BLOOMINGTON — Perhaps it’s fitting this Easter to remember “Lady,” a short-haired collie of “mixed ancestry” buried on the grounds of the Illinois Agricultural Association (IAA) complex off Towanda Avenue. After all, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, took the name of St. Francis of Assisi, an Italian friar born in the 12th century known for his love of animals.
For Francis of Assisi, it was humankind’s responsibility to act as a caring, responsible steward over the natural world and all its creatures, great and small.
Our story begins on Feb. 22, 1960, when ground was first broken for the new IAA building. Two years earlier, Bloomington had beaten out nine other downstate communities to serve as the home office for IAA’s “family of companies” (the IAA/Illinois Farm Bureau, Growmark Inc. and what’s now Country Financial) looking to relocate from Chicago.
Back in 1960-1961, the construction site was on the far eastern edge of Bloomington-Normal, making IAA one of the pioneers in the city’s commercial and residential pivot to the east, with the Route 66 “Beltline” (now Veterans Parkway) serving as the magnet.
Designed by the Chicago firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White and built by Sherman Olson Inc., also of Chicago, the main building came in $350,000 under budget and six months ahead of schedule.
Lady proved a frequent visitor to the construction site, much to the consternation of her owners, radiologist Dr. George Irwin and his wife, Marguerite, who lived on Sunset Road, the Jens Jensen-designed neighborhood immediately west of Ewing Manor. (In 2008, Amy Miller of Country Financial doggedly — no pun intended —pursued the Lady story, and in doing so was able to set the record straight when it came to identifying the Irwins, among other missing puzzle pieces.)
It appears Lady gained some measure of local renown, for on Sept. 6, 1961, one day before the Farm Bureau held its formal open house and building dedication ceremony,
The Pantagraph profiled the IAA’s four-legged “volunteer mascot” who had apparently taken a liking to the corporate grounds.
“Every construction project attracts a portion of the wandering dog and cat population,” noted The Pantagraph. Lady, though, remained “long after the personnel on the site changed from booted workmen to high-heeled secretaries.” The free-spirit canine had settled on a new home. “Now you’ll always find her somewhere around the grounds, perhaps sleeping in the shade under a car in the parking lot or loafing near the boiler room where her food is kept.”
Lady also found a soul mate of sorts. “She’s everybody’s pet, but has picked out Charles Russell, the head grounds-keeper, as her particular master,” added The Pantagraph. By this time the Irwins, evidently exasperated over their pet’s wandering ways, had let Lady remain at IAA, with Russell becoming her new owner.
Russell was a railroad man, having spent 20 years with the Illinois Central before coming to IAA.
He first met Lady as a night watchman at the construction site, noted The Pantagraph, “and now finds that it’s his responsibility to see that she’s properly fed, licensed and inoculated.” One story has it that concern over a roving Lady possibly interrupting the building dedication ceremony led Russell to take her home for the day.
Alas, on Dec. 18, 1961, a little more than three months later, Lady was hit and killed by a vehicle on Towanda Ave. She was only 6 years old. George Merker of the IAA’s general counsel’s office, who was said to be particularly fond of the short-haired collie, paid for a casket and granite grave marker.
Lady was first buried near the physical plant building, but with the need for a new parking lot she was re-interred by Charles Russell and his son, Chuck. She now rests on the southeast end of IAA property, along a row of bushes between an employee parking lot and the backyards of residences lining Vista Drive. “Lady — Beloved Mascot IAA,” reads the grave marker. It also notes her birth (June 30, 1955) and death dates.
Charles Russell Sr. passed away on Feb. 8, 2003, at the age of 80, while his son Chuck put in 41 years of his own in the IAA building department before retiring in 2008.
On this Easter Day, let’s end this gentle story with the words of St. Francis: “If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”