by Tom Emery
Sunday, April 27 marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Vince Demuzio, the longtime state senator and a powerful political voice of downstate Illinois. His legacy lives on in a multitude of ways.
Demuzio (D-Carlinville) was first elected to the Illinois Senate in 1974 and served until his death from colon cancer on April 27, 2004 at age 63. A former teacher and leader in the Illinois Valley Economic Development Corporation, he became a steadfast force in the Illinois Senate, holding leadership positions throughout most of his tenure.
“Vince loved the Senate,” said his widow, Deanna, who served for six years in the Senate following his death and is now mayor of Carlinville. “He loved working with his colleagues, and he loved the opportunity to represent his district and do the right thing. He had a lot of opportunities to pursue higher office, including the Congress and the office of lieutenant governor. But he never wanted to give up the Senate.”
Early in his Senate career, Demuzio became one of the famed “Crazy Eight,” a maverick group of Democratic legislators who held out for concessions from Chicagoland politicians. In 1977, he was at the forefront of the toxic waste battle in Wilsonville that captured national headlines.
As a member of the Agricultural Committee, Demuzio was an active proponent of the Orr Research Center, a University of Illinois facility in Pike County. “He came from a farming area, and wanted to advance agriculture and represent their causes,” said D. Demuzio, adding with a laugh, “of course, having a wife from a farming family didn’t hurt. But Vince was deeply committed to the needs of Illinois agriculture.”
In addition, Demuzio wrote the Electronic Transfer Act and was an active member of the Education Committee for the bulk of his Senate career. He considered his work on education as one of his proudest achievements. His respect for education induced him to become a member of the Board of Trustees of Blackburn College and a great friend of the institution.
In 1986, Demuzio was elected chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, the first time in a half-century that someone outside of Cook County held that post. Two years later, he delivered the Illinois votes at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta.
His appearance in Atlanta was one of many instances of national recognition for Demuzio, but he remained a state senator at heart. He relished the chance to work with his peers and was a valued mentor to many incoming legislators.
“Vince never missed freshman orientation day in the legislature,” commented D. Demuzio. “He was always willing to work with new members, and answer any questions they had, no matter how small.
“He was also the ‘institutional knowledge guy’ in the chamber,” she continued. “If something was going on in the capitol building, or in the legislature, he was the go-to person. He was always prepared on the floor of the Senate, and communicated his goals and needs very well. He understood the workings of the Senate extremely well, and many others respected him for that.”
Demuzio never stayed over in Springfield during the legislative sessions, choosing to commute to Carlinville daily, regardless of weather or other circumstances. Without fail, he arrived every day in the third floor chambers of the capitol building signing “Here I Am, Lord.”
“He was a very spiritual person,” remarked D. Demuzio. “He loved God, and was very devoted. I chose to have that song performed at his funeral.”
His memorial on a gray, foreboding day on May 1, 2004 was the largest in Carlinville in decades, attended by thousands of mourners and many dignitaries. As a ceremonial tribute, Deanna Demuzio had her husband’s funeral procession enter Carlinville to cover the Vince Demuzio Expressway, a portion of Interstate 55 that been named in his honor just before his death.
“We had the procession travel up I-55 to the Raymond exit, turn around, and enter Carlinville on Route 108,” she said. “We wanted to include that in part of the service.”
When he was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer in August 2003, Vince Demuzio, not surprisingly, took control of his final few months. He planned his own funeral, right down to where guests would sit. “He faced his final few months as he did the rest of his life,” remembered his widow. “He took charge, and made sure that everything was how it was supposed to be.”
Part of his legacy became his commitment to eradicating the same disease that took his own life. His name is now on a vital program to increase screening of colo-rectal cancers. “Everyone who receives a colonoscopy from that program is benefitted,” said D. Demuzio. “A lot of people don’t want to talk about such things as colonoscopies, but they can be life-saving. Vince’s legacy may have saved a lot of lives.”
In addition to the throngs of mourners, there was one provocative moment from her husband’s funeral that Deanna Demuzio still remembers.
“We had his car at the cemetery, and all of a sudden, the horn started going off,” she recalled with a smile. “We had no idea how that happened. Everyone turned to me, but I was outside the car, just standing there, holding the keys. No one else was in the car.
“We just looked at each other, wondering what was going on,” she continued. “But then we thought it was a signal from Vince, telling us to go on. He would have wanted it that way.”
Today, Deanna Demuzio still receives reminders of her late husband’s legacy on an almost daily basis.
“I still hear from people all the time with stories of Vince and all the things that he did,” she remarked. “I get notes, letters, photos, all sorts of things. Just last night, a firefighter from Staunton was talking to me about his memories of Vince. So many people were touched by Vince, and still remember all of what he did in his years of service.”
Tom Emery of Carlinville, Ill. is developing a research project on the life of Vince Demuzio. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or firstname.lastname@example.org.