WBEZ is doing a series of interviews with famous Chicagoans on what they were doing when they were 25. This week’s subject: Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
“After I gave up being a cowgirl, I decided I wanted to be a teacher,” Preckwinkle told hosts Rick Kogan and Lauren Chooljian. “I used to love Westerns. When I was 25, I was teaching in Englewood, at Visitation High School. I’m a history teacher by profession.”
Preckwinkle arrived here at 18 from St. Paul, Minn., to study at the University of Chicago. By the time she graduated, she had made two lifelong commitments: to the city, and to her husband, Zeus, an elementary school teacher. Zeus was a runner, so Preckwinkle spent her weekends at University of Chicago Track Club meets, timing races.
“I didn’t grow up as a privileged person, but I certainly had the education of a privileged person at the University of Chicago, and I wanted to share what I’d come to love,” she said.
In 1972, Englewood “was a community that had been pretty solidly white, so this was a long time ago, and there was a very abrupt racial transition. The senior class was almost all white, and the freshman class was African-American and Latino. It was a pretty dramatic shift. The community was still a working class community, and pretty intact, but you could see it was headed for trouble, even then.”
Although Preckwinkle expected to spend her entire career in education, as a teacher and then possibly a principal, she had already gotten involved in politics, working on Paul Simon’s 1968 campaign for lieutenant governor. Preckwinkle was also inspired by the Watergate hearings.
“I was teaching at a time when there was the impeachment of Richard Nixon, and talking to my kids about it every day, and I was very impressed by Barbara Jordan,” a black congresswoman from Texas.
What would Preckwinkle’s 25-year-old self think of Toni today?
“Astonished, probably,” Preckwinkle said. “My vision for myself was to be a teacher, maybe a principal someday.”
And what advice would today’s Preckwinkle have for 25-year-old Toni?
“You have to be organized. You have to be able to take complex information and relate it to ordinary people. Classroom management is important, dealing with diverse constituencies. People usually think of the legal profession as a segue into politics, but I think teachers have it over lawyers.”