Judy Baar Topinka, the independent, plain-spoken Illinois Comptroller who was equally at ease overseeing the state’s finances or hunting for bargains at local garage sales, died early Wednesday morning at age 70 after suffering a stroke.
Elected for her second term as comptroller in November, Topinka was set to take her oath of office for the new term in January.
According to Brad Hahn, Topinka’s director of communications, she was in good spirits at a staff holiday party on Monday, but on Tuesday complained of not feeling well. She was admitted to MacNeal Hospital in Berwyn where doctors believed she may have suffered a stroke.
Kay Snyder, one of Topinka’s best friends, said the comptroller was at the beauty shop Tuesday morning when she was stricken. Asked if she felt OK, Topinka reportedly told the hairdresser, “I saw my mother.”
Snyder, a close friend for 35 years, said she had encouraged Topinka to spend Christmas with her in Florida while awaiting some scheduled surgery.
“I was trying to talk her into coming down here,” Snyder said.
Snyder and Topinka would spend hours shopping and dining together. Just two weeks ago, said Snyder, Topinka wrote to her, urging Snyder to “find more thrift stores” they could scour.
“She was always genuine,” said Snyder. “But sometimes you just want to sit down and giggle and laugh, and that’s what we did.”
Doctors performed additional tests, which were inconclusive, on Tuesday, said Hahn. Topinka remained in the hospital for observation, and Hahn said Topinka appeared to be doing well in the afternoon and evening hours, talking to friends and staff members.
But overnight, Topinka’s conditioned worsened and she lost consciousness early on Wednesday morning. She was pronounced dead at 2 a.m.
“Doctors believe she had suffered a stroke and that her death was the result of complications from the stroke,” Hahn said.
Despite being a Republican politician in solidly Democratic Cook County, Topinka appealed to voters and colleagues across the political spectrum.
Pat Quinn, Illinois’ outgoing Democratic governor, said in a statement that he was “heartbroken” to learn of Topinka’s death.
“Never without her signature sense of humor, Judy was a force of nature,” Quinn said. “She left her mark on the state she has called home her entire life. Her leadership improved Illinois and paved the way for countless women in politics.”
A lifelong resident of Riverside, Topinka was born in 1944 and graduated from Ferry Hall School (now Lake Forest Academy) before earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.
Her parents, William and Lillian Baar, were Czech and Slovak immigrants who ran Baar & Baar Realty, a prominent real estate business, with particular ties to Berwyn and Cicero.
She married Joe Topinka and the couple had a son, Joseph. The couple divorced in 1981.
Following college, she embarked on a career in community journalism. She worked as a reporter for Lifenewspapers for 10 years before landing a reporting job at the Forest Park Review from 1976-78.
She temporarily left the newspaper business in 1980 when she ran successfully for a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives. Four years later, she won election to the state senate, serving in that capacity for 10 years.
In 2003 when asked why she went from journalism to politics, she told Chicago Magazine, “I just kept finding so many people who needed help, or were not being treated fairly. And I was ending up begging public officials to do their jobs.”
In 1994, she set her sights on statewide office, defeating Democrat Nancy Shaheen to win the state treasurer’s office. She would be re-elected to that position twice.
It was during that time Topinka decided to get back into the newspaper business. In 1995, she purchased the Riverside Landmark from Jim Finnegan. In March 1996, Topinka announced that the newspaper’s offices were moving to the Arcade Building in downtown Riverside and that readers should expect “coverage that is fair and balanced as well as comprehensive. And we plan to continue to grow and expand.”
According to Wednesday Journal publisher Dan Haley, who purchased the Landmarkfrom Topinka in 1997, Topinka saw the landmark as a “retirement project.”
“She said she thought it’d be a great thing to fall back on after politics,” Haley said.
But the demands of being both a newspaper publisher and state treasurer grew to be too much, and Topinka decided to sell the paper. Through longtime associate Marty Kovarik, Topinka reached out to Haley, publisher of Oak Park-based Wednesday Journal, which also owns the Forest Park Review, where Topinka worked as reporter.
The deal came together quickly and Wednesday Journal published its first issue of the new Riverside-Brookfield Landmark in August 1997.
“We were the only people she reached out to; she really wanted to be independent of the Life,” Haley said. “She wanted to see it remain an independent, hometown newspaper and she supported us expanding into Brookfield.”
Topinka continued to write a twice-monthly column in the Landmark, getting $35 per column. But when the company decided to stop paying opinion columnists in 2008, she stopped.
“She said, if you can’t pay anymore, I can’t write anymore,” Haley said.
In 2006, after being elected three times to the treasurer’s office, Topinka decided to run for governor against Rod Blagojevich. Following a brutal campaign in which Topinka was heavily outspent, Blagojevich won — a result that really bothered Topinka, and drove her from the political stage for six years.
But as Blagojevich became embroiled in scandal and eventually was convicted of corruption and sent federal prison, Topinka resurrected her political career in 2010, running for and winning the race of Illinois comptroller. In an election that saw Democrats sweep every other statewide office, Topinka was the long republican to win at the state level.
“I was not going to let somebody like the ilk of Blagojevich run me out of town,” Topinka told the Landmark after her re-election as comptroller in November 2014. “I was glad to come back in, especially as comptroller, because that is the fiscal officer.”
With a new Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, coming into office, Topinka said she wanted to be a bridge between Democrats and Republicans, who both admired her style and ability to connect with people.
“She’s as whip-smart as anyone in state government,” said Democratic state Rep. Michael Zalewski, who also lives in Riverside, following Topinka’s re-election in November. “We’re blessed to have her in that specific job. She makes common sense decisions. She’s as good as it gets.”