Before she was a politician, Judy Baar Topinka was an award-winning journalist.
Topinka, 70, died early Wednesday, less than a day after she suffered a stroke. She was the first woman in Illinois to serve in two state constitutional offices. She had just won re-election in November as state comptroller.
Topinka served the public as a journalist before devoting her life to public service as an elected official.
She attended Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and graduated in 1966. After graduation, she worked part time for the Berwyn, Cicero and Stickney-Forest View Life Newspapers before being hired full time in 1971. In her journalism career, Topinka was a reporter, education editor, feature writer, features editor and photographer. She won awards from the Illinois Women’s Press Association, the Illinois Press Association and the Illinois State Medical Society.
Topinka, a Republican, morphed into one of the most outspoken politicians in Illinois and was a trailblazer for women in politics.
“She was a professional public servant,” said state Sen. Pamela Althoff, R-McHenry. “From the perspective of the Republican Party, she was a woman that spoke her mind, said what everyone wanted to say but was too afraid to say. It’s a significant loss, and we will miss her.”
Topinka, a lifelong Riverside resident, won election to the Illinois House in 1980. She moved to the state Senate in 1984. Ten years later, she was elected to the first of her three terms as state treasurer. In 2006, she unsuccessfully ran against Rod Blagojevich for Illinois governor. She returned to public office in 2010, when she was elected state comptroller.
During her gubernatorial bid in 2006, Topinka described Illinois as “a miraculously wonderful place to live.” But she also believed it was being hurt and abused by those in office, which is why she decided to run for governor.
“If I don’t stop it, I’d be complicit in watching it go down the tubes, and I don’t want to do that,” Topinka said.
In every stop along the way, Topinka had one thing in mind: making Illinois a great place to live. Her style might have been considered unorthodox. Her personality might have been off-putting to some. But her dedication to Illinois and public service can’t be questioned.