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Rated PG: Sandberg didn't fit into one category

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Gary-L -Sandberg

I like it that people are, for the most part, being honest about Gary Sandberg when talking about him after his passing last week.

Often a person becomes different in death than he or she was in life and people gloss over their controversial times. Few are doing that in this case; considering Sandberg's controversies were played out in the public arena there is less need to be careful what one says.

Oh, nobody is saying only bad things. But they aren't making him out to be the perfect angel, either. He wouldn't want them to.

One thing being said about him is quite true: He looked out for his constituents, the residents of Peoria, and was not afraid of speaking out on the City Council floor on their behalf, even when that wasn't the most popular position. He loathed special treatment being given to certain businesses or developers if it meant taxpayers were going to help pay for something they had little or no say in and he bristled when his colleagues on the council failed to do their homework on an issue before voting.

He expected city staff to do their jobs well and thoroughly, that they owed the citizens who paid their salaries that much.

His distaste for certain things going on in the city in the late 1980s was precisely his reason for running for City Council in 1989. He was working for the city at the time and he knew he'd have to give up that job. But he believed he could do more good on the horseshoe than in the city inspections office.

He had a temper; at times it got him in trouble either because of something he said or did when angry. Anybody who has a temper often finds trouble with it and yes, I speak from experience.

He had a mind like a steel trap. That served him well throughout his public career, but it didn't serve well those who tried to dupe him or the city more than once because he didn't forget.

Sandberg was fiercely loyal to his friends, but was not afraid to vote against something they wanted if that vote was in the greater good of the city and its residents. But those friends knew that on a personal level, if they needed him he would be there.

I feel qualified to write about Gary Sandberg because I knew him for 36 years. We met on my first day of covering City Hall for the Peoria Journal Star in early 1987. He was the city's Director of Inspections, which meant it was his task to ensure all buildings within the city were up to code. It could be a broken down garage or a 12-story office building; he took that job every bit as seriously as he did anything else in his life.

From that job and from his chosen profession as an architect, Sandberg came to love old buildings. I remember a conversation we had once about some of the oldest buildings in Peoria. He loved to talk about those buildings and what it would take to make the most dilapidated of those buildings viable again.

I don't remember a whole lot of details about the conversation, but what I do remember well was that when we went to leave the restaurant where we ended up my car would not start. We jumped it with cables and but it wouldn't stay charged. So Sandberg took the battery out of my car, we drove in his car to his house and he put it on a charger in his garage. Then he gave me the keys to his car and told me to take it home that night so we could leave my battery charging and in the morning we'd know if it worked or if I'd have to get a new battery.

That was the kind of guy Gary Sandberg was to me. We could give each other grief over stories I wrote or his decision to not return calls (we once argued on the street in front of City Hall, drawing a crowd before we were finished), but we could sit next to each other at Sully's or Kelleher's or wherever we saw each other and shoot the bull for a while.

I remember on one of those occasions bringing up a particular controversy and asking him why he did something. Once we established the fact his response would be off the record, he gave me that big grin of his — the one that lit up his whole face and caused his eyes to get that "I know something you don't" look in them.

"Well?" I said.

"I'll never tell," he responded.

"But it's off the record," I replied.

"I know." With that he kind of cackled, clapped me on the shoulder and said, "See ya!"

That told me Sandberg never did anything without a reason. He was a very intelligent man and his knowledge of all kinds of things was impressive. He was as analytical as any when it came to his votes at the horseshoe.

It also reminded me he kept a lot of things to himself. He was not the open book many figured him to be. And yet, there was enough to him that he couldn't be put into just one category.

There have been many local stalwarts who have passed in recent months, including some not well known by the citizenry but who will be missed by groups with which they were involved. Each was different; each was colorful. And each was, in one way or another, a person to be admired.

We'll mourn them, we'll laud them. Let's hope we learned from them.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).