How many of you have opened the morning paper to find your picture under a headline “Couple Claims Death Threat.” I did. I want to tell you how the Journal Star attempted to ruin a reputation built up over 64 years of my life and the great distress it put on members of my family.
I moved to Peoria with my family in 1956 taking a sales position with Remington-Rand Filing Systems, a division of Sperry-Univac. I had spent 5 years coaching and teaching and earned the distinction from the Bloomington Pantagraph as one of “central Illinois most successful coaches”. I was shortly promoted from Peoria to District Manager of Topeka, Kansas and then promoted to the number three management position in Texas. My territory included Dallas as my home base, Fort Worth, El Paso and Albuquerque including all government facilities such as Fort Hood and White Sands, New Mexico.
When Sperry-Rand appeared to no longer want Remington Rand, I asked for a Remington Rand franchise in Peoria and opened my business in 1964 called Widmer Office Products. Everything went well with the Journal Star until I sold my business in 1992. At that time my company had sales of $11,000,000.00 a year and the highest credit rating available for a business this size. Realizing the importance of School District #150 to my community, and not really wanting to be “retired”, I ran for a school board position in 1994. There were 6 of us running for one position, and I finished third behind Jan Deissler and Bob Baietto. It was at this point I began to be an annoyance to the JSEB. In a pre-election JSEB Editorial dated 3/11/94, I was described as a person who hustled, had influential endorsements and had served on various youth programs and District 150 task force on discipline. The JSEB skipped past the meaningless stuff and summed me up as “a person opposed to the sex education program although he waffled on the subject”; that’s right, I didn’t feel school teachers (and all teachers I talked to agreed with me and said they didn’t feel qualified or comfortable) should be teaching 13 and 14 year old kids how to masturbate each other and 16 different ways to “do it” and not get pregnant. The JSEB went on to say “Even though he was a businessman, we were not impressed with his grasp of the school budget or collective bargaining issues”. Ignored was the fact that I negotiated (7) three year Teamster union contracts without any grievances. I certainly understood a budget; that is why my company had the highest credit rating a company my size could receive D and B 3A1 and NO bank loans outstanding when I sold my business.
The Journal endorsed a woman with no business background and no understanding of budgets and working with unions. The JSEB later wrote “Tuesday’s triumph suggests feminity is no longer a hindrance and may be a help at the polls.” The person elected was a good educator but Dist. #150 was in dire straits when she was ousted by Mary Spangler in 2004.
I got into trouble big time with the JSEB when I wrote a letter to the editor telling the community that our priorities were mixed up and that we needed to make Peoria attractive thru better schools and higher paying jobs. After this edited article was printed in the JS, I received a phone call from the Pantagraph asking permission to run my letter in that Bloomington paper. I said yes if they would not “edit” my letter as the JSEB had done. As a result, my unedited letter was viewed by the JSEB with, what I suspect, distaste.
When asked to run for the Peoria County Board in 1999 as a Republican against the nine year incumbent Republican Zan Ransburg, the JSEB said in endorsing the incumbent “Unlike Ransburg, Widmer opposes the Peoria-to-Chicago highway.” Beyond that he nurses a particular grudge against the PPD (I had served 3 ½ years on the PPD Advisory Committee for Recreation and saw first hand how Bonnie ran the show), which makes us wonder why he is not running for the park board. He is nothing, if not combative.” During my interview before the election Barbara Mantz Drake asked me why I would conceivably run against “someone who was doing such a good job”? I answered that in a recent editorial the JSEB lamented the fact that “so few people ran for public office these days” and that I with a successful business background would bring that experience lacked by the County Board.
You may remember, I won the election by 27% points. Two days later the JS found a way to get revenge. Living next door to my wife and I, was a black man and a white unmarried twosome with the female, Autumn Berryman shown on court records as the homeowner. Back in the late November of 1999, Ms. Berryman had defied the Edgewild Homeowners Association and built a guesthouse 42’ long against my side fence. To shorten this story, Charles Kreie the President of the Homeowners Association told me he was threatened with a racial discrimination lawsuit if he tried to stop the illegal building of this guesthouse. I went to see Gene Lear of the City Planning and Zoning Department to ask exactly what was being built along my fence that looked like a chicken house. Four months passed and the building was completed and I had dismissed the situation as typical city bureaucracy. Two days after my win, I received a letter dated 3/23/00 from Mr. Lear, Senior Urban Planner. Mr. Lear wrote “Let me begin with apologizing for not getting back to you sooner with the results of my investigation. After taking your complaint, a zoning letter was sent to the owner of the property. The letter stated that I did not indicate at any time during the investigation who submitted the complaint. I went to the property and she let me in the pool house so that I could do the inspection. From my inspection I determined there was not enough evidence to state that the pool house was being used or intended to be a dwelling unit. The case is therefore closed…….” When the house was later on put on the market by Jim Sipp of RE/MAX, this pool house was listed as a “Guest/pool house with fireplace, kitchen, ¾ bath and sitting area.”
A day later my wife complained to me that our neighbors had cut all the limbs off the trees facing the side of our house. I went next door to ask why. No one was home but the maid so I asked the maid to have Ms. Berryman call me when she got home. Two hours later, I received a call from a man shouting that if I ever set foot on his property again, he would tear my M—F—head off. I promptly called the police department and they sent an officer out who talked to my neighbor and then to me. He warned me that the man might be dangerous and left his card telling me to call him if any other threats were made against my life.
A week later I stopped for lunch at Lum’s on University and while heading for the entrance I was approached by a man I mistook for an Indian friend of mine. I started to reach out my hand only to recognize it was my neighbor who stuck his face in my face and repeated his death threats. He asked that I fight him in the parking lot and when I told him I was too old to fight, he said he should send someone up from the Southside to tear my M—F—head off. I told him that I would protect myself wit an equalizer hoping he would believe I had a gun to protect myself. (I hadn’t owned a gun in 30 years).
I was so upset over the incident that I followed them into Lum’s and sat in the first booth available. I then realized it was the smoking section and reseated myself in the non-smoking section, only to realize I was too upset to eat. I returned home and called the officer who had come to my house only to find he was gone for the weekend. I then called Mr. Kreie and told him of the incident. He advised me to go to the police station and take out a protection warrant against this man. I then called a lawyer friend of mine who advised me to take no action as this incident “would blow over” and besides with the JSEB upset with me for defeating their friend Ransburg, they would probably write an article about the incident. So I didn’t. Big mistake as my attorney friend told me later.
Later that afternoon I got a call from someone who stuttered badly and said he was with the JS. I thought it was my neighbor continuing to harass me and hung up on him twice. Having never been charged with anything worse than a speeding ticket in my entire life, I too believed this would blow over. On Tuesday morning 4/11/00, I opened the JS to find my picture under a caption “Couple Claims Death Threat.”
To shorten the story, I was interviewed by a member of the police department with my attorney and the detective hearing nothing but conflicting stories, turned it over to the States Attorney. I quote the JS “Pickett and Berryman earlier had claimed a threat was a hate crime, but States Attorney Lyons concluded there was no crime committed.” End of story, right? No.
During the period from 4/11/00 the JS put my picture in the Journal Star twice, wrote over 60 columnar inches on the incident and libeled me twice. I wrote Jack Brimeyer saying that his reporter, Andy Kravetz, who has a speech impediment and was the person who called me at my home, had libeled me. Kravetz allegedly was an acquaintance of Mr. Picket (thru Section 8 and the PHA which was on Mr. Kravetz reporting beat) had twice wrote in the JS “Berryman and Pickett said Widmer APPROACHED them in the parking lot and started to argue with them over the bushes.” What the police report 00-10978, dated 4/19/00 -----------“meaning Pickett” said he saw his neighbor in the parking lot and walked over to him wanting to explain that in the future talk to him and not his wife.” Sure he did along with telling me several different ways he was going to separate my head from the rest of my body!!
A few days later a friend of mine called me and asked if I saw the retraction in the Journal Star. I said no and shortly understood why I hadn’t seen it. The correction was buried in the B Section of the newspaper, p. 11, lower left hand corner.
When the general election came up in November 2000, my Democrat opponent was Jim Graves. I won. Here’s what the JSEB said when they endorsed Mr. Graves, “Widmer takes argumentation to belligerence. And it’s not just his politics that provoke confrontation. Last spring his neighbors became so disturbed over comments they considered a threat that they went to the police. Kevin Lyons called Widmer’s behavior “outrageous and rude” and said his explanation wasn’t credible, but decided his actions didn’t merit charges. Neither does it merit a spot on the county Board.”
When I had lunch with States Attorney Lyons several months later, he indicated that what he said only pertained to if what Pickett has said was really true. He evidently knew who was lying as I was never charged.
In 2002, I ran unopposed and will complete 6 years in 2006. My family and I went thru all this slander because the JS said I was “combative”, a term used to describe companies like IBM and Microsoft, and my neighbor probably thought that meant I like to fight. (He was only 30 years younger than I. Bibo described him as looking like Arthur Ashe!).
“Bleeding liberal” Terry Bibo even believed that I poisoned my neighbor’s bushes: Ms. Berryman said to my wife that they bought the bushes on sale at in July and didn’t water them. Bibo wrote that if I was black I would have been “spread eagled.” An African-American friend of mine told me that Mr. Pickett told him that Pickett’s and Berryman’s intentions were to get me charged or indicted and then file a civil lawsuit against me to take all my money. Pickett didn’t know this man was a friend of mine. Pickett and Berryman moved out of town shortly thereafter. The police warned me to stay away from them as they considered Pickett “dangerous.”
In 2003, while endorsing Tim Cassidy the JSEB said of me “Our primary objection to Widmer goes to style. He is confrontational-don’t dare ask his age (ok, I was 77 and I knew they would use my age against me) and prone to threatening outbursts that make him temperamentally ill-suited to public leadership. We witnessed that style three years ago in his County Board race against Zan Ransburg. (Another libelous slander, I was very civil to an antagonistic Journal Star Editorial Board who should be ashamed of themselves the way they treat candidates they don’t like when they interview them. That’s why some candidates who have experienced the JBEB hostility no longer go to the interview before elections. (Note that they mentioned no outbursts from me when they endorsed Ransburg on the Editorial page). We fear a vote for Widmer would be one for retreat and isolation-a mistake that would not only damage the parks but speak volumes about this community.” They continue “Widmer’s primary argument is that the Park Board strayed from its core business and spent taxpayer dollars recklessly.” Hey, they at least got that part right!! The PPD budget this year is $44,000,000.00 and watch out next year when they sell bonds for the under funded zoo. Don’t expect any criticism toward the park because Bonnie, Henry and Barbara are allegedly, good friends.
In December, 2004, this “combative fellow” Widmer was elected by his peers on the county board to Vice-Chairman, Peoria County Board, ousting the incumbent Bob Baietto. Thirteen years after I sold my company, the company still uses my name and thrives as Widmer Interiors on North Allen Road across from Klaus Companies. Mr. Kravetz said he was sorry that he caused me such problems. But I will never forgive the JS, the JSEBB and Terry Bibo for the cowardly way they tried to ruin my name.
How did my neighbors and I get off on such a bad foot? Good question. MS. Berryman was the owner of the property and she asked if I new where the property stakes were and I said the former owner didn’t care where the boundaries where and I was retired and had the time to trim the bushes so I did and kept trimming them until the day Ms. Berryman said she had a survey made and the bushes were hers and she would have them trimmed. I said no problem, less work for me. As to Mr. Pickett he never acknowledged we lived there next door or looked our way.
Our new neighbors of more than two years are our friends and they enjoy their “guesthouse!!”