Former Elgin Councilman Bob Gilliam made history in two significant ways: He was the city's first African-American councilman, and its longest-serving member.
Gilliam, who was first elected in 1973, lost his re-election bid in April and has been out of the public eye since March, when he was hospitalized for an asthma attack.
The 68-year-old returned home earlier this month and sat down with the Daily Herald for a candid and exclusive interview that touched on a wide range of topics about his four decades in office. Here is an edited version.
Q:How is your health?
A: Much better. I had an asthma attack, and I was in the intensive care unit for three weeks. Then I had pneumonia and kidney failure. I was diagnosed as a functional quadriplegic, and I couldn't move my arms or legs. It was scary. I went through a lot of physical therapy, and I regained a lot of motion. I still go to physical therapy. I used a wheelchair for a while, and now I'm walking with a walker. My next step is to be walking with a cane.
Q:How do you feel about losing your seat?
A: It was the best thing that ever happened to me. In the past I would not take care of my health, I was too busy. If I was re-elected, I probably would be dead in two years. Now I have all this time to devote to myself and my family. I'd lie if I said sometimes I didn't miss it. But I've moved on. It's time to give someone else the chance.
Q:What was the best part of the job?
A: Getting prepared for the budget. It really sets your priorities for the whole year, and everything that you do afterward is reconfirming your budget. I enjoyed that part. The budget is a big document, but I don't think it's that difficult. Initially, yes, but once you get though a couple of them, they're not that bad.
Q:What was the most important vote you ever cast?
A: The water treatment plant, which was approved with a 4-3 vote (to hire an engineering firm). I voted for it. At first I thought, "What a clever idea. How would you do that? Is the water clean enough?" Once it was explained to me, it was very logical. Without the water treatment plant, Elgin would not have been able to develop and grow on the far west side and along Randall Road, and we would be buying water from Lake Michigan. Instead, we're selling water to Bartlett and Sleepy Hollow.
Q:What decision were you most criticized for?
A: The construction of The Centre of Elgin (built in 2002). It was a 4-3 vote. People were angry, they were saying, "It's too much money, we don't need it." Now I think they've come to embrace it.
Q:Is there any decision you regret?
A: Voting against the Grand Victoria Casino coming to Elgin. Thank God there were smarter people who outvoted me. The churches said Elgin would become "sin city," and I felt that they might be right. About a year after it was built, it realized it was OK. It was a very nice facility, very high-end. Before the riverboat, we had to borrow money in order to make ends meet. We started getting millions of dollars, and it helped us redevelop downtown.
Q:What was it like to be the first African-American on the council?
A: There's a tremendous amount of pressure on minority officials because their support group has very high expectations. But you can't get anything done by yourself, it takes the work of the group. I always voted as a councilman who happens to be African-American. At first, I kept my mouth shut until I learned to work within the system. It probably took about two terms for me to be comfortable.
Q:Was there ever a difficult time on the council?
A: Sixteen or 20 years ago, everything was a 4-3 vote. It was very difficult, very contentious. Everybody was angry, and there were a lot of personal attacks. I learned to be hard on the issues, not on the individuals. Terry Gavin (a current councilman who also served 1995-1999) and I used to fight over the time of day, but we had a lot of respect for each other. I view him as a leader on the council now.
Q:You lost your bid for mayor in 1983. Why not try again?
A: Thank God the city was smart enough not to elect me because I wasn't ready. I was too young, I didn't have the vision that I needed, I didn't have the experience. I never thought about running for mayor again because I enjoyed my role as a councilman, and I had a very demanding job. I retired as director of human resources for Elgin Area School District U-46 in 2002.
Q:How has Elgin changed since your first took office?
A: When I was a kid, Elgin was 90-some percent white. It was a beautiful city, nothing was run down, everything was well maintained. Now the homes are older, the demographics have changed, the economic status has changed and is probably just a little below middle class. We also have a lower crime rate and some nice old homes. To me it's still a good city. If you don't like minorities, then your view of Elgin is probably bad. I view diversity as a good thing.
Q:Who had the most influence on Elgin?
A: Mayor Ed Schock (who served six years as a councilman then 12 as mayor, from 1999-2011). His fingerprints are all over the place in Elgin, from the recreation center to downtown redevelopment, to the far west side. I think history will say he was one of the most influential council members that ever served. We had a lot of the same ideas, we were on the same page. We also both have asthma, so we share that, too.
Q:What's next for you?
A: I plan to spend a lot of time with my wife and my family and our two rescue cats. We have a home in Arizona. We'll probably be there from October to May. But I won't leave Elgin. This is my home.
Q:Do you have any advice for future council members?
A: It's easy to govern when you're outside the political process, but it's tough to govern when you're inside. You have to listen to the community. You make your motto, "Is it good for Elgin? Would I want it next to me?" If the answer is yes, that's what you do.