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'You either have it or you don't:' Former Peoria Mayor Richard Carver remembered as a natural leader during a season of change

 A photo of the 1973 Peoria City Council, with Mayor Richard Carver at the forefront
City of Peoria
A photo of the 1973 Peoria City Council, with Mayor Richard Carver at the forefront

Friends and former colleagues are remembering former Peoria mayor Dick Carver as a leader with an innate knack for building comity around the council horseshoe.

Former Peoria Mayor Richard Carver died peacefully at his Sarasota, Florida home last Friday. Carver was 85 years old.

Carver took office in the spring of 1973 and served as mayor for 11 years. Former Peoria council member Bruce Brown won a council seat in the same election, representing the Third District. Brown says Peoria was in a period of change. In November of 1972, the League of Women Voters supported a referendum fundamentally changing the nature of local government. Instead of candidates running explicitly as Republican or Democratic, candidates vied for nonpartisan positions.

“The voter turnout was usually over 50%. And that was in the day when if you wanted to vote, you had to vote before work, during work or after work, you had to be there to do it,” said Brown. “So there was a great engagement on the part of people who actually kind of not only went and voted but kind of studied up on the candidates.”

Brown credits Carver with ushering Peoria into being a “modern city.” Carver’s tenure included the construction of the Peoria Civic Center, the creation of the University of Illinois medical campus and the end of a policy putting a cap on the number of liquor licenses in Peoria.

“Anybody that met the qualifications, paid the fees, could get a [liquor license,]” said Brown. “The sheriff at the time, Bernard Kennedy, told us in private, especially the mayor, it's a miracle that somebody didn't take a shot or two at you.”

Brown also says Carver had a natural disposition for leadership.

“You know, leadership, you don’t get a degree. I don’t think there’s a masters or a doctorate or anything else,” said Brown. “You either have it or you don’t. And you can’t put in what God left out. Dick Carver had it.”

Brown and other former council members also remember Carver’s ability to bridge the gap in governmental disagreements and prepare his council for controversial topics.

“He would then call you and talk to you,” said former council member Lester Bergsten. “Not push you or anything, but just give you, you know, the facts as he saw it. A lot of times it certainly helped them understand about the controversial issues coming before the council.”

Bergsten also recalls the mayor working with him on concerns surrounding the finances of the proposed Peoria Civic Center.

“I read about other civic centers, they didn’t make it, so the taxpayers had to bail out the civic center,” Bergsten said. “So I said: ‘I will only vote for it if we make sure the bonds are set so that only the investors are going to lose money at the Civic Center. And there’s no way it would go back onto the taxpayers.’ And that’s the way the documents were written up.”

Brown also recalls a phone call with Mayor Carver settling a zoning disagreement with fellow council member Franklin Renner. Both council members made their points at the next meeting and the measure passed unanimously.

“And I had my constituents calling me that night and the next day saying, you know: ‘Councilman, we listened. You did the right thing. You fought the good fight,’” said Brown. So, you see, [Carver] knew how to do it.”

Bergsten, Brown and Carver all had military careers. Brown, a Marine Corps photographer, continued his friendship with Carver over the years. Brown ran into him several times while Carver served as Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Financial Management in the Reagan Administration.

In 2005, Carver returned from the east coast to give his friend Brown some advice on a mayoral campaign.

“He flew out here and we’re sitting at the Twin Towers coffee shop, which at that time was in front of the building,” said Brown. “And we’re looking out at the great city hall, 35 years after the fact.”

Brown says Carver gave him a list of three things to do if he won the election: find something for all the council members to do, find a way for them to take credit for it and make sure they don’t know you’re doing the first two things.

“That, in essence, is leadership. Of being able to, as he often said, herd cats down the street,” Brown says through laughter. “And once again, to have that sense of leadership, but to interface it with personal relationships.”

The Carver family plans to host a memorial event in Peoria at a later, undecided date.

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Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.