INA, Ill. (Sept. 9, 2017) - The Godmother of the “Sesser Mafia” might sound like an intimidating title, but while Mildred Fitzgerrell was making offers people couldn’t refuse, her power was seated in everyone’s admiration for her dedication, persistence and commitment to her community those around her.
The moniker “Sesser Mafia” was born out of Fitzgerrell, and a dedicated group, fighting to save the Sesser Opera House.
But Fitzgerrell was so much more than a charismatic leader of volunteers working toward saving a historic landmark. She was no less than a local icon, working nearly four decades in the Sesser Post Office, retiring in 1973.
Her husband, State Rep. Wayne Fitzgerrell, was killed in an auto accident in 1965 on his way to the legislature in Springfield and she never remarried. However, she never quit caring about her hometown.
As the widow of a near-legendary State Representative and with a very recognizable last name, Fitzgerrell could have separated herself from the community, then Sesser Mayor Ned Mitchell said, but noted she did just the opposite. Mitchell said she had an “elegance” about the way she handled herself.
“But she was still one of us and probably one of the most unpretentious people I’ve ever known,” the Mayor said. “There were no airs about Mildred. She was just a genuine person, a good and kind person.”
While Fitzgerrell’s devotion to her hometown is well-documented, the long-term effect of her work with the Rend Lake College Foundation has made an equally lasting mark on history.
Former RLCF CEO Pat Kern reflected on the remarkable impact Fitzgerrell made on the lives of RLC students.
“It’s an overused phrase these days, but she is truly a person who made a big difference in a lot of people’s lives,” Kern said. “There are over 20 RLC students who received their degrees because of the gift Mildred gave. It would be amazing to know how many lives those 20 have affected. She has been an integral part of the RLC Foundation.”
In 1984, Fitzgerrell was one of the first individuals to set up an endowed fund that provided an annual scholarship.
Fitzgerrell and Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Junkins contributed $5,000 during the RLC Foundation’s Sesser Fund Drive in ‘84 in order to set up the scholarship, which is awarded annually to a Rend Lake College student who has completed the freshman year and will be continuing at the Ina-based community college the following fall.
“Wayne was always very interested in education and helping students obtain scholarships,” said Fitzgerrell at the time the scholarship was announced. “I have had people tell me since his death that Wayne had helped them get scholarships.
“That is one of the main reasons why we wanted to do this. We know that if Wayne were still alive, he would have wanted to be a part of Rend Lake College.”
She went on to become a Foundation Board member in December 1989 and was an active participant thereafter. In 1995, she launched the “Generations of Excellence” capital campaign in Sesser with her lead gift of $10,000, encouraging others to do the same.
“I am all for Rend Lake College,” Fitzgerrell expressed. “It’s good students have a place like that to go their first two years (of college).”
When the RLC Foundation established its Presidential Award in 1995 to recognize deserving Foundation supporters, she was one of four recipients to be so honored the first year (along with Howard L. Payne, Hunt Bonan and fellow townsman Richard Garner).
In November 1992, Fitzgerrell was named “Person of the Year” by the Sesser Chamber of Commerce. In December 1993, she was recipient of the first “Southern Illinois Rural Genius Award” presented by the Southern Illinois Arts Council for her work in helping preservation efforts involving the Sesser Opera House.
In 2002, she was one of the two individuals who received Third Annual “Distinguished Alumni” Awards from Sesser-Valier High School. She was a graduate of forerunner Goode-Barren Township High School (Class of 1931).
At the time of her Alumni Award, her credentials ... “Mildred (then 88) worked at the Sesser Post Office for 37 years and is a member of the Sesser United Methodist Church, Woman’s Club, Senior Citizens, the Opera House Board, Chamber of Commerce, DAR, Beta Sigma Phi, and a 50-year member of the Eastern Star. She has been the recipient of the Sesser Chamber of Commerce Member of the Year Award and Beta Sigma Phi’s First Lady of the Year,” RLC veteran Herb Winemiller Jr. said at a ceremony to honor Fitzgerrell.
“While her late husband left a lasting mark on the district that he served for more than a decade, Mildred has quietly established a legacy of her own that will long be remembered, especially by the many students who have attended Rend Lake College because of her generosity.”
The State Park that serves as a next door neighbor to RLC, the Wayne Fitzgerrell State Park, was dedicated in October of 1976.