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Peorian Barb Drake demonstrates the power of local journalism through her legacy

Barb Drake
Jody Holtz
Barb Drake

A former Peoria journalist who made a lasting impact in the community almost didn’t pursue the line of work…after being told women couldn’t have careers in newspapers.

Barb Drake grew up in the Peoria area and knew she had an interest in journalism after starting her own neighborhood newspaper with a few friends at just six-years-old. Fast forward to when she attended Woodruff High School, Drake was presented with an opportunity to work on the school’s newspaper full time as an editor. However, not everyone wanted to see that happen.

“And someone, I don't remember who, said, ‘No, you can't do that. You have to stay with the band’. And I had a fit. And my mother did something that she had never done before and never did since,” explained Drake. “She went down to the office of the principal and said, ‘My daughter is going to…work on the newspaper in her free hour’. She said, ‘She will never have a career playing the flute. But she may very well have a career working for a newspaper’. That's hard to believe isn't it?” Drake asked.

In 2023, that is hard to believe. But in 1961, Drake said it was unheard of for a woman to even think about having a career in newspapers. Two years later in 1963, little had changed, and that was proven by the difficulty of Drake’s college search to find a university that would allow women into their journalism programs.

“I found only three in Illinois. U of I (University of Illinois) which I thought was too big, and Northwestern, I wanted to go to but it was too expensive, and Bradley, which offered me a full scholarship. So that speaks volumes about why I care for Bradley,” Drake said.

A proud Bradley University graduate, Drake said the education she received at the institution was excellent and she was given plenty of opportunities, including eventually serving as editor for the school paper. Drake said just three other women were in the journalism program at that time.

Editorial Crusades

Although the numbers were stacked against her, Drake was determined to continue her work in journalism after graduation. She landed a job at the Peoria Journal Star where she continued to push on the glass ceiling.

“And I was only the second woman hired to cover news since World War II...So you know, I was a little nervous about how I might be treated, but again, I was treated very well, and I was given a lot of opportunities to cover things and I was respected,” said Drake.

CityLink is unveiling three fully electric buses purchased in late 2021.
Hannah Alani
CityLink is unveiling three fully electric buses purchased in late 2021.

Drake worked at the media outlet for 37 years, first as a reporter, but eventually as the editorial page editor. But Drake didn’t just report the news. She worked tirelessly to make Peoria a better place for those living here through what she calls her “editorial crusades”. For example, when there was a proposed referendum to eliminate bus service in the city, Drake knew she had to uncover what sort of impact this would have on Peorians. So, she rode the bus for an entire day.

“I got on the bus very early in the morning, and started talking to people who rode the bus, and I learned why they were there. A lot of them didn't have any money for a car, and needed to have a way to get to their minimum wage jobs. A lot of them were handicapped or disabled, and they couldn't drive a car,” explained Drake.

At the end of the day, Drake never forgot what the bus driver said to her.

“And he said, ‘Who can look in here and say any one person isn't worth eight cents a day,’ eight cents a day being the cost for the referendum,” Drake said.

Needless to say, bus service continued.

Her crusades go on, including the time she championed for the Rock Island Trail to be connected where a 3-mile break in the trail was present due to an old railroad that was no longer in use. She walked the trail the entire day to prove it was a valuable asset to the people of Peoria.

Friends of the Rock Island Trail

“And I met a 72 year old biker, an 18 year old runner, a two year old walking with his parents, and three generations of one family,” said Drake.

The trail was ultimately connected, and according to Drake, is now one of the most utilized Peoria Park District amenities.

She also worked to secure health care for low income individuals after a man came to her office and said federal money was available to establish clinics to serve the poor.

“And he pulled out a map and he had drawn a big circle with kind of Peoria…in the center. And he said, ‘This is the only place in the state where there is no such clinic’...So we began a campaign to seek federal funding to get that clinic built in Peoria, and local congressman Ray LaHood got behind the effort. And now Heartland Health Services serves, the last time I checked, served about 24,000 persons more than any other health care provider here in the area.” said Drake.

The list goes on, but it isn’t necessarily these accomplishments that kept Drake in the field for 37 years. She said it all comes down to her love of writing and hearing people's stories.

The past, present and future of journalism

However, when Drake looks at the state of journalism now, it’s safe to say that she’s not impressed.

“I have to almost ask the question, what journalism? If you look at the local paper, it hardly has any local news in it, the Peoria Journal Star. And as I indicated earlier, you can't find any information in there by and large that will give you an idea of whom to vote for,” she said. “And it breaks my heart that none of that is going on now. It just breaks my heart. Not from a selfish standpoint, but for the things that when I look back, and I think about things that I don't think would have happened in this community without the editorial crusades that we ran, and nobody's doing that now.” said Drake.

Although Drake believes these crusades are now non-existent, that doesn’t change how important she thinks it is that people still continue to pursue journalism as a career.

“It's really important for people to know what's going on in their community, what the school boards are doing, what the city council is doing, because if there's something happening that they really don't like, they can step in and try to move that board, that council in a different direction,” Drake explained. “Or if there's something they think really needs to be done, they can step up, but they have to have the information. And if they don't have the information, what are they going to do?”

It’s a valid question, one that continues to remain relevant as more and more news deserts pop up. And while Drake is now retired and doesn’t have boots on the ground anymore, or on Rock Island Trail for that matter, reporting on the issues that matter most to Peorians, she leaves a legacy that demonstrates just how impactful that work can be, even years after the story is published on a front page.

Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant program and development director, All Things Considered host, as well as the producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.