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Colleen Callahan: 'Warm, down to earth and knows her stuff'


It doesn't matter if you lived on a farm or not, if you’ve lived in central Illinois for any length of time, you’re probably familiar with Colleen Callahan.

Callahan, who grew up on a farm in Iroquois County, became the farm reporter on Peoria’s WMBD-AM 1470 shortly after she graduated from the University of Illinois in 1973. She held that position until 2005. She was also the agribusiness reporter on WMBD-TV from 1974 to 1997.

Callahan’s arrival as a farm broadcaster provided an answer to the question on how an audience might react to having their farm news delivered by a woman for the first time.

In the book, “Farm Broadcasting” author John Baker quotes a farm wife this way: “We didn’t think anyone could replace Farmer Bill (Emil Bill, the farm reporter on WMBD from 1935 to 1970) but Colleen is warm, knows her stuff and is down to earth.”

Before Callahan left the WMBD microphone in 2005, she also served as the first female president of the National Association of Farm Broadcasters. But, after 32 years in the media, she wasn’t about to call it quits.

In 2008, she ran for Congress as a Democrat, losing to Republican Aaron Schock in the 18th Congressional District, a district that hasn’t elected a Democratic representative since the 1930s.

But government service still lay ahead. She served as the Illinois director of rural development, a position within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, from 2009 to 2016, a post where she utilized her communication skills.

Appearing on WCBU’s Postmark Peoria series with Steve Tarter, Callahan said that, as rural development director, she wanted to let the public know what USDA loans and grants were available to small towns and governments across the state.

“I wasn’t aware of all the government programs available to rural communities when I took the job so I decided that others probably didn’t know about them, either. So I made it my business to let as many people get that information as I could. I visited all 102 counties in Illinois,” she said.

Callahan followed that government stint with another, serving in 2019 as the first female director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources before leaving office in January 2023.

Callahan’s not done yet. She’s formed her own consulting service with a slogan: "Communicate. Collaborate. Connect.” at colleencallahan.com, offering the public the opportunity to have oral history recordings made.

Steve Tarter retired from the Peoria Journal Star in 2019 after spending 20 years at the paper as both reporter and business editor.