Longtime educator and union leader Kim Kearby's rumpled appearance belied an intensity and dedication to a cause that made him well-known in Round Lake Area Unit District 116 during some dark days.
A polarizing figure who never lost his zest for the district or the community, the Round Lake resident died Sept. 19 at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville. Kearby was 66.
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"When you were in a tight battle with him, you realized he was a fighter but he got along with everybody," said his wife, Jeanne, whom he married in 1981. "His integrity was everything to him."
Kirby taught for 40 years at Round Lake Beach and Round Lake Village elementary schools, retiring in 2011. He also served as a board member of the former Avon school district and regional chair for the Illinois Education Association. He was elected last April to the District 116 board.
"He was a very opinionated person but he did it because he loved the community and the kids," said Nanci Radford, school board president. "He fought for what he believed in."
Friends and family described him as a hippie and an agitator -- a staunch supporter of labor, civil liberties and other social issues.
"He's one of those people you either loved him or hated him," said W. Guy Finley, who served eight years on the District 116 school board, including as board president from 2007 to 2010.
"He's a hard-core agitator. When you saw Kim, he was an old hippie who never gave it up," Finley said. "He was just a fantastic guy once you understood he had a job to do as president of the union."
Finley said he was backed by teachers in his run for office but told Kearby, one of the organizers and longtime president of the Education Association of Round Lake, that he wouldn't be a union shill.
"We just want people that care and will give us a fair shake. That's all," Finley recalled Kearby responding.
Kearby was the public face of labor about 20 years ago during a 38-day teachers strike.
"That strike was a really big moment in Round Lake history and took a long time for people to move past," Finley said. "Those who blamed him for the strike blamed him for the financial turmoil that followed." But that was not the case, Finley added.
Jeanne Kearby said it was her husband who encouraged the district to bring in state officials to help with its financial problems. State oversight or authority over finances lasted about 10 years until 2011.
Finley said Kearby helped in the district's recovery by selling pay freezes and reductions to union members.
"He was on the front lines," Jeanne Kirby said. "He realized everyone had to hurt a little to bring the district to solvency."
She said her husband fought for "wall-to-wall" union representation to include not only teachers but also secretaries, custodians and other district workers.
"He was a simple man that was respected for his efforts, trusted because of his compassion and loved for his honest and commitment," she said.
Friends can visit with the family from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 27, at Justen's Funeral Home, 222 N. Rosedale Court, Round Lake. Call (847) 546-3300.