Brinker: Quite A Punch, But Peoria Not Down For The Count

By Nancy G. Brinker
February 14, 2017
Peoria Journal Star

On Washington Street in Downtown Peoria sits the Caterpillar Visitors Center & Museum. Opened in 2012, the 50,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility celebrates the company’s roots in Peoria going back 107 years and, more importantly, lays out a vision for its future. That future, up until recently, appeared more certain in the eyes of the surrounding community.

Caterpillar has always been regarded as more than a company in Illinois. This sturdy manufacturer of RD6 tractors and backhoe loaders, of engines and excavators, personified hope and the embodiment of the American dream for generations of Peorians. It was an industrious Midwest work ethic derived from the city in which I grew up that turned Caterpillar into the world’s leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment. While the company’s viability is stronger than ever, its forthcoming departure 170 miles up I-55 to Chicago is set to deal a major blow to the heart of the American rust belt.

For myself, the daughter of Marvin and Eleanor Goodman who grew up selling Girl Scout cookies along with my sister Suzy on Glen Avenue, Peoria will always be home. Our family’s story wasn’t unique, just quintessentially American like so many others. My great grandfather, Moses, immigrated to Illinois from Berlin in the 19th century. My grandmother founded the local chapter of the Red Cross in Peoria. My parents, who lived through both world wars, worked hard to help build affordable post-war apartment housing and shopping centers that catered to new business development.

In 1982, after making a deathbed promise to my sister Susan to cure breast cancer, I founded the Susan G Komen Foundation to eradicate breast cancer. Along with legions of volunteers spanning over 100 cities an 30 other countries, we created and sustained a foundation that has transformed the way in which the world treats and talks about breast cancer. This experience led me to a career in public service to our nation and to be honored as a Lincoln Laureate in Peoria in 2016.

The spirit of these endeavors was fueled by the strong sense of civic engagement found within our city. My father was fond of referring to Peoria as “paradise” because he understood that the riches we lacked in income were more than made up for in the town’s sense of community. A community held together by Caterpillar.

Caterpillar is perhaps best known for manufacturing equipment for road-building, harvesting precious minerals, mining for energy purposes and paving the way across America in growing cities and connecting them with suburbia. Few may recall the role they also played in moving artillery across Europe during World War I, constructing projects such as the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge and expanding the Panama Canal. The larger-than-life role Caterpillar played on the American landscape was second only in size to the space it occupied in the hearts of the people of Peoria.

Today the world is changing. Our country faces stiff competition for business from overseas. The core of what made America a nation of architects and builders after WWII is under assault. Trade deals, while necessary, too often treat working-class citizens as numbers on a spreadsheet. Bustling, 20th century cities such as Allentown, Toledo and Youngstown have borne the brunt of international competition and markets slanted against a hostile regulatory environment. The pride and struggles endured by millions of Americans who reside in these seemingly forgotten towns paved President Trump’s path to the White House.

Caterpillar’s Visitors Center & Museum contends that the company’s strength is in its future as opposed to its past. As a native Peorian, I can attest to the fact that the same can be said of the city where Cat’s corporate headquarters has resided since 1930. The departure of hundreds of Caterpillar jobs, while sad, will not undermine our past, and it won’t kill our spirit or work ethic. Peorians have too much pride for that. It will, however, knock us down. How long it will take until we get up is anyone’s guess.

Nancy Brinker grew up in Peoria. She founded the Susan G. Komen Foundation, a nonprofit organization working to end breast cancer, and later served as U.S. ambassador to Hungary and White House chief of protocol under President George W. Bush. In 2009, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. She now lives in Palm Beach, Florida.