This profile was originally written for the Washington, Illinois Historical Society. The occasion was the organization’s annual dinner in 2011, and my purpose was to recognize someone who had served his community with distinction, as a businessman and mayor. Across the country, hundreds of men and women work endlessly for their communities without a note of thanks or a hearty handshake for their efforts. Because no one takes the time to tell their stories, they are quickly forgotten after they are gone. This 2016 profile has been changed to make it more meaningful for readers who never knew the subject or visited Washington, Illinois. Don Gronewold died in the fall of 2015 at the age of 83. He has not been forgotten.
Karl K. Taylor, March 2016
Have you ever tried finding Waldo, the small figure in children’s books? He is an imaginary elf-like character who can be found leaning against a tree, peeking from behind a bush, or squatting under the table. It’s almost like trying to find Don Gronewold, the retired pharmacist and former mayor of Washington, a city of 15,000 located in the central part of Illinois. Like Waldo, one has to know where to find Don.
One might begin by calling him at his home. His number is in the book, just as it has been for over forty years, even when he was involved in local politics. He has never hidden behind an unlisted number, avoiding people who disagreed with his progressive ideas for the future of the city. And there were those who were against spending their tax dollars for a better community or preserving the best from the past like a century-old town square.
Sometimes, if one tries to call and the line is busy, Don is talking to someone at the Tazewell County Republican Central Committee or encouraging someone to run for public office. “We have a devil of a time, finding good people. If they won’t run for office, who’s going to serve on our school or county boards?” he asks.
If Don isn’t talking to county Republicans, he might be on the phone to his old friend, Ray LaHood, the former Congressman and Secretary of Transportation in the first Obama administration. The former mayor knows that friendships with people in high places are more productive than casual acquaintances with leaders at any level. The friendship with the Secretary is so strong that he has been known to find time in his schedule, even without an appointment, to talk to Don when he is in Washington D.C. He is also well known in the governor’s office, where he succeeded in bringing better roads to the city or helping independent pharmacists locally or in the U.S. He’s a leader, respected at the local, state and national levels.
Don’t misunderstand. Don is just as concerned with the “little people” as the “big ones.” If there is a need, Don’s the first one to offer to help. Five years ago, he learned that a small town pharmacist was having problems trying to serve her customers. A tornado had demolished the Elmwood Pharmacy in a tornado, and the state of Illinois wouldn’t allow her to sell prescriptions from the wreckage of her building. When he learned of her dilemma, Don called the state and convinced them that she should be allowed to move her operations to the basement of a bank building located next door. Don’s approach is simple: “don’t shout,” “don’t lose your temper,” “just explain the problem as clearly as possible.” The Elmwood pharmacist was dispensing medicine to her customers two days later in an area resembling a war zone.
Here’s another example. More than twenty years ago, Don was instrumental in establishing a nursing scholarship at the local community college, Illinois Central. In the late 1950s his Rotary Club started a campaign to vaccinate all the citizens in town against polio. At the time everyone paid a token amount for the expected expenses, but someone covered the cost of the vaccine and all the local physicians provided their services without charge. Since there were virtually no expenses, Don dropped the proceeds in a savings account, and eventually creating a $20,000 endowment to support a student nurse.
Considering how much he had done for the community, one might assume that Don is a native of Washington. He’s not. Born on August 7, 1932, he grew up on a grain and livestock farm near Trivoli, Illinois. Although he lived in the country, he never road a school bus until reaching high school. As a young boy, he walked a half mile on a gravel road every day from the farm to one-room Cottonwood School which served a total of 18 students in eight grades. In 1950 he graduated from Farmington High School where he was drawn to his science classes. Standing 5’5” and weighing only120 pounds, Don did not play center of the basketball team or fullback on the football team. The truth is that he was more of a student than an athlete.
After graduation, he decided to become a pharmacist. Although most druggists complete four years of undergraduate study before attending a professional school, the farm boy went directly from high school to the University of Illinois College of Pharmacy. When asked about being accepted without a bachelor’s degree, he smiled broadly, proud of his accomplishment. “There were 425 applicants for positions in my class. Only 125 were accepted.” Wouldn’t it be interesting to know how many applicants skipped their undergraduate degree?
After finishing school, Don served in the U.S. Army before returning to Central Illinois in 1957 and working for several pharmacies. Two years later he bought a store from a retiring pharmacist and married Shirley whom he met while working in Peoria. After ten years in business, Don joined several local investors by enhancing the historic Washington square, building a new pharmacy, a large modern supermarket, a new bank and a Ben Franklin while providing additional parking to support increased business. While other small towns have abandoned the centuries old squares and headed for the outskirts, Don and others enhanced the downtown without destroying the original flavor.
With the development work completed, Don became interested in local government, serving first as an alderman, county board member and finally as mayor of the city. In the middle of his forty-year career in politics, the citizens recognized his accomplishments and named him Washingtonian of the year in 1981. No wonder Don was so easily elected mayor for three consecutive terms. During that time period (1989-2001) his administration pushed for growth, expanding city services which attracted more subdivisions, new schools to meet the increased population, and of course, higher taxes.
Not all were pleased to have their taxes increased, but his arguments for growth convinced most people in the community. When the city council was asked to raise sewer and water by fifty percent, he explained the reasoning behind his request. “Folks, I grew up on a farm, drinking well water from a tin cup attached to a hand pump. The cup was never washed. The well was located close to the cattle barn. I’m not sure how pure that water was. We can’t go back to those days. We need plenty of water for the citizens of Washington. We want you to approve our request to raise the rates.” The motion carried.
If you’re looking for Gronewold today, he’s not at home, talking on the phone, or politicking. He’s hunched over a cup of coffee in the café overlooking the BP gasoline station, watching traffic leaving town. He listens for the next question: “Looking back over the last fifty years, who were the people most responsible for what this city has become?” His response sounds as if he had anticipated the question and planned his answer carefully: “At the top of the list, I put Herman Essig, then Fred Joos Sr., and Mel….” But he never mentions the farm boy from Farmington who put Washington on the map.