The Lord's mercies are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.
Standing for justice and deep in their faith, Charles and Willie Halbert are community stalwarts to ensure fairness and equality for all. Plus, their generosity has fed multitudes, comforted the imprisoned, and housed the homeless.
The two grew up in Phoenix, Illinois, an unincorporated area near Harvey and went to the same schools. Their paths did not cross until they came to Illinois State University (ISU) and met each other when working at Heritage Manor. They both came from large families, Charles one of seven, Willie sixth child of ten. Both their fathers were church pastors, and both worked as United Steelworkers union members, employed at Acme Steel.
Charles completed junior college and then came to ISU. Financially unable to complete his education, he returned home and was drafted. He served in the U.S. Army at Fort Riley, Kansas, trained as an operating room technician. With the G.I. Bill he returned to ISU in 1974, completing an economics degree.
Willie has a dynamic and creative streak, first coming to ISU as a drama student. That ended when a play required her to kiss another actor. She opened the ISU directory and decided she would major in whatever page it opened to – thus a degree in Criminal Justice and lifetime employment with the Illinois Department of Corrections.
While working at Heritage Manor, she noticed a tall gentleman pushing a cart between buildings. “That’s the man I’m going to marry,” she told her co-worker. They struck up a casual friendship until one day Willie surprised Charles with a snowball to the head. He tackled and buried her in the snow, whispering, “I’m going to marry you.” Six months later the two were wed, living at ISU’s Cardinal Court, students with few resources but deep love. “We’re so in sync,” Willie said, “together we’re perfect.”
Charles began a life-time career at State Farm that included a brief stint in Texas, rising to a superintendent in health insurance. Willie worked as a counselor with prisoners, helping them through their problems, lining up educational opportunities and post-incarceration employment. She rose to Case Supervisor and eventually Assistant Superintendent.
The two have always stood for justice, participating in marches, demonstrations, and dialogues on human relations. Both were formative in beginning Not In Our Town locally. Early in his State Farm career Charles joined a downtown march. Many cautioned he would lose his job if he did. Charles went directly to CEO Ed Rust Jr. and shared his intentions, deciding he would stand up for what he believed in. There was no retribution for his participation.
Charles served multiple terms on Bloomington’s Police and Fire Commission, Willie on the Human Relations Commission, including during the 1995-96 failed ordinance attempt to ensure equal rights for LGBTQ+ people. She received hate mail but stood by her equal treatment for all principles. Willie is a “visionary,” according to Charles, seeing ahead where others cannot. She has written three books and multiple dramas. She was the first African American to lead the BroMenn Follies, agreeing to it only if she could have total artistic control and diversifying the talent.
Mount Pisgah is their spiritual home, and they are both deeply involved in the church. Charles is a deacon and Willie teaches Sunday School. They both assist with the food pantry and during COVID Willie supervised making masks for community distribution. They have opened their home to those needing shelter and cook meals to share. Both guide, listen to, and encourage youth to live and realize their fullest potential.
Willie is currently serving as the Bloomington-Normal NAACP Branch Second Vice-President and is a Zeta Phi Beta sorority member. Charles is also an NAACP member and past Veterans’ Committee chair. Bloomington-Normal is home and they have seen changes. The blatant examples they endured when younger have diminished yet they still strive for equality for all.
“Our cup runneth over,” Charles says. The two have a rich, multi-generational family life and their “family” includes many friends, parishioners and fellow sojourners in the march for justice.