It’s not too corny to say that Gary Manier is feelin’ stronger every day. Manier is the mayor of downstate Washington, Ill., the tiny town struck hard by an EF4 tornado Nov. 17. The town is slowly rebuilding. I’ll tell you more about that in a moment.
Next week will be a whirlwind, no pun intended, for Manier. On Monday, the mayor of Washington is going to travel to the other Washington to watch the president. It’s his first trip ever to the nation’s capital and he’ll be the special guest of Sen. Mark Kirk for the State of the Union speech Tuesday night.
Wednesday, Mayor Manier jets back to Springfield for Gov. Pat Quinn’s State of the State address and then drives north to Bloomington where the legendary rock band Chicago will give a free concert to say thanks to those who were hit and those who responded when the tornado struck. Make them smile, you might say.
That’s no easy task. A three-mile empty spot cuts through Washington, Ill. And as Manier sits and listens to the president’s monologue, he’s hoping for some dialogue as well, given that the Federal Emergency Management Agency said no to the state’s request for federal disaster funds. They really need the money.
“About 60 percent of the debris has been removed,” says Manier, 59, a life-long resident. As terrible as the storm was, he says, “The aftermath still tears your heart out every day.”
Along the way he’s learned a lot about infrastructure, insurance and politics.
“The biggest test is trying to understand how big government really works,” the four-term mayor told me by phone. He still he loves his job, possibly more than ever. “Life is pretty good in a city like ours, we’ve always operated in the black,” he said. “My residents just keep me going.”
When the Chicago concert was announced, free tickets were gone in less than an hour.
The group’s manager, Peter Schivarelli, said after the storm hit, the band felt compelled to do something. Almost immediately, the concert idea was born.
Just like for Mainer, this week will be full of firsts for the musicians. Saturday night they play for the first time with the Chicago Symphony, then fly to L.A. to play the Grammys, another first. There’s a second symphony concert Tuesday here before busing to Bloomington on Wednesday.
“We’re not going to be able to build their house or give them a car,” Schivarelli said, but he hopes the band will be able to “give them something to feel good about.”
The rock groups REO and Styx have already performed for the citizens of Washington. Now comes the group that bears our city’s name. Men who were college kids in Chicago in the 60s when their music and magic began.
Hard work, said Schivarelli, is what has kept the band going strong for 47 years.
Hard work remains for the people of Washington, Ill.
“Together we can, together we will,” said Mayor Manier.
A great title for a song.