Kane County History: Robert Gilliam Was an 'Elgin Guy'

Kane County History: Robert Gilliam Was an ‘Elgin Guy’

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s blog was researched and written by Museum Educator Rebecca Miller. Photos courtesy of the Elgin History Museum.

Robert “Bob” Gilliam was a humble man. He often downplayed himself as “a skinny little kid from Fremont Street,” but he had a significant impact on the city of Elgin.

Trying to summarize his many contributions to Elgin is a challenge.

Gilliam himself may have summed it up best when he said, “My wife says I love Elgin as much as I love her. I am an Elgin Guy.”

A Career With U46

Born in 1945, Gilliam attended Elgin High School where he played basketball for three years. He moved on to attend Elgin Community College for two years before transferring to the University of Nevada at Reno on a basketball scholarship.

The Elgin High School Varsity Basketball team, under coach Bill Chesbrough, finished with a 20-7 record in 1963. Robert Gilliam, #14, would go on to play at Elgin Community College and the University of Nevada at Reno.

He returned to Elgin in 1968 with a degree in Physical Education and a job as a P.E. teacher at his alma mater, Elgin High School.

Gilliam’s 34-year career with School District U-46 would include time at Elgin High School as a teacher, basketball coach, counselor and dean of students. He would eventually become assistant superintendent of human resources for the entire district.

He enjoyed recruiting teachers and especially visiting potential bilingual teachers in their own communities and sharing the exciting new dual language program being built by School District U-46. Through his efforts, the staffing at the district grew to include greater diversity.

City Councilman Gilliam

While a teacher at Elgin High School in 1973, Gilliam saw an opportunity to make a greater impact on his community as a whole. Though only 28 years old, Gilliam ran for and won a seat on the Elgin City Council.

Robert “Bob” Gilliam (1945-2014) was Elgin’s longest serving city councilman and believed to be the longest serving elected official in Illinois outside the city of Chicago.

He won re-election nine times, eventually serving for 40 years and becoming the longest serving member in the council’s history and its first black member. Gilliam had sought a seat on the City Council to, in his words, “get involved.”

He saw that complaining from the sidelines was ineffective and wanted to do more to drive Elgin’s future. And in those 40 years, he would have a role in many of the projects that came to define Elgin.

While a City Council member, Gilliam focused on the health and safety of residents. He played an important role in the construction of the new police station at Douglas Avenue, increasing the number of Elgin fire stations to seven, and the acquisition of a new public works building.

In addition to promoting vital city services, Gilliam was also the commissioner of the Elgin Housing Authority. He would serve in that post for 25 years (1988-2013) seeking to improve the operation and management of the agency.

Early in his career, Gilliam had seen, first hand, the problems that came with housing discrimination and the cost of living during personal and community hardships.

Downtown Growth

Robert Gilliam served on Elgin’s City Council for 40 years. He had a reputation for fairness and a passion for making Elgin a great place to live.

Gilliam saw that a town was judged by its downtown even through times of economic recession. He knew that a vibrant downtown with destination sites was important for Elgin’s future.

He worked toward improvements to the city’s riverfront, revitalization of the downtown, the building of the Centre of Elgin recreation center, and the development of Festival Park.

Gilliam was willing to admit his mistakes though and often remarked that he was glad his vote against the Grand Victoria Casino in the 1990s was outweighed by those who saw how the casino could be an asset to the community. He also saw the silver lining in his unsuccessful run for Elgin mayor in 1983.

At the close of his career, Gilliam noted he was too young and lacked the necessary vision for that role and would always see his time on the City Council as the best match for his skills.

Proudest Achievement

In the mid-1970s Gilliam fought on the winning side of a controversial plan to build a new water plant in town. The plan was bold for the time and required a great deal of confidence in Elgin’s future growth.

Up until this point Elgin was relying on Chicago and local wells for its water supply; limiting potential usage to 8 million gallons per day.

Seeing that greater water availability would lead to greater manufacturing and residential development, Gilliam pushed for the construction of the new water plant that could draw water from the Fox River.

Today, the Riverside Water Treatment Facility pumps an average of 14 million gallons of water a day and allows Elgin to serve the new growth on the west side as well as sell the surplus water to nearby Bartlett and Sleepy Hollow.

Asked years later, Gilliam would always say this was his greatest achievement for Elgin.

The End of a Remarkable Career

Robert Gilliam lost his seat on the City Council in 2013 when his last re-election bid fell short. After 40 years of service, and facing a family health crisis of his own and one that affected his wife Marianne, Bob Gilliam said it was time.

It was also time for Elgin to say “Thank You.”

Shortly before his death in December of 2014, Robert Gilliam joined family and community members at a ceremony to dedicate Elgin’s City Hall in his honor.

The building now bears the name Robert Gilliam Municipal Complex. Inside is a wall of honor filled with some of the six suitcases of framed certificates, citations, awards and plaques that had been bestowed on Robert Gilliam in his 40 years of service to the people of Elgin.

Not bad for a skinny kid from Fremont Street that just loved Elgin.

About The Elgin History Museum

The Elgin History Museum is housed in an 1856 landmark building known as Old Main that was once part of the Elgin Academy campus.

The Elgin Area Historical Society, which was founded in 1961, is a thriving organization that operates within the museum. The society has a board of directors with a mission that is driven to preserve and educate the community about Elgin history.

The Elgin History Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Two floors of Elgin history exhibits pull you back in time to remember how the community developed from 1835 to today.

For more information, visit elginhistory.org.

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