Brenda Edgar

Brenda Smith Edgar’s introduction to her future husband’s political ambitions began when they met as students at EIU. When Jim ran for student body president, Brenda knocked on every door in her all girls dorm asking for votes. He won the race and her friends hung a sign on her door that read, “First Lady of Eastern Illinois University.”

During her years as First Lady she served as the Governor’s ambassador and advocate on issues to improve the lives of women and children. She was the first First Lady to regularly meet with the news media on issues surrounding state government. She was the first First Lady to testify before a legislative committee.

“I had an opportunity and an enormous responsibility to make a difference” – Brenda Edgar

Even though a private person, the First Lady regularly met with the news media to discuss issues involving children and families. Here, Mrs. Edgar joins Stedman Graham to answer questions at the 1997 Mansion Meeting on Youth Violence.

During her eight years as Illinois’ First Lady, Brenda Edgar was a full partner to the Governor in his public and political life. She served as the Governor’s ambassador and advocate on issues to improve the lives of Illinois women and children. 

Cognizant of the traditional role of the First Lady, Mrs. Edgar served as the state’s “official hostess,” was at the Governor’s side during election campaigns, performed volunteer work, filled in for her husband at public appearances and was the caretaker of the first family’s official residence, the Executive Mansion. 

But she also recognized that expectations for political spouses had changed in the 1990s. Her programmatic agenda was not so traditional. She was the first First Lady to regularly meet with the news media on issues sur- rounding state government. She had a full-time policy staff person who was included on the Governor’s senior staff. She was the first First Lady to testify before a legislative committee. She led the movement for establishing an office dedicated to women’s health, one of only six such offices in the country. She tackled roadblocks to adoptions. 

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“Gov. Edgar has always struck me as someone who really operates in tandem with his wife,” said Charles N. Wheeler III, director of the public affairs reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “They really are a team.” 

Although a private and reserved person, Mrs. Edgar traveled throughout the state advocating support for pro- grams to enhance and protect the health and safety of women and children. She spearheaded and organized the popular Help Me Grow program for children and the Friend to Friend campaign for women. 

“I have an opportunity and an enormous responsibility to make a difference,” Mrs. Edgar said in a 1997 interview. 

Her accomplishments as First Lady were recognized in a 1993 Rockford Register Star editorial: “…the wife of the Illinois governor has rolled up her sleeves and is working diligently on behalf of the children of this state. And it’s probably not just coincidence that her husband, Gov. Jim Edgar, continues to make child welfare one of his top priorities.” 

In 1997, she was named one of “100 Women Making a Difference” by Today’s Chicago Woman. The magazine cited her volunteerism and advocacy on behalf of women and children. 

Paul Green, a professor and political commentator at Governors State University, said in 1997, “No governor’s wife has been more active than Mrs. Edgar.” He said the high-profile position can be effective “if the first lady wants to use it. But first they have to be good at it, and Mrs. Edgar is. She has a very winning personality.” 

Married for more than three decades, Mrs. Edgar’s introduction to her future husband’s political ambitions began when they were students at Eastern Illinois University. When Jim ran for EIU student body president, Brenda knocked every door in her all girls dorm asking for votes. He won the race and her friends hung a sign on her door that read, “First Lady of Eastern Illinois University.” She continued knocking on doors for many years as Jim ran for state legislator, for secretary of state and for governor. 

During her years as First Lady, Mrs. Edgar completed her degree work, which she began at Eastern Illinois University in 1966, through EIU’s Board of Trustees degree program for returning adult students. In 1998, she was handed her college diploma by her husband, who gave the commencement speech. The date marked the 30th anniversary of the Governor’s graduation from Eastern. 

Brenda Edgar served as a role model for Illinois women. She and the Edgar administration helped women and children improve their lives and meet the challenges of the 1990s.

Govenor and Mrs. Edgar promote the new Help Me Grow Care Van that was donated to the state in 1994 by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois. 

One of Mrs. Edgar’s major initiatives on behalf of children was the Help Me Grow campaign, a public awareness effort to provide greater access to preventive services for children and families. 

The campaign grew out of Mrs. Edgar’s discovery that, although the state had many programs to assist parents with raising their children, few knew about them or how to access them. Her mission, as spokesperson for Help Me Grow, was to alert parents to existing programs that could prevent childhood deaths, injuries and illnesses by promoting health care and safety. 

“Children do not come with directions on how to help them grow, and many times parents need a helping hand to find an answer to a question or direction to a service,” said Mrs. Edgar, a mother and grandmother.

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Help Me Grow serves as a model for government and private sector partnership. More than $10 million in goods and services has been donated through Ronald McDonald House Charities and 50 other businesses and advocacy organizations to further the efforts of a dozen state agencies. In addition, it utilized the professional staff of Foote Cone & Belding to develop public service announcements and educational campaign materials at no cost to the state. Through the collaboration of all partners, Help Me Grow implemented a creative marketing campaign for human service programs that worked to ensure children grew up happy, healthy and safe. 

The program has helped more than 100,000 families get the information they needed about childhood health and safety issues by calling a toll-free telephone number. 

Help Me Grow, which has been duplicated by three other states, offers resources for child safety seats, prenatal care, immunizations, parental involvement, intergenerational activities, nutrition, early intervention services, children’s health insurance, nutrition, child abuse, violence, and drug and alcohol abuse prevention.

Oklahoma City bombing victim’s family at the memorial service with P.J. Huggabee teddy bears.

In 1994, Help Me Grow, in partnership with Marshall Field and Co., created the “P.J. Huggabee” teddy bear to provide comfort and companionship to abused and neglected children entering the state’s foster care system. For each bear sold, the department store donated an identical bear to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services for distribution to a foster child. 

“When children are taken from their home in a time of crisis, they often leave with few, if any, personal belongings,” the First Lady said. “P.J. Huggabee will be a friend to these children as they begin the often scary journey toward placement with a loving family.” 

A foster child gave this explanation to her caseworker about what P.J. Huggabee meant to her: “If this bear could talk, I would let him talk to you and he could tell you all of the deepest, darkest secrets of my soul. He could tell you, if he could count that high, how many tears I have cried into his head. He could tell you all about the pain and the hurt and the anger. But mostly, he could tell you about how much I love him.”

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Besides giving more than 30,000 bears to foster children, Mrs. Edgar delivered the bears to children whose lives were uprooted by natural disasters in Illinois. In addition, following the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, she rushed teddy bears as gifts of comfort and support from the people of Illinois to Oklahoma First Lady Cathy Keating for the children and parents touched by the tragedy. Mrs. Edgar received a “thumbs up” from the Peoria Journal Star for having the “remarkable sense for the appropriate thing to do” in sending the bears. “The bears sat on many a lap and cushioned many a tear” during a memorial service in Oklahoma City, the newspaper wrote. 

Mrs. Edgar partnered with the Chicago Bears beginning in 1995 in a “Bears for Bears” program to promote sales of P.J. Huggabee. She worked with current and former Bears, including Chris Zorich, Ryan Wetnight and Todd Burger. 

In recognition of her efforts on behalf of foster children, Mrs. Edgar received the 1994 “For the Love of Children Award” from the Children’s Home and Aid Society of Illinois and the 1995 “Friend of Children Award” from Prevent Child Abuse Illinois.

Chad Bodine helps Mrs. Edgar introduce the C.H.A.D. tag for children as a part of the Help Me Grow Campaign in 1994. The special identification sticker, which is to be placed on a child’s safety seat, was named Chad.

Mrs. Edgar supported the Never Shake A Baby campaign with Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan to publicize the dangers of shaken baby syndrome. Initiated during Child Abuse Prevention Month in 1994, the effort included public service announcements and informational materials to educate adults about the dangers of shaking a baby or young child, either in anger or during play. 

The Help Me Grow campaign also promoted the use of child safety seats and introduced the C.H.A.D. (Children Have An iDentity) tag. Developed in conjunction with the Illinois Department of Transportation, the C.H.A.D. tag is an identification sticker placed on a child’s safety seat to help identify the child in the event of a car crash. The tag idea was prompted by a traffic accident involving a little boy and his babysitter. The babysitter was killed instantly and the injured child, Chad, went unidentified and untreated until he was recognized by an emergency room nurse. 

More than 2 million C.H.A.D. stickers have been distributed with funding provided through a partnership with State Farm Insurance and the Travelers Protection Association. This effort earned Mrs. Edgar the 1994 “Buckle-Up America Award” from the American Coalition for Traffic Safety. 

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A major push of Mrs. Edgar’s efforts for children was to encourage parents to get their children under the age of 2 fully immunized against vaccine-preventable diseases. A statewide immunization push was co-sponsored by local health departments, McDonald’s restaurants and Help Me Grow. Mrs. Edgar visited local health departments and clinics across the state, held babies as they received their shots and spoke out on the importance of childhood immunizations. 

And, in 1998, the Governor and Mrs. Edgar began sending congratulatory cards donated by Hallmark Cards Inc. to about 180,000 new parents with a reminder of the need for immunizations. 

The efforts of Mrs. Edgar and the state plan to increase immunizations resulted in Illinois’ ranking in immunization coverage for pre-school children improving from 46th to ninth best in the country. 

The Help Me Grow Care Van was unveiled in 1994 to further state and local efforts to provide immunizations and other preventive health services to children. The van, donated by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, is used by local health departments as a mobile clinic for immunizations, lead screenings, school physicals, flu shots and other health needs. 

Mrs. Edgar oversaw creation of a wellness guide for mothers-to-be and newborns. Called Mommas, Babies and Good Stuff to Know and published in February 1998, the first run 

of 250,000 booklets was quickly exhausted and another 150,000 were printed. Funding for the easyto-read guide came in part from $385,000 raised from 50 private businesses, including major contributors Dominick’s Finer Foods Inc., Ronald McDonald House Charities and Alberto Culver.

To assist with spreading information about Help Me Grow, Mrs. Edgar enlisted the help of 4-H of Illinois. As a former 4-H member, she knew the vast network of 4-H clubs, the largest out-of-school program in Illinois, could distribute educational information about Help Me Grow at county and local fairs. These “youth ambassadors,” as Mrs. Edgar called them, handed out health and safety information to more than 250,000 families. 

Another Help Me Grow effort was to publish the first statewide violence prevention resource guide, a listing of more than 700 violence prevention and gang alternative programs across the state. 

In 1997, Mrs. Edgar convened the Mansion Meeting on Youth Violence with Stedman Graham, founder of Athletes Against Drugs, to recommend strategies that communities and the state should take to prevent youth violence. Announced by the Governor in his State of the State address, the meeting brought together more than 125 educators, ministers, law enforcement officials, government representatives and violence prevention organizations. Participants made recommendations to the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority, which plans, coordinates, funds and evaluates public health and safety approaches to violence prevention. 

At the 1997 Illinois State Fair, Brenda Edgar unveiled the Friend to Friend campaign for women’s health.

In 1993, the spouses of the nation’s governors united to raise awareness of breast cancer. 

Under Mrs. Edgar’s leadership, the state of Illinois partnered with the Susan G. Komen Foundation, the Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization, the American Cancer Society and the Illinois State Medical Society Spouses Association to initiate the “Early Detection is Key” campaign. They invited Illinois mayors and village presidents to promote regular mammograms for women and to raise awareness of breast cancer. Each year thereafter, Mrs. Edgar asked local officials and their spouses to distribute pink ribbons and breast cancer education materials and to urge women to get a mammogram. Elected officials from more than 200 communities participated every year and saw to it that 5 million pieces of educational materials were distributed. 

To further breast cancer research and awareness, in 1996 Mrs. Edgar invited first ladies from all the states to Northwestern University in Evanston for a symposium on breast cancer featuring Diana, Her Royal Highness, Princess of Wales. In 1996, Mrs. Edgar expanded her efforts to promote other women’s health issues cervical cancer, heart disease, menopause, mental health, osteoporosis and domestic violence.

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Mrs. Edgar led a coalition of 30 health and advocacy organizations to create Friend to Friend, the Illinois Women’s Health Campaign, which focused on the special health needs of women age 40 and over. As a result of this campaign, the Governor established an Office of Women’s Health in the Illinois Department of Public Health and earmarked $1 million in fiscal 1999 to address issues affecting Illinois women. One of just six such offices in the country, it is responsible for advancing the health of Illinois women by coordinating public awareness, education and programming; encouraging healthier lifestyles; and promoting equitable public policy on health issues. 

“Women at mid-life face many changes all at once, some physical, some psychological, all frustrating,” Mrs. Edgar said. “A woman is not only confused, but also at risk for major health problems. The mission of Friend to Friend is to inform women and encourage them to become their own best health care advocates.” 

Friend to Friend is a partnership between government and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, Pfizer Inc., State Farm Insurance, the Illinois State Florists Association, Eli Lilly and Co., GlaxoWellcome Inc. and more than 30 advocacy and health organizations. 

Urging women to “get moving,” Mrs. Edgar kicked off another public/private partnership that encouraged Illinoisans, especially women, to exercise more regularly. More than 10,000 Get Moving informational packets were sent to Illinois CEOS, school superintendents and public officials to push the health benefits of walking. 

Together, the National Osteoporosis Foundation and Mrs. Edgar held an Osteoporosis Education Day in 1998 at the state Capitol for legislators and other state policy makers. Subsequently, the General Assembly increased funding for osteoporosis prevention and awareness grants by $300,000. 

Mrs. Edgar also joined with the Mental Health Association of Illinois to provide depression screenings and with the American Heart Association to offer blood pressure screenings for more than 10,000 women at the Illinois State Fair and local health fairs. 

Mrs. Edgar fought to ease adoption laws and place children with loving families. Part of her effort involved recruiting new foster families, as she did at a state-sponsored easter egg hunt for foster kids in 1991.

During the first year of the Edgar administration, Mrs. Edgar was chosen by the Governor to lead an effort to streamline and reform the state’s adoption process and to enhance services to adoptive children, especially those with special needs. 

“We have many wonderful, lovable children in Illinois who need a permanent home, and we have many adults who wish to adopt,” Mrs. Edgar said. “Our challenge is to bring them together with a minimum of red tape.” 

The Project HEART (Helping to Ease Adoption Red Tape) advisory committee was charged with recommending strategies to make it easier for foster families to adopt, to work with private sector employers, to encourage adoption and to improve access for health insurance coverage by adoptive families. Funding for the project was provided by Household International, Aon Corporation and Fel-Pro Inc. 

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The group met for two years and effected improvements to the state’s adoption process. Mrs. Edgar testified on adoption legislation before House and Senate committees, and the Project HEART recommendations served as the impetus for new laws that cut in half the average adoption time. 

As a result, the state purchased state-of-the-art fingerprinting machines for the Illinois State Police and Department of Children and Family Services to expedite background checks for prospective adoptive or foster parents. New courtrooms were assigned to clear up a backlog of adoption cases, and private partnerships were established to increase adoptions of special needs children, including WGN-TV’s “Child of the Week” and the Adopt Me newsletter, which features children waiting for adoption. As a result, during the Edgar years, adoptions of children in the state’s foster care system increased by more than 500 percent. 

Mrs. Edgar also was thrust into the adoption limelight in 1995 as part of the “Baby Richard” case. The case, which garnered national headlines, involved a mother who gave up her son shortly after birth. Baby Richard was adopted by a loving family, but the child’s biological father, who had been told the baby died, sought custody when he found out the child was alive. A four-year court battle ended with a judge’s decision to take the boy from the only parents he had ever known and award him to his biological father. 

“Don’t punish him for adult mistakes,” Mrs. Edgar wrote to the father. “Don’t wound him or make him cry. Love him so much that as an adult, you endure the pain of the choices made when he was a baby. Spare him any pain.” Her letter turned up on the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times. 

While the father rejected the plea to allow the boy to stay with his adoptive parents, legislation pushed by the Governor and Mrs. Edgar was passed to make a child’s health and safety the top priority in deciding what is best. Mrs. Edgar’s public effort on behalf of Baby Richard launched a new role for her as many adoptive families asked her for help in dealing with state adoption red tape and roadblocks.

Governor and Brenda Edgar volunteered to serve Thanksgiving dinner in 1991 a Springfield’s St. John’s Breadline.

As a life-long volunteer, Mrs. Edgar started two programs to encourage and recognize volunteerism. She initiated Illinois READS (Retirees Educating and Assisting in the Development of Students), which matches the talents and time of seniors with the needs of schoolchildren who are at risk of failing. Started in 1993 at six sites, Illinois READS has expanded to more than 2,000 schools across the state. 

In addition, Mrs. Edgar started the Illinois State Employees Reach Out Recognition Program in 1993 to honor thousands of state employees for volunteer contributions to their local communities. Through a partnership with the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce, the program later expanded to recognize the contributions of hundreds of citizens throughout Illinois. 

In 1997, Governor and Mrs. Edgar led the Illinois delegation to the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future in Philadelphia. At the meeting, retired General Colin Powell called on states to provide young people with access to five fundamental resources that can maximize their potential for success: an ongoing relationship with a caring adult, safe and structured places to learn and grow, a healthy start, a marketable skill and the opportunity to give back through their own service.

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Upon returning from the summit, Mrs. Edgar convened the Mansion Meeting on Volunteerism and Youth to formulate recommendations on how volunteers can mobilize to meet the needs of at-risk youth. The meeting brought together 200 not-for-profit administrators and staff, educators, ministers, volunteers and government representatives to develop recommendations to meet the goals outlined at the summit. 

As a result of this meeting, the Illinois Commission on Community Service was reorganized and placed under the direction of the Governor’s office and the Illinois Department of Human Services. The commission’s primary mission is to increase volunteerism and service learning opportunities for more than 100,000 Illinois children. 

In 1993, Mrs. Edgar was joined by former First Ladies (left to right) Jayne Thompson, Roberta Walker, Dorothy Oglivie and Shirley Stratton at the unveiling of the First Ladies of Illinois’ portrait exhibit. Brenda dedicated the south hallway of the Executive Mansion as the Official Hall of Illinois First Ladies

One of the long-standing responsibilities of a first lady is to be the hostess for the state’s 140-year old, 37-room Executive Mansion, the official residence of the governor and his family. Between 1991 and 1999, Mrs. Edgar made sure the Georgian mansion was increasingly open to the public as one of the state’s historic landmarks, a place of business and a home to the First Family.

The Edgars made the Executive Mansion their full-time residence following Jim Edgar’s election as Governor, marking the first time since the 1960’s that a First Family called the mansion home. Many family dinners and celebrations were held at the Mansion including their daughter Elizabeth’s high school graduation gathering in 1991 and their son Brad and daughter-in-law Stacey’s wedding reception in 1994.

In addition to hosting cabinet meetings, State Dinners, and official receptions, Mrs. Edgar also increased access to the Mansion to the public with increased tours each week in addition to the Annual Christmas Holiday Open House.

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She also opened the doors to not-for-profit groups to hold luncheons and dinners at the Mansion to ensure access to the People’s House. Over 100,000 individuals are estimated to have attended these luncheons and dinners raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to support local charities during their eight years in office.

“We are living in a home that belongs to the people of Illinois,” she said in an interview. “I feel responsible for preserving this historic residence.”

In 1995, She collaborated with the Illinois Executive Mansion Association to raise private funds to refurbish the public areas of the Mansion. Mrs. Edgar painstakingly worked with volunteers to ensure all renovations were historically correct. The Ballroom was renamed by the Edgars to the Margaret Van Meter Ballroom in honor of her service to the Mansion Association Board of Director for 25 years.

In addition, she commissioned Pickard China of Antioch, Illinois to create “The Edgar China Service” in 1997. It features the State Seal embossed in gold that would coordinate with China patterns that were created by previous Governor’s spouses. Over 250 sets were created to be used by future Governors for official state dinners.

To further the Mansion’s use as a museum, Mrs. Edgar also established the Hall of First Ladies, a tribute to the contributions of all the governors’ spouses. In 1993, the unveiling of the First Ladies of Illinois’ portrait exhibit was attended by all living former First Ladies including Jayne Thompson (1977-1991), Roberta Walker (1973-1977), Dorothy Oglivie (1969-1973) and Shirley Stratton (1953-1961). Brenda Edgar dedicated the south hallway of the Executive Mansion as the Official Hall of Illinois First Ladies. (It has since been moved to the main floor entrance outside of the First Lady’s office located at the Executive Mansion following the Mansion renovation project in 2021.)

Always seeking support for women and children from the press, businesses and the public, Mrs. Edgar convinces Illinois television for Help Me Grow at a 1993 luncheon.

Following her service as First Lady of Illinois, Brenda Edgar has remained active as an advocate for women and children.  Upon his retirement as Governor, Jim Edgar donated $1 Million dollars from his political campaign fund to establish the Brenda Edgar Good Samaritan Fund at Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC).  Brenda Edgar served on the board of directors of RMHC and distributed the funds to local non for profits in Illinois to help create opportunities for children and women to live a happy, healthy and safe life.

She also established the Brenda Edgar Scholarship for Women through an endowment to Eastern Illinois University. The scholarship program is designed to provide financial assistance for women who return to college later in life. 

“I enrolled at Eastern Illinois University in 1966. My education was ultimately put on hold, though, when I married Jim and started a family,” Mrs. Edgar said. “Over the years I kept at it, taking courses when I could. I finally earned my degree in 1998, more than 30 years after I started, through the Board of Trustees degree program for returning adult students. This scholarship is intended to help women like me, whose education is interrupted due to life circumstances and who return to college later in life.”