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Our Favorite Things: Our Favorite Peorians Throughout Time

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richard pryor

At first this poll was going to be about our favorite Peorians who have travelled back THROUGH time but then, as one of our writers pointed out, time travel is a bit of a mundane topic. After all, who HASN’T travelled back in time? Kind of a moot point. So we went with our back-up plan and decided to select our favorite Peorians THROUGHOUT time, which seemed to be much more reasonable.

Our murder of writers was instructed to base their choices on, well, whatever they wanted. Impact on society? Fine. Skills and talent? Go for it. Prettiest hair? Sounds good to us, when’s lunch? So here’s our list (in no particular order) with comments by some of our illustrious scribes, along with some honorable mentions. Obviously, there are notable omissions but, you know what, just cut us some slack, wouldja? We don’t go around criticizing YOUR lists. Yeah…that’s what we thought. Enjoy!

Jim and Marian Jordan (a.k.a. Fibber McGee and Molly)
By Ken Zurski
I did some research recently on Jim and Marian Jordan and came to admire their success story. It all began when they met as teenagers during a Christmas choir practice at St. Johns Church in Peoria. Jim toured with a vaudeville troupe and Marion sang and played piano. They got married and Jim went to war. 

When Jim came back he worked at a local post office for a time. They put a musical act together and headed to Chicago. There they dabbled in comedy skits. A few years later, Fibber McGee and Molly became a radio sensation. They always talked lovingly about growing up in Peoria and incorporated it in their radio show. In 1950 they came back to St John's Church for a visit. It made national news. Marian joined in with the choir and Jim sat in a desk and playfully pretended he was deep in thought. Classic! Still today the name Fibber McGee and Molly is synonymous with this city.

Thomas J. Farnham
By Kevin Kizer
One hundred years before Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady went “On the Road” a central Illinois native probably went on what could be considered the ultimate road trip. T.J. Farnham was one of a group of men known as the “Peoria Party” who, in 1839, struck out from central Illinois on the Oregon Trail (nine years earlier than in the ol-timey Oregon Trail computer game). Farnham was the first of the group to make it to Oregon and help establish the first permanent settlement in the region under U.S. Government protection.

But that was just one leg of Farnham’s incredible trip. Soon thereafter he jumped on a ship and sailed to the Sandwich Islands (Hawai’i). He later returned to California then traveled through Mexico (today’s Arizona, New Mexico and Texas) over to New Orleans, up the Mississippi River, onto the Illinois River and back home to central Illinois, arriving in the fall of 1840. He even wrote a book about his travels.

Philip Jose Farmer
By Matt Richmond
A prolific writer of science fiction and fantasy, Farmer was a Peorian pretty much all his life – though not many people realized it. And that’s a shame, because he was a titan in his field. Robert Heinlein dedicated Stranger in a Strange Land to him. Isaac Asimov commended Farmer as “a more skillful writer” than himself. Farmer once wrote a book under the pen name Kilgore Trout, a character created by Kurt Vonnegut – with Vonnegut’s permission.

Along with hundreds of fictional works and essays, he created one of the weirdest, most enjoyable, worlds in science fiction – Riverworld. Imagine an afterlife in which great personages from history arrive in their 25-year-old bodies to live again on a river-planet. In other words, Farmer renamed the River City "Riverworld," then made it the coolest place in the universe. Just as Mt. Olympus is both a real place and the mythological seat of the gods, so now is Peoria, thanks to Philip Jose.

Richard Pryor
By Shaun Taylor
Comedian, writer, actor, activist and LEGEND!  My favorite Peorian throughout time is Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor. Richard Pryor took his tragic upbringing and turned it into comedic gold. Inspired by the likes of Bill Cosby and Redd Foxx, Pryor in turn inspired a generation of great comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy, George Lopez and Chris Rock. He had a TV show and co-starred* in my favorite, FAVORITE movie of all time, Harlem Nights. Harlem Nights was one of Pryor's last movies before his untimely death and it featured three generations of comedic legends: Redd Foxx, Eddie Murphy and Pryor. He won an Emmy, five Grammys AND is considered by most to be the all-time greatest stand-up comedian. He's even got his own street in downtown Peoria!

*A Note From Kevin: I also love Richard as Daddy Rich in Car Wash!

General Wayne A. Downing
By Tim Wyman
I'm not a big fan of the word "favorite".  To me, it's sort of an eight year-old's word.*  I like other colors besides green and other foods besides pizza.  Then you have to deal with categories, right?  For example, both "The Godfather" and "Caddyshack" are great movies, but can you really compare the two?  So when I'm asked who my "favorite" Peorian is, I kind of bristle simply because picking one person over another isn't really an exercise that I find appealing.  How do you pick Richard Pryor over Fibber McGee & Molly or vice versa?  Two different things, right?  

 So, I am going with the Peorian who gave the most of himself to our society, and displayed character, dignity, bravery, heroism, and brilliance throughout his career--General Wayne A. Downing.  A graduate of West Point, General Downing fought in two wars, and at the pinnacle of his career was commander of the entire U.S. Special Operations.  Forever a patriot, he even left retirement in 2001 in order to fight the war against terrorism.  He was a man who gave selflessly to his family, his hometown, and his country.  General Downing is a Peorian who should be revered and looked toward as an example how to live one's life.

* A Note From Kevin: Fair enough. Next week the list will be renamed "Our Most Awesomest Things Eva".

R.H. Avery
By Chris Traugott
R. H. Avery was a Union Solider that spent his time in the infamous Andersonville Confederate Prison, maintaining his sanity by sketching a design for a corn planter in the sand, a design which would grow into a successful company, well-known for the Avery Thresher. But track-type farm implements were dominating the market and Avery ultimately, even after several reboots, failed to adapt. Even so, Avery himself was an inspirational character, who in spite of being held captive and contracting typhoid fever, formed a company, based on his mere ideas, keeping it going, not giving up, even when everything looked dismal and bleak. And for a time, Avery Tractor was advertised as 'The Largest Tractor Company in the World,' employing 2,600 men. Avery Tractors still have a high reputation, and are highly prized among collectors.

Fulton J. Sheen
By Tim Cundiff
There is one man I feel will go down in history as one of the greatest Peorians of all time. He is a man of many titles. There is one saintly title that many Catholics anxiously await him being bestowed. Born in El Paso, IL, a graduate of Spalding Institute in Peoria in 1913, Fulton J. Sheen went on to become an Archbishop. He became a renowned theologian and went on to bring the Catholic message to folks via radio and television. He was a trailblazing philosopher. Due to his works being heralded across the world, he twice won an Emmy Award for Most Outstanding Television Personality. His name has been declared Venerable by Pope Benedict. This major step toward beatification indicates that he lived a life of “heroic virtues”. His Cause has been presented in Rome and, if canonized, he would become the first American-born male Saint. Whether or not declared a Saint, Fulton Sheen will still be known as one of the greatest Peorians of all time.

Others who made our list:

- Joe Girardi: World Series Champion New York Yankee player and manager, Spalding Institute Alum

- Scott Altman: U.S. Navy Captain Test Pilot, Former NASA Astronaut, Veteran of four Space Shuttle Missions, Pekin Alum

- Jim Thome: 612 career home runs, 7th on the All-Time Home Run list in Major League Baseball

- Curley Boo Johnson: Harlem Globetrotter, Peoria Central Alum

- Dan Fogelberg: Singer, Songwriter, Musician, Woodruff Alum

- Matt Savoie: Olympic Figure Skater, 2006 Bronze Medalist

- John Coleman: Former WMBD Weatherman, Founder of The Weather Channel

- Gary Richrath: REO Speedwagon Guitarist and Songwriter (“Ridin’ the Storm Out”)

- Jim Maloof: Three-term Mayor, Successful Business Owner, All-around Great Guy

- Robert Ingersoll: Civil War Veteran, Political Leader and Brilliant Orator known as "The Great Agnostic"

Civil War vet, political leader and brilliant orator known as “The Great Agnostic”, Robert Ingersoll.
About the Author
A Juilliard-trained writer, Kevin Kizer has fought against numerous world-champion writers during his career, besting the reigning middle weight writing champion in an exhibition bout in Helsinki in 1976. He also played a crucial role on the U.S. gold-medal winning writing team during the 1984 Pan-Am games, where he came off the bench in dramatic fashion to write the winning prepositional phrase just as time expired.