Museum News

John Penn -- 2024 History Maker

March 27th, 2024

Humble service to his community marks John Penn’s commitment to his union, his community, and his nation. If there are two words that define John Penn, they are family and community, and to him, they are interchangeable.

Bloomington born, John is the inaugural second generation McLean County Museum of History “History Maker.” His father Paul was among the original 2012 honorees. Like his father, John was immersed in organized labor, following in his father’s footsteps to lead Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) Local 362. John began working as a Laborer at age 14.

 He credits his father and his World War II veteran contemporaries, the “Greatest Generation,” for their guidance and examples. He carefully watched his father Paul, seeing how he worked with people and noting his deep concern for the membership. At age 18 John joined the Air Force, serving in Korea, Vietnam, Okinawa, and while in the U.S., John married Mary, his Bloomington High School sweetheart, in February 1967. When their daughter Shawn was born, he shipped out for Asia five days later. While in Korea he learned martial arts. When he returned to Bloomington, he initiated free Tae Kwon Do classes at the Bloomington YMCA.

John assumed union leadership, becoming Laborers 362’s business manager at age 25. He credits the older generation for guiding him and local union contractors whose handshake and word was always honored.

The local labor movement was transformed by John’s efforts. He revived the Labor Day Parade in 1977; the Union News was published with his initiative. Whenever a community project arose, John marshaled the membership for donated labor. The union could not write huge donation checks, but members could donate their construction skills, saving local non-profits thousands of dollars. The members responded to John’s and his late father Paul’s leadership. The camaraderie that grew through this generosity built a local union that was ever ready and proud to aid local charities. This has included 40-50 Laborers volunteering annually for the Illinois Special Olympic State Games ever since they came to Illinois State University.

On September 13, 1979, 57-year-old Gerald Smith was flagging traffic on I-55 in Normal. He was struck by a car, thrown 30 yards, and killed instantly. John called a safety strike, shutting down $5 million in highway work. From this John helped initiate the Illinois Department of Transportation’s Work Zone Safety Committee, which still meets regularly to ensure safety for motorists and workers.

Labor was cautious toward political involvement, but John realized a political voice was critical. He was elected McLean County Democratic chair in 1984. John began to look at community boards and Laborers began serving. This helped build positive labor-management relations. Laborers Local 362 joined the Chamber of Commerce, and John was an original Economic Development Council officer. The Chamber and Laborers initiated the Children’s Christmas Party for low-income families in 1982, which continues today.

In 1994 John was elected as North Central Illinois Laborers District Council business manager. In 2003 this group merged with Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota to form the Great Plains Laborers District Council. In 2008 he was appointed and then re-elected three times as a LIUNA Vice-President and appointed Midwest Region manager, overseeing local unions in 10 states. He encouraged local unions to organize a veteran and a retiree committee, keeping members involved. Having served the union for 49 years, he retired in 2023.

In 2003 John was the third person honored as the Pantagraph’s “Person of the Year.” In 2022 he was inducted into the Illinois Labor History Society’s Union Hall of Honor. To John, family is more than blood. It is the fellow worker, the low-income, anyone in McLean County in need. His responsible leadership means always stepping up, contributing to community building to ensure a viable and vibrant central Illinois.

Mike Matejka

2nd Vice President