If there was a thread that ran through the tributes to Judy Barr Topinka at a memorial service attended by hundreds of supporters, staff and political colleagues Wednesday morning, it was summed up by William Holland, the state’s auditor general.
Topinka, 70, who died Dec. 10 after suffering a stroke a day earlier, held many positions during her more than 30 years as an elected official — as a state representative, state senator, state treasurer and state comptroller.
She used all of those positions, Holland said, “to advocate for the most vulnerable among us.
“While today’s breath is a sad sigh,” he added, “every citizen in Illinois breathes easier because of her life.”
About 1,000 people packed the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 hall in Countryside to pay tribute to a true maverick Republican politician, one who shunned ideology for pragmatism, good humor and thrift.
“She used to say she was the Party of Judy,” said her son, Joseph Topinka, a retired U.S. Army major who said that the Judy Baar Topinka constituents saw on camera was the person he knew at home.
“She lived every day to the fullest, and lived it for others,” Topinka said.
Those in attendance at the service represented the entire political spectrum in Illinois, from Republican ex-Gov. James Thompson, U.S. Senator Mark Kirk and Illinois Governor-Elect Bruce Rauner to the state’s leading Democrats, including Gov. Pat Quinn, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Secretary of State Jesse White, whom Topinka’s son said she “adored.”
And while the GOP establishment may have been slow to accept the outspoken Topinka in the 1980s when she first won office in the General Assembly — Capitol Fax publisher Rich Miller quipped, “She was an outsider. That august body [the state senate] wasn’t ready for the red head.” — on Wednesday those same leaders called on Springfield to use Topinka as an example of how to govern.
“We’ve had divisions in government in this state before, but we got things done,” said Thompson, who served as Illinois governor from 1977-91.
Rauner, who will preside over a Democratically controlled state legislature, called Topinka “a true public servant.”
“Judy was all about working together and solving problems,” Rauner said.
Rauner and others also spoke of Topinka’s common touch and sense of humor. Just two days after Topinka’s death, Rauner and his wife received a package in the mail. They were cookies from Topinka.
For Rauner, it illustrated Topinka’s penchant for “touching people’s hearts in small ways, every day.”
Topinka’s chief of staff and close friend Nancy Kimme, preferred to remember her boss’ sense of humor and her quirky personality — a woman who would dicker over a $1 item at a garage sale, adopt beagles from animal shelters and take home table scraps for the dogs from formal dinners.
“Be prepared to be entertained,” said Kimme of spending any length of time with Topinka.
Kimme also identified the root of Topinka’s success as a politician: “Never take the easy way out.”
When staff members worried that Topinka’s public embrace of gay rights might damage her as a Republican candidate, Topinka waved them off.
“My mother literally cared about 13 million people,” her son, Joseph, said, “white, black, Hispanic or Asian, union or non-union, straight, gay, wealthy or who need a helping hand, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, veterans … whatever political party.”