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Jesse Smart Named 2017 History Makers Honoree

Jesse Smart

Jesse Smart was born on April 29, 1939 on a small family farm in Pike County, IL.

After graduating as class valedictorian at East Pike High School, Jesse went on to study agricultural education at the University of Illinois. It was there, in Urbana-Champaign, that Jesse met his wife Susan.

Since Susan was studying accounting, they didn’t share any classes but instead met through church. “We met at University Place Christian Church. …Back in those days, the residence halls didn’t feed you on Sunday night so the campus churches had student things going on that always included supper.” After meeting during a Sunday dinner, they started dating and remained a couple even when Susan graduated a year before Jesse and moved to Chicago, where she worked as an internal auditor at the Federal Reserve Bank.

After Jesse received his BS in agricultural education in 1961, Jesse and Susan married. Together they moved to Stanford, IL where Jesse taught agriculture and biology classes at Stanford High School (now Olympia High School). “Susan moved from Chicago to Stanford, if you can imagine!” Jesse laughed.

After teaching at Olympia for a few years, Jesse moved to a job with Funk Seeds in Bloomington while Susan worked for GTE (now Verizon). After 24 years with Funk Seeds, they started moving their headquarters to Greensboro [North Carolina]. “I had been mayor since 1985 and didn’t want to move to Greensboro so I started my own business in 1989, which was Smart Seeds Inc. … After we got going, our big business was exporting seeds. We’d ship various seeds to former Soviet countries where American seeds were in demand. Starting something while mayor was a handful!”

Before beginning his tenure as mayor, Jesse served seven and a half years as a City Council member. Jesse first joined the Council as an appointee. “Mayor Rich Buchanan was on the council, and there were only four councilmen at the time and one mayor,” Jesse recalled. “So when Rich was elected mayor, that left one of the council seats vacant. The first appointee was forced to resign after a few months due to a legal issue. Therefore, I said to my wife, ‘In a place no bigger than Bloomington, we should have plenty of people without issue.’ She said, ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’ and I said, ‘I’m going to run for that position because more Christian people need to get involved.’”

Twelve candidates applied to fill the vacant seat on the Bloomington City Council, but after narrowing it down to four candidates the Council appointed Jesse.

Jesse ran for mayor of Bloomington and was elected in 1985 on a platform of job growth and economic development. “At that point, the thing the community was saying so much was ‘Why don’t we have jobs? My kid just graduated and wanted to find work in Bloomington-Normal, and couldn’t.’ So my big theme was ‘keep our kids here, working.’”

During his tenure as mayor, Jesse was very pro-business and worked closely with investors and developers to grow the local economy. It was during this period that Bloomington-Normal saw the arrival of Diamond Star and the major growth of State Farm, developments both heavily encouraged by Jesse.

In addition to being business friendly, Jesse believed that quality of life helped draw Mitsubishi here; a belief confirmed by Mitsubishi employees themselves. “I asked, ‘Tell me—why did you choose us?’ There were two reasons. One, our negotiating team was made up of Illinois Power, Ameren, Nicor, both universities, the Chamber of Commerce, labor officials, and various community leaders. I didn’t know this until after, but we were the only community vying for that plant that involved anyone other than the governor and the mayor. The other thing was the amenities. The negotiating team asked those people that were going to be moving here. They were unanimous for here because they knew us and they liked the amenities. They loved to play golf; they had younger families with kids so the [Miller Park] Zoo was important; and they went down this list of cultural and community things that were important to them. We had them.”

To this day, Jesse continues to believe that cultural amenities are a must for a successful community. “If you’re going to keep the community vital, you’ve got to keep all these amenities and bring them in. I believe that with everything that’s in me.”

Smart possessed a deep interest in community building and was involved in the establishment of many programs and organizations that remain valued community institutions to this day. For example, in 1995 he embraced Not in Our Town, a grassroots organization focused on eliminating racism and bullying while promoting inclusion, and encouraged local police to heavily patrol areas around African American churches after an outbreak of church burnings across the nation. When Not In Our Town introduced their pledge cards, Jesse was the first to sign a card and continues to support this organization today.

Another valued community program that Jesse helped to initiate is the annual Martin Luther King Jr. National Holiday Gospel Festival. Jesse can still remember the day that idea was formed. “Corine Sims came in one day and she said, ‘I’ve got an idea but I need your help. I want to do a Martin Luther King gospel festival. I can’t do that on my own, but you as the mayor can help make that work.’ I said ‘I’ll do that.’” The event, held at Illinois Wesleyan University, just celebrated its 27th year. “We decided Wesleyan was a good place to do it because that’s the only place Martin Luther King ever spoke in town,” Jesse explained.

Another point of pride for Jesse is helping fellow 2017 History Maker honoree Judy Stone. Early in Jesse’s tenure as mayor, her husband Jerry approached Jesse regarding Habitat for Humanity. “I hadn’t been mayor a year long and Judy Stone’s husband had an appointment, came into the mayor’s office, and says ‘This organization is beginning and you’ve probably never heard of it.’” Jerry asked Jesse if the City would support them, and Jesse readily agreed. In fact, it was a mutually beneficial arrangement. “At that time we were buying up a lot of the old houses around town through a federal program. I said ‘we own a lot of old homes that were going to be torn down, so why don’t we make a deal with you that we’ll give you those a lot at a time, and once you’ve filled that we’ll give you another one.’” Jesse added, “And during my twelve years of mayor, I never missed a house blessing.”

Habitat for Humanity wasn’t alone in focusing on buildings in the community. As interest in revitalizing downtown grew, Jesse and fellow honoree Craig Hart both focused on improving Downtown Bloomington. At one point, Jesse assisted Craig in his rehabilitation and revitalization of the north side of what is today the Museum Square. “They were trying to force [Craig] to use modern codes to work on his building. He said ‘If we have to do all that, we can’t afford the project.’ It would be impossible.” Therefore, Jesse worked with the staff, the developers and Craig to make it happen.

Downtown was not the only historic neighborhood that caught Jesse’s eye—Jesse also saw a need on the west side of Bloomington. He worked with the West Side Improvement Association to help attract businesses on Market Street such as Aldi Foods, a truck stop, and other retailers by establishing a TIF district, which became Bloomington’s “front door.”

Jesse filled many roles during his tenure as mayor. Jesse served as chair of the Liquor Commission, President of the Central Illinois Mayors Association from 1988-89, Vice President of the Illinois Municipal League, and President of the Illinois Tax Increment Financing Association from 1995-97.

The end of Jesse’s tenure as mayor did not mark the end of his community involvement, however. Throughout his time in Bloomington Jesse has participated in many local organizations. Jesse is a former member of Kiwanis, Past President of the Prairie Air Show, and past secretary of the local Alzheimer’s Association. Jesse is currently Secretary-Treasurer and Past President of the Bloomington Shrine Club, secretary and a past Captain of the Shriner’s Tin Lizzies, a member and Past President of the Young Men’s Club, an active member of the Cultural District Commission, and volunteer floor manager at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts.

Jesse has also been involved in organizations outside of the community. Jesse served on the Illinois State Board of Elections from 2001 until 2015, including 8 years as Chair or Vice-Chair, and also served in many agricultural associations including the Illinois Seed Association, The American Seed Trade Association, and the Crop Improvement Association. Jesse is currently the Executive Director/Treasurer of the Western Seed Association, an international not-for-profit with its main office in Bloomington.

When reflecting on his work for the City, Jesse gives much credit to others. “I couldn’t have done any of this without a lot of help, from council members, community members,” Jesse said, but added with a smile, “I like to think my outgoing personality helped as well!” Jesse also gives a lot of credit to his wife and teammate, Susan.

Lauren Lacy

Lauren Lacy

Director of Development at the McLean County Museum of History