Local (S)heroes

April 2020 View more

By Christie Willhite

When we tell the story of Naperville’s history, we talk about Joseph Naper and the pioneering men who set up a homestead that became our city.

But Almeda Naper was by her husband’s side from the very beginning, part of a network of women who have built and shaped our community—but whose stories we may not know.

That will change with Naper Settlement’s HERstory campaign, a mission to highlight women’s contributions to Naperville’s history. The campaign commemorates the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.

“Traditionally, the contributions of women—whether local, state, or national—have been overlooked and we are no different, but we are committed to changing that,” says Macarena Tamayo-Calabrese, Naper Settlement’s president and CEO. “We must change this going forward or we risk that the story of current and upcoming female change-makers will also be lost. The history of women must not be merely thought of as women’s history, but as our history, and it must live alongside the history of our male counterparts.”

The campaign will tell the stories of 100 women and girls who have shaped the city throughout its history. Their achievements will be showcased online, in social media, and in artful banners downtown and around the settlement grounds. Their contributions also will be the basis for Women: Waves of Change, an exhibition debuting in June at the settlement.


Most of the following 2020 events and exhibits are included with museum admission to Naper Settlement (523 S. Webster, napersettlement.org):

Manufacturing Victory: The Arsenal of Democracy

Through May 25; included with museum admission

The touring exhibition, produced by the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, explores the nation’s industrial maturation into a global superpower that led the Allies to victory in World War II. Locally produced galleries will showcase how Naperville’s Kroehler Manufacturing Co. shifted from producing furniture to supporting the war effort—including expanding the number of women in its workforce.

Home Front 1940s Weekend

May 16–17, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; included with museum admission

The 1940s Home Front Weekend honors the efforts at home that helped to win the war. Meet Rosie the Riveter and a Rockford Peach baseball player, see vehicles and propaganda posters from the era, learn about Victory Gardens and how to jitterbug, and listen to a tribute performance by Andrew and His Sisters. Veterans also are invited to share their stories from the war for the Naper Settlement archive.

Women: Waves of Change

June 16–December 31Commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment that granted women the right to vote, the Women: Waves of Change exhibition shares the story of women, past and present, who were and are foundational in the formation and development of Naperville and beyond.

Naper Nights

July 17, 6 to 10 p.m.; tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for ages 4 to 12, free for members and younger children

Soul Spectacular performs a tribute to Aretha Franklin and the classic soul era as part of the monthly summer concert series. Cadillac Groove opens with blues, soul, rock, and R&B.

HERstory Weekend

August 29–30, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

In addition to the Women: Waves of Change exhibition, the weekend features a Women’s Expo, showing the impact women have had in the community. A live theater performance of Votes for Women, written by Zachary Jack, will share a story of the struggle for the vote, as local actors portray the lives of Chicago suffragists in 1913. Students can join in a “stump speech” competition. A cemetery walk will focus on the role Naperville women played in forming the community.

To be sure, the exhibit will celebrate Caroline Martin Mitchell, who donated her family’s estate for public use—a donation that gave the city Naper Settlement, Centennial Beach, Knoch Park, and more. And visitors will get to know the stories of conservationist May Watts, an environmental educator who pioneered the idea for the Illinois Prairie Path; of state Rep. Mary Lou Cowlishaw, who championed education; of local journalist Genevieve Towsley, who wove the city together by sharing residents’ stories; and of U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, a nurse who graduated from Neuqua Valley High School and was elected to Congress in 2018.

But the HERstory campaign also aims to introduce Naperville to unsung (s)heroes like Antonia Harlan and Shannon Simonovich.

Harlan curated a collection of artifacts representing various cultures that she shared in Naperville classrooms, with community organizations, and at cultural fairs, according to her nomination. She recently donated the Antonia C. Harlan Multicultural Collection to Naper Settlement.

Simonovich, a nurse on the faculty of the DePaul University School of Nursing, describes herself in her nomination as a “social justice scientist,” citing her work as an adviser to the Food Security Council of DuPage County. She aims to ensure healthy food is accessible to all.

“We’re asking Naperville residents to share their stories, or to nominate someone [else] for recognition,” says Brittany Tepper, Naper Settlement’s marketing director.

The settlement opened up nominations in December and received close to 30 nominations in the first few weeks, Tepper says.

Nominees include Ruth Dow, who traveled the world to teach nutrition and deliver safe water; Jeannette Collazo, who founded Lurdez Consulting Group and works to employ young minority women in the IT field; and Anne Cottez, a French immigrant who founded Naperfrench to teach private French classes.

“While the kind of stories varies, it is inspiring to see the common thread between them all—women who wanted to see a change, and because of this acted and continued to persevere through the challenges that they faced,” Tamayo-Calabrese says. “Whether starting their own business (often in a male-dominated field) or donating their time to help educate and inspire our community, these stories are powerful and show that Naperville women are one of the city’s greatest assets.”

Anyone can nominate a Naperville resident to be included in the HERstory campaign. Women, girls, and anyone identifying as female are eligible for inclusion. Nominations—either a 250-word essay or a one-minute video—will be accepted through November online at napersettlement.org/HERstory.

All types of stories will be considered, and staff are looking for a variety of experiences to represent in the campaign—including stories of inspiration, leadership, and empowerment. “Our education department has really latched onto the campaign,” Tepper says. “We are weaving the HERstory theme into many of the regular events on the calendar.”

For example, the July Naper Nights concert will feature a tribute to Aretha Franklin, while local author Lindsay Currie, author of the middle-grade novel Scritch Scratch, will do readings during the All Hallows Eve Halloween celebration. While the HERstory campaign is a focus for 2020, continuing to include women’s stories will be part of Naper Settlement’s mission, especially as it reaches beyond the community’s early days to include more modern history, Tamayo-Calabrese says.

“History is how we … build community. But history also serves as the guidepost to help us plan the tomorrows,” she says. “We hope the HERstory campaign will bring the public closer to understanding that we, women, have always been there.”

Photo courtesy Naper Settlement