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“I was so grateful for the forty-four and a half years that I had with him,” Mary Woodyard said in an interview soon after her husband, Babe Woodyard’s death.
Harry ‘Babe’ Woodyard was born in Danville, Illinois on December 3rd, 1930. The nickname ‘Babe’ is a bit of a mystery, but daughter Leslie Henry believed that it came from the hospital. “Supposedly, one of the nurses started calling him ‘Babe’ and it just kind of stuck,” she told us.
As a freshman at Ridge Farm High School, Babe would meet his future wife, Mary Hester. “We dated through high school, then through college. It was an on and off thing,” Mary said.
Mary went on to graduate from Purdue and Woodyard from Illinois Westland in Bloomington. After graduating college, the couple married on July 20th, 1952.
Babe went to work on the family farm, but was drafted into the army soon after. Woodyard was sent to Germany, but with the help of a Sergeant, his wife was able to go with him. “We lived north of Munich for a year with another couple,” Mary said. “The home was owned by a German doctor and they rented their basement out. It was an experience.”
After two years, Babe went through the ranks to become Sergeant, then came home after his time was through. The couple settled down in Babe’s grandparents’ house on Washington Street, going back to normal life. Once home, Woodyard was approached by Kenny Cole to see if he would be interested in being a Precinct Committeeman.
Ross Township was just one precinct, but the county board at the time decided it would be easier to divide the township into two districts. Illinois Street was the dividing line. West of Illinois Street is Ross One and East of Illinois is Ross Two. Cole would represent Ross One and Woodyard would be representing Ross Two.
Not being originally from Chrisman, Woodyard had to get creative about how to introduce himself. He would take a list of voters and walk door to door, asking people in Ross Two to vote for him. “He had a telephone book and would stand under the street lights, looking at the phone book to know who everyone was,” his Leslie recalled.
In March of 1979, Babe was selected by Republican leaders to serve in the Illinois House, replacing Jim Edgar, who resigned to become then Governor Jim Thompson’s Chief Legislative aide. Babe served in the house until February of 1986, when he was appointed to the Illinois Senate, replacing Max Coffee, who resigned.
Babe wasn’t particularly interested in politics at the time, but his caring nature was the driving force.
Woodyard had a district office in Chrisman, just over the railroad tracks. When in session, Mary would travel to Springfield to their apartment to stay with him during the week. “The family suffered at times because he was gone a lot. He was into it one hundred and ten percent. He was committed and felt a responsibility to his district,” Mary said.
During his time in politics, Woodyard wanted to make sure that the junior colleges and agriculture departments were taken care of. At one point, Woodyard led six delegates to China to promote Illinois agricultural products in Hong Kong. Upon arrival, Babe noticed that all of the brochures in the Hong Kong-Illinois trade office were in English.
When he asked if anyone spoke English they answered no. Babe made sure that all of the brochures were changed in the trade office to Chinese. “It really upset him, he said ‘what good does it do to have all these brochures in English if no one can read them?’” Mary said.
In 1997, after a fulfilling political career, Woodyard announced that he would not seek re-election in 1998. On January 28th, Babe underwent a five hour surgery to repair a thoracic aortic aneurysm. On January 31st, Woodyard passed from a stroke.
Woodyard’s sudden passing left the Illinois political world in shock. A bus from Springfield brought legislatures to the service. Those in attendance were able to share their thoughts about Babe. A democrat in attendance, stood up to give his thoughts. “He stood up and said that Babe always worked with him and reached across the aisle, working back and forth together,” Leslie said.
Twenty-four years after his death, the family still reminisces on what it would be like if he were still around. “He had a good sense of humor. He was very special to his grand kids. Babe would set up a tent in between our two houses and stay out all night with his grand kids. He enjoyed them a lot,” Mary told us.
Leslie remembers the time that her children had with him. “They were so young when he died and they didn’t get to enjoy him as much and have him influence their lives as much as he would’ve been able to do,” she said.
In his lifetime, Woodyard was on the Chrisman School Board, DACC Board of Trustees, Edgar County Board and the Chrisman Fire Protection District.
He also served on the Ridge Farm State Bank Board for over forty years, Paris Community Hospital (now Horizon Health) Board for twenty years, Chairman of the Edgar County Republican Party, GOP Precinct Committeeman for eighteen years and he was the Edgar County School Board President.
After his passing, the ACES Library Information Alumni Center presented the family with a plaque to thank the family for all of his support and significant contributions, including state funding for the facility.
Two and a half miles southeast of Georgetown, stands a sign for the ‘Babe Woodyard State Natural Area’. The park was dedicated by Jim Edgar, who allotted thirteen million dollars to develop the area to make it a park. After time, the development fell to the wayside and was never improved, but is something that the family may be interested in the future to look at.
On November 14, 2000, The Illinois State Senate took a moment to honor Mr. Woodyard. The consult general of the People’s Republic of China, Wei Ruxing, presented Mary with a plaque to honor her late husband’s outstanding contributions to the promotion of friendly relations between the two countries.
In return, Mrs. Woodyard presented Wei with a book of photographs of the Illinois countryside.