By Denise Crosby
One of my most precious possessions was picked up at an estate sale.
But it wasn’t the estate sale of just anyone. It was at the home of Aurora’s beloved matriarch, Marie Wilkinson, which was opened to the public after her death in August 2010 to give the community she served for most of her 101 years the opportunity to purchase items she once owned.
I covered the sale for a story, but there was no way I was going to leave without my own concrete memory of this longtime Aurora civil rights and community activist. And the 8-inch statue of the Blessed Mary – Marie was a devout Catholic – still sits in a place of honor on a shelf in my bedroom.
Marie Wilkinson, who was often described as Aurora’s “mother,” died almost six years ago, but her memory lives on in this community in ways big and small.
One of the most compelling: the life-sized bronze statue of her that sits in front of the Santori Aurora Public Library downtown as a reminder of her love for children and education.
Then there are two of her oldest and most far-reaching legacies: The Marie Wilkinson Child Development Center, founded in 1970; and the Marie Wilkinson Food Pantry, which will celebrate its 60th anniversary next year.
In the hopes of coinciding with this six-decade milestone, the pantry is spearheading another project to preserve Marie’s legacy: a book about her that will cover an incredible life and detail just how much she gave to all of us.
It’s a project years in the making.
Even before Marie’s death, an author spent weeks interviewing her, with Marie’s own voice captured on a cassette tape. There is also a manuscript that was started which outlines her life story.
“There is a lot of material,” said the pantry’s Executive Director Diane Renner. “And now we are looking to find someone to take all that information and turn it into a historical piece for Aurora so her legacy never dies.”
Historical is the appropriate word to use here. Marie not only had a major hand in the founding of dozens of social service agencies here in the Fox Valley, including Quad County Urban League and St. Vincent DePaul Center, she helped pass the fair housing ordinance and founded the human relations commission she went on to chair for 40 years.
But Marie was also an activist on the national level, and personally knew Rosa Parks, Mamie Till and Mother Teresa. She even received a phone call from Dr. Martin Luther King, personally thanking her for the $12,000 she raised in 1965 – mostly through her connections to local churches of all denominations – for his iconic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama.
Her greatest fans, however, are the thousands of people she touched in her 80 years of living in Aurora, most of it in that modest home on View Street she and husband Charles would regularly open to anyone in need.
We ran some of those memories of Marie in this newspaper after her death, and the thing that sticks with me after re-reading some of those tributes was the scope of her wisdom, her humor and her seemingly tireless drive to help those less fortunate.
As one resident so succinctly put it, “You were a better person because you knew Marie.”
Renner says the food pantry is not only looking for an author or group to finish the book for a reasonable cost, its board of directors also would like to hear from those who have personal memories of her so those tributes can become part of Marie’s book.
The hope, added Renner, is this book, much of it guided by her own words, will bring Marie’s spirit to life.
Her statue is at the library – and on my bedroom shelf – as a reminder of her courage and goodness. Now we need to place her book there, as well.