Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon arrives in Springfield with a legacy, accessiblility and a banjo
January 20, 2011
By Holly Dillemuth
The year was 1969 and Sheila Simon remembers fidgeting in her seat as her father, the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, was sworn in as lieutenant governor of Illinois. Nearly eight years old at the time, Sheila Simon was “one of those squirmy kids who wouldn’t sit still,” she told a crowd of nearly 5,800 at the Prairie Capital Convention Center Jan. 10.
Minutes before, she was sworn in to the same office by retired Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary Ann McMorrow, one of the first female assistant state’s attorneys for Cook County along with Sheila Simon’s mother, the late Jeanne Hurley Simon, who was later a state representative.
Growing up in a household of public servants “was just a part of life,” she says. Her father and mother met in the General Assembly in the late 1950s, and were married for nearly 40 years. She would often tag along to political events with her parents, who, she says, would make fun of her for how she would mimic politicians’ speeches and hand gestures.
“Even though I didn’t understand all of it,” she says.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who succeeded the late Paul Simon as senator, says his first job was in the office of lieutenant governor as his legal counsel when her father held the position.
“I’ve known her since she was five years old. I’m her biggest fan and I’m just so happy … for her and our state.” Durbin says the late Paul Simon “would just love it” that his daughter entered the office he held.
“She really has her father’s political DNA. She is just like him, genuine and personable and hard working. She’s gonna go far,” he says.
Durbin joked that he could not have predicted from seeing her as a child that Simon would enter into elective office. “She was a perfectly normal kid,” he says.
Simon, a former law professor, lawyer and city council member in Carbondale, plans to use her platform to enhance education and domestic violence prevention, with the goal of making the office “accessible” to the public.
“I think people need to feel that they have access to the folks that they have elected. I’m happy to be a starting point for people who have never talked to a politician before, because everyone ought to feel like they have access,” Simon says.
The Carbondale native will have offices in Chicago, Springfield and Carbondale, which she hopes will add more public access to government, something many valued in her late father. She says she received a wealth of good advice from him before his death in 2003.
“When I first ran for city council, Dad sat down at his manual typewriter, the only kind of typewriter he ever used, and typed out a one-page list of hot tips for the campaign and one of them was ‘have lots of coffees,’” She says.
“I think the one thing my dad would cite, what he learned from his father, was about speaking up when some things may be right but not popular. I think that was a guiding principle for Dad and one that he has definitely passed on to me and my brother, that you need to stand up for what’s right even when it’s not the popular thing to say.”
Sheila Simon’s brother, Martin Simon, who is a commercial photojournalist in Washington, D.C., says the family knew his older sister would one day enter elective office.
“I think both my parents would be very happy for her,” he says. “It is certainly special that he held this office as well and that she intends to provide some of the same kinds of service that he did back in the late ’60s.” Martin Simon adds that his sister will add her own twist to the office their father once held.
Lt. Gov. Simon says her top priority is the constitutional duty to be ready to take over as governor if needed.
“I’ve encouraged the governor to keep shooting hoops and stay healthy so that’s not needed,” She says. “That’s a responsibility I take seriously.”
She pursued the office “out of public service,” she says, because she has been an admirer of Gov. Quinn’s and has worked closely with him on the Illinois Reform Commission, which monitors ethics in government.
“I really appreciate his goals, what he wants to achieve as governor and wanted to support him in that,” she says.
Simon is the second female to hold the office of lieutenant governor in Illinois, following Corrine Wood, who served between 1999 and 2003. Simon sees the political “playing field” wide open for women from all walks of life.
“I would say the sky’s the limit. There are no restrictions on young women…. Women have been involved in politics nationally and in Illinois in small but growing numbers. This year, when our new constitutional officers are sworn in, it will be one half men and one half women for the first time ever in history of the state of Illinois, to which I say, about time.”
Gov. Quinn has asked Simon to be his education point person, which shouldn’t be out of the ordinary for a woman who understands a thing or two about education. Simon is a former professor married to a professor, with two daughters in public schools.
She feels that there needs to be a “broader scope” in terms of how student outcomes are measured. Simon is a firm believer in the arts and hopes to maintain a well-rounded education for Illinois students.
She will also serve as chair of the Illinois River Coordinating Council, General Affairs Commission and Green Government Coordinating Council, among others.
“I’d like to look a little bit further down the road and how to move towards a more green and global economy in Illinois,” she says, citing a need for job development.
“…And then there are some other things that make me more accessible, like being a banjo player,” she told Illinois Times the day before the inauguration.
Simon tunes her banjo as she looks over at keyboardist, Maria Johnson, and waves to the crowd enjoying the dessert reception at Illinois Education Association, Jan. 9. As the beat starts in, she begins plucking away at the five strings, tapping her toe and singing lyrics she wrote herself.
The self-taught banjo player says she picked up the instrument in law school after “failing miserably” at the guitar. “I thought, one less string... I can’t do a bar chord on a guitar so I thought, hey, I’ll try a banjo. It has only five strings and look at the number of fingers on my left hand, five!” she says holding up her hand. “We’re a perfect match.”
Simon also plays bassoon and keyboard for the bluegrass band, “Loose Gravel,” formed by several friends and colleagues in the spring of 1998. The quartet provided entertainment at her inauguration eve reception hosted by the Illinois Education Association.
The band formed after a series of backyard parties at guitarist Cindy Clark’s home in Carbondale, where Simon met most of the band. Pianist Maria Johnson, Simon’s former colleague at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, recalls band member Jayme McCarroll telling the group at the time, “Hey, we’re like a bunch of loose gravel, we just come together.’ ”
The name stuck and Simon wrote the lyrics to the signature song, inspired by one of Simon’s daughters when she fell off her bicycle as a child.
Simon has penned many of the band’s lyrics, many of them inspired by her family. Now that Simon’s time will be considerably more divided, the band members understand that Simon’s duties and schedule will change. But she says she’ll plan more carefully to get time with the group. “It’ll take a little more work to make sure we get the practice time in but hanging out with my buddies in the band is very important to me,” she says.
Simon finds time to pursue passions outside of public service, and says her hobbies are “a nice counterpoint” to the other areas of her life. In addition to music, she sews quite a bit.
“In most of my work life, when I get something done, there’s not a tangible result. But when I sew something, there’s a tangible result.” She sewed her wool skirt and suit jacket that she wore for the inaugural address, as well as her floor-length gown for the inaugural ball Monday evening. In keeping with her father’s love of bowties, she sewed her husband, Perry Knop, a bowtie for the day’s events as well.
Knop chimes in that Simon has also sewn homecoming and prom dresses for their daughters, Reilly and Brennan, adding that she only sews for family.
Her daughters have played a key role in her campaign for public offices. Reilly Knop, a sophomore at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, has kayaked the Chicago River to help campaign for her mother. Brennan Knop, who is on her high school speech team, gives her mother pointers on keynote messages.
“In fact, I wish she were here right now,” she said on the day before her inauguration. “I like to run big speeches by Brennan ’cause she has some good ideas. The last time she gave me really good advice on a speech that I really worked on was on the day that I was chosen to be on the ticket.”
Brennan Knop is on a high school exchange program in Italy for the next six months and could not be reached during the inauguration. “So I do not have the Brennan seal of approval on this speech and I will have to go without that. I think it will meet with her approval.”
The crowd at the Prairie Capital Convention Center seemed to approve, however, and Simon welcomed her daughter to the inauguration via the Internet, saying “Buona sera, Brennan,” which means “good evening” in Italian. Brennan Knop was able to watch her mother place her hand on the Bible once used by her late grandfather, Paul Simon, as she took the oath of office.
Simon laughs easily and often, and seems to have kept her sense of humor throughout her career of teaching law at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and various political campaigns, including a failed run for mayor of Carbondale. She finds humor in everyday life and has published an essay relating family law to Austin Powers:The Spy Who Shagged Me.
“Humor’s a way to break the ice and to make people feel more relaxed, so it’s appropriate in a lot of circumstances,” she said.
Leaning forward in her chair, and hands folded on the table, a multi-colored watch brightens up Simon’s left wrist.
“I pretend it goes with everything I wear,” she says. “It’s my only watch. When I swim laps in the pool, it goes with me.”
A former high jumper in high school and college, Simon also trains for a small triathlon in Carbondale during the spring. She says she also tries to stay active and bike with Perry “when the weather’s good.”
Knop, department chair and professor of political science at John A. Logan College in Cartersville, is excited that she will bring “a certain accessibility” to the office.
“She connects with people. She’s not stuffy, never has been. She’s real authentic and it’s kind of fun to see her in this position doing what she does best.”
The two met at an Adlai Stevenson III campaign event event in Riverside Park in Murphysboro in 1986.
“I was working for a public interest group and she was at that time finishing up her third year of law school,” Knop said while on a stroll with Illinois Times around the Capitol building. He had worked for her father, Paul Simon, years before and said he walked up and introduced himself to her.
“We started talking and before you know it we decided to go out. That was a Sunday we met and we went out on a Thursday, and 10 days later, we decided to get married,” he says.
The pair married the following September.
“We’ve been married 23 years and this is our biggest challenge yet,” Simon says.