A Life Remembered | Professor’s passion for environment ran like clockwork | University-illinois

A park saved from flooding. Antique clocks that still run on time. Yuletide gatherings for lovers of local history.

These are just a few of the legacies left behind by environmental activist and University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Bruce Hannon.

Hannon, 89, died at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana at 2:18 p.m. Sunday — or 2:18 p.m. on 2/18 — a coincidence that daughter Claire Deal said is “kind of fitting for the clocksmith.”

His son Brian said it’s his understanding that the cause of death was “complications from a flu or virus that turned into pneumonia very quickly.”

Deal said their father’s sudden illness came as a shock.

Professor Hannon lived about a mile away from his daughter. He would walk to her house and back almost every day, Deal said, though there were times more recently when she would drive him home.

He had made the two-mile round trip just a few days before his death.

“He was absolutely fine, absolutely in good health on Thursday and then felt like he had a bad cold and cancelled his breakfast meeting with his friend on Friday morning,” Deal said. “And then I think we called 911 on Saturday, about five o’clock.”

Brian Hannon said their father grew up in Ivesdale, graduated from Bement High School and then studied at the UI.

Shortly after becoming a professor, his father became engaged in the effort to protect the UI-owned Allerton Park from being flooded by the Oakley Dam reservoir project.

“It wasn’t the most popular thing for my dad to take a stand against that project moving forward, especially with his new position at the university,” Brian Hannon said. “But he did what he believed in.”

The project was first proposed in the 1940s as a way to control flooding along the Sangamon River between Decatur and Monticello. It later evolved into an effort to provide more recreation and water for the city of Decatur in the late 1960s.

“Had it not been stopped, the bottomlands along the Sangamon that numerous people enjoy and wildlife, some endangered, call home would have been flooded,” said Derek Peterson, executive director of Allerton Park and Retreat Center.

Professor Hannon said in a previous interview that he learned of the project in 1967, when his family took part in a Family Camp at the 4-H Memorial Camp. His wife, Patricia, had learned of the Oakley Dam effort while going for a walk at nearby Allerton Park.

“She comes back steaming,” Professor Hannon said. “So she started a campaign, petitions at the Family Camp.”

The couple mobilized nearly 200 organizations against the project as part of the “Committee on Allerton Park” and were ultimately successful in their goal of defeating the proposed dam.

“It was a pretty big effort, and over time, the collective efforts of ourselves and these other people around the country — we changed federal water policy,” said John Marlin, a fellow UI grad who went on to spend almost 30 years with the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center at the Prairie Research Institute and a five-year stint as chair of Illinois Pollution Control Board. “And that was largely because of what Bruce started right here.”

Marlin also met his wife — now Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin — on a picket line in Allerton Park.

“Bruce has been a friend and mentor — he’s my environmental hero,” she said.

The Committee on Allerton Park later became the Prairie Rivers Network. The organization’s mission statement is to “protect water, heal land and inspire change.”

Professor Hannon served as its president for 38 years. He then helped found the Land Foundation Conservation.

“He never stopped working, you know?” said Prairie Rivers Executive Director Maggie Bruns. “It’s a pretty remarkable legacy, and I’ve got big shoes to fill, that’s for certain.”

Professor Hannon was also involved in efforts to protect the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River from another dam project, working alongside Bob and Sandy Bales, Clark Bullard and John Marlin.

Al Grosboll, whose career includes work with the state legislature and former Gov. Jim Edgar, said in some ways, these individuals are the founders of the environmental movement.

He also noted that the group was good at assembling coalitions from different walks of life and opposite sides of the aisle.

“You’ve got to have it all,” he said. “You’ve got to have intellectual power. You’ve got to have personality. You’ve got to have the strength of your convictions. And, again, Bruce brought all of that to the table.”

In addition to his love of the environment, Professor Hannon was also passionate about history and was a founding member of the Christmas Eve Irregulars. The group, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this past December, annually gathers at a local historical site on Dec. 24.

One year, the Irregulars met at the old Champaign County Courthouse when it was closed for construction and shared wine and cheese, said one of its members, Steve Beckett, a local lawyer and former Champaign County Board member.

He recalls that another county board member remarked, “I don’t think you can have alcohol in a courthouse,” to which Professor Hannon replied, “This isn’t a courthouse. It’s a construction site.”

When asked whether the Irregulars will continue to meet, Beckett said, “In many ways, the Bruce Hannons of the world are irreplaceable. … I don’t know how it’ll happen. I hope it does.”

He said Professor Hannon had a gift for persuading people to get involved with different projects, such as the restoration of the courthouse’s clock tower.

“When I’m there and it hits right on time, I say, ‘Good job, Bruce,’” Beckett said.

Fixing clocks was another one of Professor Hannon’s interests; Deal said his great-grandkids called him “Grandpa Clock,” and he would always hoist them up to help him wind the grandfather clock he made for Deal and her husband as a wedding present.

Allen Strong, owner of Silvercreek Restaurant and former owner of the Courier Café, said Hannon always made a point to stop by on New Year’s Eve to make sure his clocks were running on time and ready to go for midnight.

When Tom Payne needed help fixing a grandfather clock he inherited, Professor Hannon helped him and eventually went on to mentor him in clocksmithing.

“He said, ‘I’m not going to live forever, and I’m going to pass this information and skill and knowledge on to someone else,” Payne said. “I said, ‘Bruce, you should have picked somebody a little younger.’”

There are still some clocks left in Payne’s shop that he plans to finish up with help from his son, Cameron. Then he’ll relocate the supplies to his home in Philo.

“I plan, very much, in carrying on Bruce’s tradition of repairing old mechanical clocks and keeping it going and hopefully find somebody, my son or somebody … and pass this knowledge and skill along to them, keep it going,” Payne said. “And it’s all in memory of Bruce.”

According to his obituary, Hannon was preceded in death by his parents, his wife, a son, a brother and a sister.

His surviving children are Deal, Laura Madden and Brian Hannon. He has several grandchildren and great-grandchildren and is also survived by his sister, Ellen Wolfenberger.

Peterson, whose wife is Professor Hannon’s granddaughter, said that family was at the center of all he did, from listening to her concerns about the Oakley Dam to the work he’s done to create “a better tomorrow” for the younger generations.

“Bruce’s family was his passion, it was interwoven in everything he did,” Peterson said. “He wanted them all to know that they can make a difference.”

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