West Chicago historian earns second state appointment

Sara Phalen lives in West Chicago, but an insight into her deep interest in history is that she and her husband own the John and Mary Stevens House in Tiskilwa, Illinois.

The Greek Revival two-story house, built in 1842, is in Bureau County, where Phalen grew up. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Phalen spends much of her time in another building on the National Register — the former Turner Town Hall, built in 1884, that houses the West Chicago City Museum, 132 Main St.

She’s been the museum’s director and curator for 11 years, though her involvement began in 2006 when Phalen took an internship at the museum while studying for a law degree.

“I really just fell in love with the opportunity, the way (the museum) connected with the community,” said Phalen, who also holds master’s degrees in anthropology and nonprofit management.

“It was a wonderful opportunity for me to explore that history,” she said, “and I just didn’t leave.”

In the spring, Gov. J.B. Pritzker appointed Phalen to the Illinois State Museum Board. She is one of 12 members bringing a variety of backgrounds and regional interests.

In what Phalen called a “positive push,” she described the board’s work toward repatriation of Native American and African artifacts, such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

She credited Pritzker’s receptiveness to these ideas and “pushing for inclusion.” Being a Mexican American, inclusion has been central to Phalen’s work for decades.

“She’s a humanitarian. She’s a very kind person. She goes out of her way to help,” said Fernando Ramirez, president and founder of the Mexican Cultural Center DuPage in West Chicago.

For six years, Phalen chaired the Mexican Cultural Center board, earning the center’s 2023 Vanguardia Award honoring those who help the Latino community.

The Illinois State Museum appointment is the second Pritzker has awarded Phalen. In November 2022, the governor appointed her to the Illinois America 250 Commission.

While drawing these appointments, she remains excited to host the schoolchildren who visit the West Chicago City Museum every year.

“We’re often the first museum that kids visit,” Phalen said. “So we want that to be impactful and make connections and also see their stories reflected in our museum because we want them to be lifelong museum lovers.”

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