Wheaton's first female mayor remembered as fearless trailblazer

  • Marget Hamilton poses in her office in Glen Ellyn in February 2007. A poster of Eleanor Roosevelt, one of her idols, hangs on the wall.

    Marget Hamilton poses in her office in Glen Ellyn in February 2007. A poster of Eleanor Roosevelt, one of her idols, hangs on the wall. Daily Herald file photo

  • Wheaton's first woman mayor, Marget Hamilton, seen here as manager of the Older Adult Institute at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, has died. "Strong -- that's the word for her," her son said.

    Wheaton's first woman mayor, Marget Hamilton, seen here as manager of the Older Adult Institute at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, has died. "Strong -- that's the word for her," her son said. Daily Herald file photo

  • Marget "Margy" Hamilton, at 95, and her painting in the back, at her apartment in Wheaton.

    Marget "Margy" Hamilton, at 95, and her painting in the back, at her apartment in Wheaton. Daily Herald file photo

 
 
Updated 12/6/2019 6:42 PM

Two years before she became Wheaton's first female mayor in 1969, Marget "Margy" Hamilton viewed another watershed moment as one of her signature achievements.

At the end of her term as the city's first councilwoman, Hamilton worked with the NAACP to introduce a comprehensive fair housing ordinance prohibiting racial discrimination in home purchases.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Hamilton would face threats against her life. A burning cross was found on her front yard. The FBI recommended that Wheaton police assign her a bodyguard.

But a defiant Hamilton and supporters prevailed when the city adopted the ordinance -- the first of its kind in Illinois -- in 1967 after a yearslong effort.

Friends and family are remembering her as a fearless, frank trailblazer, even if she didn't exactly see herself that way. Hamilton died of natural causes in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood Nov. 22. She was 104.

Her son, Dick Hamilton, wasn't aware that his petite mom took great risks in supporting the ordinance until years afterward.

"She showed no fear, but I've got to tell you she kept those things, to the degree that it was possible, from her family," he said Friday.

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Born and raised on Chicago's South Side, Hamilton traced her interest in public service and politics to an earlier triumph over racism and intolerance.

During World War II, Hamilton was raising her four young sons in their home outside Barrington when she read in a newspaper that the Barrington Park District would not allow Japanese American children to use the local swimming pool.

"I hit the ceiling," Hamilton recounted to the Daily Herald in 2010. "These children were born here. They were citizens."

Hamilton called a few of her League of Women Voters friends, and the next day they picketed the pool.

"My gosh, they changed their minds," she recalled in 2010.

Hamilton and her husband, Luther, moved to Wheaton in 1950. When they were presented with the deed to their house, they read they could not sell their home to Jews or people of color. The couple hired an attorney to change the deed.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"We said, 'If we are ever in a position to correct that, we will,'" Hamilton said.

In 1955, she founded the Wheaton chapter of the League of Women Voters, which conducted a study concluding that the city should hire a city manager. Hamilton ran for city council on a platform favoring the council-manager model of government and won election in 1959.

"It added some professionalism to the government," Hamilton said in 2007.

She won a special election to lead the city in 1969 after the sitting mayor had resigned to move to Kansas, serving a two-year term, after which both she and her husband retired.

"She said at the time she was very surprised that she did win, and probably everybody else was too," her friend Laurie Coonley Warfel said, theorizing that "being the only female on the council, I think she had a lot to say about things that the men never really brought up."

About 10 years after her husband's death, Hamilton agreed to lead the College of DuPage Older Adult Institute, staying nearly a quarter-century until she turned 93.

"She was just a really class act. Everything she did, she did well, and she never left anything unfinished," Coonley Warfel said. "She was very straightforward. She would tell you exactly what she believed, but she had a really good sense of humor about a lot of things."

She wishes Hamilton had completed her memoirs before she died.

"That's probably the only thing she ever started that she did not finish," her son said.

No public services were planned.

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