I loved Judy Baar Topinka.
That love affair dates back to 1994 when she was first elected state treasurer. My infatuation had nothing to do with her being the first female ever elected to not one, but two constitutional offices in the State of Illinois.
And it wasn’t because she was a Republican – I don’t recall ever voting a straight ticket.
After reading a newspaper column about her 20 years ago, I wanted to give her a big hug and kiss. And if you knew what I knew, you probably would’ve been standing in line behind me.
Judy Baar Topinka, recently reelected to the office of State Comptroller, absolutely hated automated telephone answering systems. She hated them on the day she died at age 70 last week. And she hated them 20 years ago.
When she took office as state treasurer, guess what? She got rid of the machine at the state treasurer’s office in Springfield. From then on, whoever called that office would immediately talk to be human being.
That exact same policy followed her path over to the comptroller’s office.
I called Wednesday afternoon and sure enough, on what had to be a both mournful and hectic day, a human being answered the phone. A friendly human being.
I told the receptionist why I was calling, that being to see if indeed in this age of digital everything, a real live human being is still the first contact at a large state bureau where Judy Baar Topinka is at the helm.
I explained that I was representing a very small Illinois newspaper, and she politely asked me to hold while she transferred my call to public information.
And quicker than you can say Judy Baar Topinka, a man named Brad was on the line.
I asked Brad if my memory was correct. Did Judy Baar Topinka do away with automated telephone answering when she became state treasurer in 1994? And did her policy still hold true Wednesday, the day of her death?
“That is absolutely correct. She hated those things,” Brad said. “Whenever you call the comptroller’s office, a person answers the phone!”
Brad said all staff members are allowed to have voice mail.
“But you will NEVER get an automated system when you call. Your first contact is a person. That was very important to her!”
Topinka, the face of the Republican party in Illinois, last month won a second term as comptroller, surviving a strong challenge from former lieutenant governor Sheila Simon, daughter of the late Senator Paul Simon.
Earlier in life, she worked in her family’s real estate business, went to Northwestern University, then dabbled in journalism. Trust me, this industry could sure use more of the likes of Judy Baar Topinka. And the same could be said, even more so, for politics.
Think about it.
Do you like dealing with those automated phone systems when you’re calling utility companies?
And furthermore, do you know anyone who likes pushing one for English, two for Spanish, three for repair service, four for new service, and 5,637 to speak to someone?
In my everyday conversations, I have never, ever heard someone give thanks for automated phone answering systems.
And if we all hate them, as did Judy Baar Topinka, why do we have them?
Last Wednesday morning, my office received email after email containing public responses to the unexpected death of one of Illinois’ most beloved politicians.
“In a business where political expediency is the norm, Judy always stuck to her guns and did what she thought was right. She was a great example to so many people for so many years, and Illinois simply won’t be the same without her,” stated Congressman Adam Kinzinger.
“Always jubilant and straight-talking, Judy spoke her mind on every issue,” stated Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
Illinois GOP chairman Tim Schneider issued this statement: “Her common-sense leadership was a breath of fresh air during some difficult times for our state, and Judy’s energy lit up any room she was in.”
Governor-elect Bruce Rauner sent out this: “Comptroller Topinka’s magnetic, one-of-a-kind personality brought a smile to everyone she met, and she had a servant’s heart, always only caring about what was best for the people of our state.”
The tributes went on and on.
Topinka played the accordion and she loved to polka. And as comptroller, writing checks for a state which is out of money, she equated her job to being “a skunk at a picnic.”
In her memory, I suggest that every business, agency, governmental unit, corporation and service provider do one simple thing.
Get someone to answer the phone!