Sonja Reece, 2015 McLean County History Maker
Sonja Reece, Normal Town Council member, business leader, community advocate
The 2015 McLean County History Makers will be honored during the Museum's annual History Makers Gala on Thursday, June 25 at Illinois State University's Brown Ballroom in the Bone Student Center. Tickets are on sale now. Reservations can be made at the Museum in downtown Bloomington, by calling (309) 827-0428, or online at www.mchistory.org/gala.php. Tickets are $60 for the general public and $50 for Museum members. Proceeds support the Museum's educational programs.
A Missouri native, Sonja Reece chose to make Normal her home in 1973. This choice would have a significant impact not only on her family, but also the larger community that would come to know the unyielding positive energy that would be Sonja's trademark.
Her late husband, Jerry, had actually been transferred to a job in Peoria at the time. However, Sonja found better career opportunities in the Twin Cities as the laboratory director of Mennonite Hospital (today's Advocate BroMenn Medical Center). Sonja and Jerry considered splitting the difference and living in a community halfway between Peoria and Normal, but she wanted to work in the same community where their son, Jay, attended school. They chose Normal.
Two years later, the Millikin University graduate would have to make a choice: to leave the very field she'd worked so hard to enter. At the time, the hospital was restructuring Clinical Services and Sonja was asked whether she would consider leaving the lab to become the director of personnel. It was a major and unexpected career shift, but Sonja said then-CEO Bill Dunn encouraged her to take on the new challenge.
“When someone believes that you can do something different, that is very empowering," she said. “Since then, I've never been afraid to take on something new."
Sonja excelled at the new position for five years, and in that time she earned her master's degree in business administration from the University of Illinois in 1979. She also took Dunn's advice and joined two organizations that would ignite a passion for serving her new community - the McLean County Chamber of Commerce and the local United Way. It was her work with the Chamber's Women's Division that would eventually lead to 24 years on the Normal Town Council.
One night in 1988, Normal Mayor Paul Harmon told the Chamber of Commerce Women's Division that he wished more women would become engaged with the Town government. She told him that night she was interested in learning about opportunities, so Sonja sent the mayor her resume and forgot about it for six months until Harmon called and appointed her to an open seat on the Normal Planning Commission.
Later, he would encourage her to run for Normal Town Council. In April of 1991, the public elected Sonja in the only uncontested race she'd ever run. When she ran for re-election four years later she had competition, but Sonja used her experience on the council to win and keep her seat for six terms.
During her tenure, Sonja led the effort to begin televising the Normal Town Council meetings. She worked with City Manager Dave Anderson to get it done.
"I was new, so you don't want to be too aggressive, but nobody argued against it," she remembered. “I think the reasons to be open with your [government] communication far outweigh other concerns."
As a council woman, Sonja served as mayor pro-tem for 8 years, chaired the Illinois State University and Town Liaison Committee, and she successfully worked to encourage public input during planning for the Uptown Revitalization. Her impact spread beyond the Town when she was appointed to the Intergovernmental Advisory Committee to the Federal Communications Commission and multiple posts with the National League of Cities.
She continues to work full time as Director of Health Facilities Planning for Advocate Health Care, dividing her time between supporting the nine Advocate hospitals in the greater Chicago area, as well as BroMenn and Eureka downstate.
Despite her decision not to seek re-election to the Town Council in 2015, Sonja says her public service will continue.
“Not serving on the Council doesn't mean you're not engaged," she explains. “I will keep working with the Town regarding housing for people over 50 and I hope to encourage more women to get involved in local government."
Sonja says she will also continue to share her personal journey with the public in hopes of raising awareness about two causes that are very close to her. As a three-time breast cancer survivor, she advocates for women's health. She has also developed a resource for her family to use, at such time as she is unable to manage her affairs. Sonja now shares the outline of her helpful book in a seminar entitled “Tips to Organize Your Records NOW Before Others Need Them." She has presented the seminar 50 times in the past two years.
Sonja was designated a YWCA Woman of Distinction in 1992, she won the 1998 ATHENA Leadership Award, won the 2011 Spirit of Success Award and the Chamber of Commerce honored her with the 2104 Legacy of Excellence Award. Sonja has served on many community and business boards, and she has held leadership roles with the United Way of McLean County and the Bloomington-Normal Area Economic Development Council. She was the very first woman to serve as chair for the United Way's annual fundraising campaign.
Her favorite role is as grandmother to teenagers Eric and Ali, and Sonja says she is blessed to have them live in Normal.