Colleen Callahan confirmed as IDNR director: A visit earlier in the week

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Colleen Callahan, formerly confirmed Friday as the director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, was photographed by the front of the IDNR headquarters in Springfield.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

SPRINGFIELD, Ill.–While Colleen Callahan finished a call Tuesday evening, I wandered the third floor of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources headquarters.

The wall of photographs of former directors stopped me. Callahan’s photo will be the first of a woman. Callahan, also first female president of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting, had it in perspective.

“It is significant, but it has never been a primary or singular goal during my career,” she said. “It just happened. To be the first woman is truly a honor, but never a goal.”

Callahan was a surprising, even a shocking, pick as IDNR director by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. Her confirmation came Friday, after six weeks as acting director.

Normally, I would have been ticked by her choice, but the three others I heard most often mentioned for IDNR director did nothing for me.

My beginning sense of Callahan is that there is a quiet steel there people would do well to heed. She is secure enough in herself to wear ruffles in a business setting.

This week was packed. Beside her confirmation, there were appropriations hearings. Those numbers are challenging to put it mildly. The IDNR puts delayed maintenance at $1 billion. Of the 1,165 employees, 160 are retirement eligible.

No, she has never had a fishing or hunting license, or a FOID card.

“I don’t think it is a requirement, but I am sensitive to it,” Callahan said.

As a child, she did cane-pole fishing during summer visits to her grandparents in Springfield. Growing up, her family farm in eastern Iroquois County drew Chicago pheasant hunters.

While many think the IDNR is hunting, fishing, wildlife and parks, it’s also water, mining and museums.

So how did Callahan end up IDNR director. Callahan, who was on Pritzker’s transition team for agriculture, applied to do public service in the administration.

“I hadn’t identified it as a position I would seek,” she said. “But once I was asked if I wold be interested, I began to do my due diligence, I absolutely was.”

She knows due diligence. She was agribusiness director for WMBD in Peoria for 30 years. She spent a successful seven-year run as state director for USDA Rural Development in Illinois before running her own communications consulting firm.

Her reason for seeking the IDNR job was apt.

“Perhaps no other agency has so much direct contact with the citizens of Illinois and our state parks and historic sites, by their condition, reflect the state of our government,” she said. “Which means they are our best chance to make a good first impression with the public.”

“Direct contact” is the key. There are multitude of levels–staff evaluation, staff training–where direct contact will be worked on.

I am always curious what people gather around themselves in their offices. Callahan’s is not yet her own.

“I am working on getting something up,” she said.

She wants a collection of what the IDNR does: a waterfall, coal, aggregate, a purple rock, oil, gas, ducks and a fish. But the top shelf is reserved.

“At the top, it will say, `communicate, collaborate, connect,’ ” she said. “The mark I leave will be about the people.”

Collaboration means she will be listening to the professional staff before making decisions.

“I would like to see [the IDNR] back to the status and stature it once had, not just as a department in the state of Illinois, but it was highly regarded in the nation,” she said.

When I asked what mark she hoped to leave, it wasn’t about a specific site or place.

“My goal is to be [the citizens’] advocate to make sure the facilities are what they should be,” she said. “And I intend to be the No. 1 advocate for the staff. I should be listening to them, so I can share and articulate what they need.”

Money is part of that.

“Now that we do have a budget and don’t have a hiring freeze, we have to take advantage of every dollar and not leave a single federal dollar on the table,” Callahan said.

More than a few worried that her agricultural roots spelled the possibility of the Department of Agriculture and the IDNR being combined.

“I don’t think they should be combined, I do think they should work together,” she said.

I had three nuts-and-bolts issues. First, it’s 2019 and the IDNR does not have an app.

“It is already on the table,” Callahan said.

Second, safety classes are listed by 102 counties, farther divided into five areas. It’s actively anti-user-friendly. Classes simply need to be listed chronologically.

Third, windshield cards, required by individual site, are also actively anti-user-friendly. Callahan got a priceless expression on her face when I explained it to her.

“Why don’t they have one for the entire state,” she asked

Bingo. Or, even better, do away with it completely.

Change is part of Springfield, something Callahan knows, “When my tenure is up, I would hope the staff feel valued and appreciated, and proud.”

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