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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”