Aurora mourns former mayor Tom Weisner
In ways public and private, economic and environmental, artistic and educational, former Mayor Tom Weisner shaped and reshaped Aurora into the city it is today, those who knew him say.
As the city's leader for nearly 12 years, from 2005 to 2016, Weisner used his passions for the arts and the environment, children and charity, business and government to advance the City of Lights, where he made his home.
Weisner died early Friday surrounded by family after a 12-year battle with cancer. He was 69.
His legacy could lie in Thomas J. Weisner RiverEdge Park, a waterfront open space and concert venue he worked to bring to fruition, despite a planning process that coincided with the economic struggles of the Great Recession.
Or it could be seen in the work of SPARK, an early childhood collaborative he championed that helps make sure preschoolers are Strong, Prepared And Ready for Kindergarten; in the presence of the Waubonsee Community College campus in downtown Aurora, which he helped to develop; or in the Weisner Family Center for Career Development at West Aurora Unit District 129.
Weisner's mark on Aurora could be yet to come, in the anticipated opening next year of the Paramount School of Performing Arts, for which Weisner stepped up to lead a $4.5 million fundraising campaign.
But no matter which of Weisner's accomplishments Aurorans see as his best, leaders and residents now are remembering a man whom many say dedicated his life to public service.
"Without question, Tom Weisner will forever be synonymous with Aurora, Illinois," Mayor Richard Irvin said in a statement Friday. "Not only did he make Aurora better, but he also made everyone he came into contact with better."
Weisner grew up in Batavia and first came to Aurora in the 1960s as a student at Marmion Military Academy's day school. While there, he met Marilyn Hogan, a student at a sister school called Aurora Madonna High School.
The two were married for 46 years, and together they had sons Thaddeus and Anthony. Thaddeus died in 2006 from complications of cerebral palsy. Anthony and his wife, Allison, made the Weisners grandparents to Olivia and Zoe.
But as a young couple, before the Weisners continued their involvement in Aurora, they served in the Peace Corps in the 1980s, assisting rain forest dwellers in the highlands of Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands.
Upon their return to the City of Lights, former Aurora Mayor David Pierce hired Weisner as the city's director of emergency services.
"He was a very talented and creative individual, who made significant contributions" to the city, Pierce said. "He was able to get a lot of good things done. He was a major asset."
Weisner went on to have a career of more than 18 years as a city employee, overseeing a variety of operations, including public properties and organizational development.
Then in 2005, Weisner won his first term as mayor and set about working toward three goals: lowering crime, increasing development and improving the quality of life in Aurora neighborhoods.
Soon his personal passions for the environment and the arts began to shine through his work, too.
Charlie Zine, a longtime Aurora resident and Fox River advocate, remembers taking the Weisners on a kayak tour.
"When Tom got on the river, he got a different perspective of the river and he saw the possibilities," Zine said. "Tom realized the river is a really important factor in improving the quality of life for people in Aurora both economically, aesthetically and recreationally."
Weisner oversaw the removal of a former dam on the Fox River at North Avenue; helped a paddling and outdoor gear shop find a downtown location in a former city garage; helped organize a regional coalition of communities working to improve the southern portion of the Fox River; and authorized the creation of the city's first long-term planning document about the Fox.
Longtime Alderman Bob O'Connor said this shows one of Weisner's best characteristics: his forward-thinking focus.
"He was one who had just a great deal of vision ..." O'Connor said, "and really gave a good part of his work in thinking about the longer term."
O'Connor called Weisner a "strong leader" who wasn't afraid to voice his opinions. And as such, Weisner certainly had his critics.
Some disliked the spending he authorized on projects such as construction of the city's $75 million police station, which opened in 2010, or RiverEdge Park, which opened in 2013 at a cost of $18.5 million (although $8 million came from the state, $3 million from the Fox Valley Park District and $2 million from the Dunham Fund). Others questioned the way he went about budget cuts during the recession years. Former Alderman Rick Lawrence voted against Weisner on nearly every topic that came to the council during his time.
84th District State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit said she didn't always see eye-to-eye politically with Weisner during the 7½ years she served as an alderman while he was mayor. But she called him a personable leader who made his presence felt at festivals and events, and spawned her favorite memory of him, "wearing a Tommy Bahama shirt and listening to music with the residents of Aurora."
Music and writing were some of the ways Weisner would relax when he wasn't working as mayor of a city where its top elected leader also serves as its full-time administrator.
Tim Rater, president and chief executive officer of the Paramount Theater, said his conversations with Weisner were not only about business -- the resurgence of arts in the city's downtown, the theater's now highly acclaimed Broadway series or its future plans for a school of performing arts -- but also about hobbies like writing and music and bands.
"He's one of those guys who cares not just about things, but about people," Rater said. "He would dive in and take the time to make sure things were done."
Just as important, he said, Weisner always was willing to support those who needed a little extra help -- often working behind the scenes. O'Connor also recognized Weisner's willingness to do good deeds that went unnoticed on purpose, such as supporting his wife in her work as executive director of the Aurora Interfaith Food Pantry until her retirement this fall.
Longtime Batavia Mayor Jeff Schielke, a friend of Weisner's since the two were tots growing up in Batavia, called him "a massive force in bringing state and federal dollars" to Aurora for developments like RiverEdge that revitalized the city.
"He was one of those (city officials) where the job was all about the town and not about him," Schielke said.
City leaders recognized Weisner's work on creating the Eola Road interchange with I-88, giving the Far East side of Aurora better tollway access, and on forcing Canadian National Railway to pay two-thirds of the cost of a bridge over the tracks at Ogden Avenue.
Alderman Rick Mervine said Weisner's work to rehabilitate 11 bridges in 11 years -- most of them in the downtown -- was a major infrastructure project that helped Aurora take its downtown rebirth seriously.
Weisner's leadership was recognized by the DuPage Mayors and Managers Conference, which named him Governmental Leader of the Year in 2015; and by the American Public Works Association, which made him the nationwide winner of the Exemplary Service award in 2017.
"He has almost 12 years of being at the top, leading our city and improving it for everyone," said longtime Alderman Mike Saville, who met Weisner in 1980. "He was an innovator in many respects to lead our city forward."
83rd District state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, who ran for Aurora mayor after Weisner stepped down, said he left an indelible mark on the city.
"His service made our incredible city second to none," Chapa LaVia said.
Services for Weisner are pending, his family said Friday. Relatives ask that donations be made to the following organizations, with a note saying the contribution is in memory of Thomas J. Weisner:
• The Weisner Family Foundation, 1822 Prairie St., Aurora, 60506
• Aurora Area Interfaith Food Pantry, PO Box 2602, Aurora, 60507-2602
• Daily Herald staff writers Susan Sarkauskas and Bob Smith contributed to this report.
"I had the distinct privilege of debating Tom during our contests for public office and sitting beside him on the Aurora City Council for a decade as one of his aldermen ... He was a true public servant who will forever live in the hearts and minds of the people." -- Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin
"Tom Weisner's tenure as mayor of Aurora left an incredible mark on our great city that can never be forgotten." -- State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia
"He was one of those (officials) where the job was all about the town and not about him." -- Batavia Mayor Jeff Schielke
"Mayor Weisner led the city through a period of great change and growth, leaving it a more vibrant place to live, work and play ... Aurora is a better place because of Tom's work, and his legacy will continue to live on in the community he worked to make a better place for the people who call it home." -- Congressman Bill Foster
"He was able to get a lot of good things done. He was a major asset." -- Former Aurora Mayor David Pierce
"I think of him as the last time I saw him: healthy, full of energy and still working on projects that were important to him and just still contributing." -- Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico
"He was really good at understanding what the root problems were and then being able to prioritize what had to be done and then simply pulling together the people the resources and the fortitude really to make it happen." -- Aurora Alderman Rick Mervine
"In a lot of ways, I looked at him as a father figure. ... Without him I probably wouldn't be here and we probably wouldn't be doing what we're doing. I'm very grateful that Tom put us on this path." -- Tim Rater, president and chief executive officer of the Paramount Theatre
"Former Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner was a committed public servant who dedicated his life to improving his city and our state. I'm saddened to hear of his passing and am praying for his loved ones during this difficult time." -- Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker