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Board Notes: An Era Ends as Longtime Editor Retires

Taylor Pensoneau
WUIS/Illinois Issues

The era of Peggy Boyer Long at Illinois Issues, a more than 13-year span ending with her retirement in December, was a period of achievement second to none in the magazine's history.

Without fail, Peggy poured into the magazine the same diligence, energy and, above all, political savvy that I first saw her display many years earlier when she was a public radio reporter in the Illinois Statehouse.

Nothing more defined Peggy through the years than her bent for in-depth exploration of the burning questions surrounding all facets of public life in the state, something clearly reflected in the content of the magazine after she joined the staff as editor in 1994. Beyond that, she teamed at the helm of the magazine with Edward Wojcicki, publisher of Illinois Issues for much of the time Peggy was editor, to bring broadened coverage of such areas of interest as the arts, humanities and science. It definitely was a growth period for the magazine.

Still, Peggy's guiding hand did not stray from the original stated goal of the magazine to provide thorough and objective coverage of public affairs at the state and local levels of government in Illinois. Upholding this goal earned Peggy wide recognition, including her receipt back in November of the Paul Simon Public Service Award from the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Upon reflection, the entire run of the magazine has been truly noteworthy. 

I speak from a vantage point beyond the more than two decades in which I have been a member of its Advisory Board. Back in the years when I was the Springfield-based Illinois political writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I was one of the journalists invited in December 1974 to a preview of the magazine's first issue coming out the following month. Also, I was a frequent contributor in the early years.

The chance that Illinois Issues would survive was bolstered greatly by the trio of heavy hitters instrumental in its inception — the late Paul Simon, Sam Gove and the late Sam Witwer. Simon had been directing the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield (then Sangamon State University). However, by the time the first issue of the magazine was being circulated, he was in Washington, D.C., at the start of his first term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Gove was director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, and Witwer was the father of Illinois constitutional reform. Gove was the first chairman of the magazine's board and its membership included Witwer. 

In pushing for the magazine, Simon, Gove and Witwer had at least one thing in common. As Michael Lennon, an early editor and later publisher of the magazine, accurately put it, all three thought that public affairs journalism was simply too important to be left solely to journalists.

The vision for Illinois Issues shared by its founders reached full fruition under Peggy's tutelage. While the content certainly was intended to go beyond routine journalistic takes on issues, the pages still were not to be dominated by ivory-tower academics expounding as if for a sociology textbook. Balance was called for, and Peggy answered.

Academicians rightfully were given a green light to set issues in context through detailed perspectives. Journalists were offered a wide path to provide insights on the nuts and bolts of matters that, while crucial to the public interest, often received short shrift in newspapers or on broadcasts. From the start, this writer — like others from the journalistic side — welcomed the opportunity to write at length in the magazine on subjects deserving more ink than was afforded by newspapers.

So on her watch the magazine was a cornucopia of thought. Peggy made sure that a stable of talented writers remained in play, individuals such as Bill Lambrecht and Pat Gauen of the Post-Dispatch, Kathy Best of the Seattle Times, freelancer Jim Krohe and historian Bob McGregor. Peggy came up with some new wrinkles, too, such as her push for more essayistic analyses. 

The best example was her initiation of the Paul Simon Essay series, which got off the ground with a composition by political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain. Peggy also broadened the purview of the magazine to more geographical areas of the state, a move to look beyond Springfield and Chicago.

Of course, part of the credit for the impetus to bring about increased diversity in the magazine's coverage goes to the Advisory Board members, who are asked to suggest topics, situations and people important enough for the magazine's attention. In Peggy's tenure, the board has included — in addition to notable academics — former governors and other major political figures, business and union leaders, and a mix of other individuals from major sectors of Illinois life.

For the past four years or so, Peggy has served as executive editor of Illinois Issues, as well as director of publications for UIS's Center for State Policy and Leadership. In spite of the demands on her time, I was delighted when she joined me on the governing board of the Illinois Center for the Book. On another front, she and I have collaborated on an update of Robert Howard's classic book, The Illinois Governors: Mostly Good and Competent, a publication of Illinois Issues.

As the old saying goes, Peggy leaves big shoes to fill at the magazine. However, the solid product, which has been strengthened even more during her stewardship, justifies optimism that the publication will continue to fulfill its unique role as the public affairs magazine for the Prairie State. 

Taylor Pensoneau is a longtime member of Illinois Issues' Advisory Board. 

Illinois Issues, January 2008

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