Lillian Perry

Perry Named Waubonsee “Fab 40”

Lillian Perry, seen here in downtown Aurora, has worked tirelessly for the past 48 years, often behind the scenes, to improve the lives of the people of Aurora. Waubonsee Community College is proud to honor her as one of the college’s “Fabulous 40” alumni.
Sugar Grove — For the past 48 years, Lillian Perry has worked tirelessly, often behind the scenes, to improve the lives of the people of Aurora. For her grassroots activism and advocacy for universal civil rights, Waubonsee Community College is proud to honor her as one of the college’s “Fabulous 40” alumni.

As part of the college’s yearlong 40th anniversary celebration, Waubonsee is honoring 40 alumni and students who embody the mission, vision and values of the college. These individuals represent the diversity of Waubonsee’s students and the college district, as well as the diversity of the college’s mission as a comprehensive community college.

A native of Georgia, Perry grew up there and in Youngstown, Ohio. After she graduated from high school, Perry came to northern Illinois for work. Several of her friends had come to Illinois to be governesses for wealthy families around Chicagoland. Perry went to work for a Wayne, Ill., family, who paid her fare from Georgia, taking care of the family’s four children. Although she had the camaraderie of her fellow southerners, Perry still experienced some culture shock coming to the area. She would have to take the train to 63rd and Cottage Grove on the south side of Chicago to find her comfort food of collard greens and grits.

Perry’s participation in the community all comes back to getting involved in the Parent Teacher Association at her daughter’s elementary school. As a single mother to her daughter, Darlene Rosanna North, Perry is so passionate about helping the community because she had tremendous support from others in raising her child. She acted as a caregiver for a local elderly couple, who in turn helped take care of her daughter while she earned a living. Even though she worked full-time, Perry was an active mother. She volunteered with the Girl Scouts, picked up other neighborhood children from their activities and helped other mothers get jobs and improve their lives.

“I am proud that I was able to accomplish raising my daughter as a single, self-supporting head of household without welfare,” she said. “I wanted to be a part of my child’s growth.”

Perry learned prejudice wasn’t exclusive to her southern upbringing, finding cultural barriers in Aurora to overcome. As an aide at a nursing home, she also found patients who didn’t want to be served by an African-American. Her hard work and positive attitude would win over even the most ardently racist patients.

Her daughter was 6-years-old when Perry enrolled at Waubonsee. She would occasionally bring Darlene to class when she didn’t have child care available.

“Education has always been prized in my family,” she said. “My brother was a surgeon. The idea of him being a surgeon pushed me to go back.”

Although she was older than many of her classmates, Perry brought her life experience into the classroom and was a resource.

“In my black history class, I was able to work with my classmates and talk first-hand about segregation, integration and Jim Crow and what it was like,” she said.

At Waubonsee, Perry found ways to channel her idealism and drive. She would go on to continue her education at Roosevelt University after graduating from Waubonsee.

“Waubonsee was the springboard for me,” she said. “Without Waubonsee, I never would have attempted university. It really pushed me to succeed.”

Her community and political involvement continued to grow throughout the 1970s. Perry worked to get a block grant to improve the storm sewers in her West Aurora neighborhood. To get this done, she went door-to-door gathering signatures in order to get the funding to prevent the basement back-ups that were common after any heavy rainstorm.

Her activism caught the attention of Aurora Mayor Jack Hill who asked her to work with him in community outreach as his special assistant.

“He told me, ‘We have some doors we need to open, and some we need to kick down’,” she said.

One of Perry’s success stories was helping create the Kane County Health Department while working with Mayor Hill. She also worked to create numerous community action organizations, including the Citizens for Neighborhood Improvement, which is supported by the annual Aurora Soul Fest fundraiser, and the Aurora Youth Job Program.

Perry would go to the 1976 and 1980 Democratic National Conventions. Given that she was born 11 miles south of Plains, Georgia, Jimmy Carter’s hometown, 1976 was an exciting year for her, watching her fellow Georgian become president of the United States.

“It was marvelous,” she said. “I learned so much in that election. There was just a groundswell of people working together.”

After working for Sealmaster Bearing in Aurora for three decades, Perry retired — although her retirement is as busy as most people’s full-time job. She now works for State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, a fellow “Fabulous 40” member, as director of education, senior citizen and cultural liaison.

“The work I do today is serving people,” she said. “The government is key to serving people — through legislation and access to services. When I get through helping someone, it feels marvelous.”
Perry is known in the community as a problem-solver.

“I don’t often think about all the things I’ve done — I just do them,” she said. “I take the steps necessary to help people and meet their needs. I work with them, young and old. I feel that I have to pass it on.”

Although Perry personifies the definition of humbleness, she has won a number of awards and recognition for her lifetime of community service, including a community service award from Gayles Memorial Baptist Church, a certificate of achievement from Roosevelt University’s Labor Education Program, recognition from Women of Distinction from the YWCA, and an award from the Friends of Marie Wilkinson Child Development Center for distinguished black community leadership. She also received special recognition from the City of Aurora, having Aurora Mayor Thomas Weisner declare March 9, 2007, “Lillian Perry Day,” and recognition of her achievements from the Illinois House of Representatives.