycling organization started in the 1960s. She wrote pamphlets about recycling and handed them out in grocery stores. She urged people not to buy colored toilet paper because it created problems with recycling. She lobbied to get dumpsters strategically placed throughout the city and county so people could conveniently recycle paper and cans.

One persistent problem was people often dumped garbage into the dumpsters. Al recalled how he and their children, then in grade school, would stop by each dumpster several times a week to clean up the garbage. The children loved the idea of climbing into dumpsters and soon discovered there were often discarded comic books they could collect.

Then they discovered that along with the comic books, there were also old copies of Playboy, and Mary imposed a form of censorship.

Farmers near the dumpsters often called to complain that papers had blown across their fields, and that was another cleanup project for the Harkraders.

“One day, someone dropped a dead horse in one of her dumpsters,” Al said.

Mary was an early advocate of the Equal Rights Amendment. She had been a Registered Nurse in pediatrics at OSF and left when she had children. Once the children started grade school, she entered politics. She served on the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, the Peoria County Board and 16 years as Peoria County Clerk.

It was during her time on the County Board that she became friends with Bill Rutherford who was working on the Rock Island Trail and Wildlife Prairie State Park.

“She was an environmentalist and liked the idea of strip mined land being recycled into a park,” her husband said.

The couple became lifelong friends of Bill and Hazel Rutherford and lifetime members of Wildlife Prairie State Park.

Even after Mary left nursing and retired from politics, she was an advocate for healthcare. She was a supporter of the Affordable Care Act and volunteered to help homebound people who needed care.

“Shots for free” was a family source of humor. She had a metal syringe in a metal case that she received upon graduating from nursing school and regularly sanitized the syringe and helped neighbors and friends who needed assistance with shots.

Al and Mary led the annual Sierra Club winter hike at Starved Rock State Park and always hoped for the coldest temperatures so the ice falls would be spectacular and the Bald Eagles would be congregating near the river.
She was a member of the League of Women Voters and a delegate to the 1984 Democratic National Convention. She ran the Peoria office for the 1980 U.S. Census count.

JoAnn Thomas, longtime friend and former Peoria County Clerk, said, “I could write a book about Mary. She was so loved, admired and appreciated by many, many people.”

Billy Halstead, chairman of the Peoria County Democratic Party, said in a statement: “Mary was a very hard working, dedicated and honest public servant. In all of her elected positions and all her other endeavors she gave 100%. She and Harky (Al) were loyal and supportive of the Peoria County Democrats. She was well respected not only in our area but statewide, by Democrats and Republicans.”

Joyce Blumenshine, member of Heart of Illinois Group Sierra Club, said in a statement: “In the 1960s, when American women were still ensnared by constraints of what their ‘proper’ roles were, Mary Harkrader recognized the need to recycle and worked to make the public aware. Locations across the United States were beginning the first curbside collections of paper, metals and other recyclables. Mary educated and recruited others to help and worked to get local attention to the need for recycling. Her efforts included support for the first Illinois Bottle Bill in 1971 to have a state-wide deposit fee, and subsequent efforts for similar legislation, which were always defeated by intense industry and commercial lobbying.

In the 1970s through the 1980s, she was a leader along with Larry Johnson and other members of Heart of Illinois Group Sierra Club to save the Rock Island Trail property from being disbanded. Her efforts on the Peoria County Board and many trips to Springfield in lobbying for the trail were essential during the time a local state representative and senator tried to get the land to resort back to the adjacent property owners. She and her husband were key supporters for efforts of Heart of Illinois Group Sierra Club and Peoria Families Against Toxic Waste to stop the expansion of the hazardous waste landfill at the west edge of Peoria. She tackled all kinds of projects with determination, focus and great bits of humor.”

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