By Pamela G. Dempsey/CU-CitizenAccess.org — I don’t know if Tom Lemke ever considered himself a civic journalist, but I did.
He shied away from writing for publication on our site, CU-CitizenAccess.org, but never hesitated to pick up the phone and report all the happenings of his neighborhood – Wilber Heights – a place he called home for more than 60 years.
His road into civic journalism or neighborhood journalism was unintentional, but Mr. Lemke had lots to report.
He had his chance when, in 2009, a student journalist randomly knocked on his door as part of a class assignment.
Wilber Heights, a residential area on North Market Street, is tucked behind the shopping mall and couched by the Cliford-Jacobs Forging Company. Though mostly a residential area, it is entirely zoned heavy-industrial and falls outside of Champaign city limits.
Nancy Benson, a College of Media broadcast professor at the University of Illinois, sent out her students to Wilber Heights, in the same manner she regularly approached reporting in foreign countries: Canvas this often-overlooked place and see what stories emerge.
Student reporter Liz Clancy Lerner did just that.
And Clarence Thomas Lemke, or Tom Lemke as he was known, had stories to tell.
“”They say we’re a slum, run down. That’s the way we’ve always been treated,” Mr. Lemke told Lerner in 2010 as he took a deep breath into his oxygen mask. “We have really been abused . . . and we have really tried to take care of the area.”
One of the main problems, Lemke reported, was that none of the residents had any legal right to repair or expand their homes as it was against county zoning rules passed in 1973.
When a car crashed into his front porch, Lemke was unable to rebuild it. Instead, he was only allowed to put up concrete steps to the front door.
The zoning also devalued the residential properties that existed. Homes simply weren’t worth very much, making selling and buying into a new area impractical and expensive.
His story spurred Lerner to do a deeper project on the area, who spent hours with Mr. Lemke and his wife, Velma, exploring all the issues he raised.
In July 2010, CU-CitizenAccess.org and The News-Gazette published her work.
Less than a year later – following this attention and the persistence of Mr. Lemke as well as continued coverage of the issue – the Champaign County Board amended its more than 40-year-old rule and allowed residents to make improvements to their homes.
The move didn’t satisfy Mr. Lemke, who felt that county officials should pay more attention to the area – including better enforcement of violations and a concrete plan on how to best handle the residences in the area.
“They’ve not done (anything) for 40 years. They’ve had enough time, they should’ve figured it out by now,” he said in 2011.
Our relationship with Mr. Lemke didn’t end with this story.
On occasion, he’d call in to “check on things” or invite us over for coffee and updates on the neighborhood.
When there was some flooding in Wilber Heights, Mr. Lemke sent photos to show the problem. When his neighborhood church was celebrating its 50th year, he reached out for help to get the milestone covered.
Some days, he’d spend a few hours pouring over both county and city documents and ordinances to find discrepancies or to double-check something he’d read or seen in the local media.
He was the consummate watchdog – making sure every local taxpayer dollar was spent properly and that he and his neighbors weren’t paying more than the law required.
CU-CitizenAccess.org launched with the premise of developing local relationships and more civic journalists. It is our good fortune that we met Mr. Lemke.
He will be missed.