When NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope into deep space in 1990, the New York Times Magazine published a story with the headline that went something like, “Looking back to look forward.” The reference, of course, had to do with the scope’s ability to “see” light long before it reached Earth and the human eye.
The play on words that Hubble inspired could just as easily apply to the year of historical reflection undertaken by the Illinois Bicentennial Commission. All over the state, cities, towns, societies, agencies, organizations and ordinary citizens are pausing to appreciate what has been born, built and grown in Illinois in the past 200 years.
For many, the birthday has been a reminiscence, a look back on eras of great triumph and great challenge. The state weathered financial panics and the Great Depression. It survived two world wars, and favorite sons Lincoln and Reagan successfully steered the nation through the Civil and Cold Wars respectively.
In the meantime, the state boomed its way through an industrial revolution and an information explosion. Along the way, its people invented new ways to farm and harvest, sell merchandise through the mail, franchise a hamburger business, and put cellphones in our pockets.
Chicago taught the world how to rebuild a city when it “scraped the sky” after the Chicago Fire in 1871. The first Twinkie was baked in Illinois,and the first nuclear chain reaction started here. The state made musical history, too. It is famous for inventing the blues, coining the name “jazz,” and demolishing disco at Comiskey Park.
Throughout its history, Illinois has been a magnet. People came to find good jobs and affordable homes. They were drawn by reliable schools for their children and a down-to-earth quality of life.
It spawned an impressive list of creators, and big, sometimes world-changing achievements. Illinoisans changed the face of literature (Hemingway, Sandburg and Brooks) and science (Millikin, Friedman and Fermi). They started the Globetrotters and produced world champions (Blackhawks, Bears, Bulls, Cubs and White Sox).
They founded companies and products that reached around the world (Oreos and the ice cream sundae). The pursuit of knowledge and learning gave rise to the University of Illinois, Northwestern University, Chicago University and 200 other higher education organizations.
The point is, the Bicentennial is a chance to look at this amazing history with an eye toward the future. For looking back, all the accomplishments of the past are really just the “big shoulders” upon which the state stands poised for tomorrow.
With 36 Fortune 500 companies, 1.2 million small businesses, and 72,000 of the nation’s greatest farms, Illinois is the world’s 17th largest economy. The state is the nation’s virtual transportation hub. No place in America is better suited for delivering products to market.
The state also has one of the greatest workforces in the nation with a penchant for innovation and hard work that is alive and well. In this instant, there is an Illinois student at work in a lab on the cusp of a science breakthrough, a writer crafting a best-seller, a musician inventing a new sound, a small business person taking steps to launch a worldwide enterprise.
These are the focal points that have emerged from Illinois’ past, the rays of light that are captured by a Hubble-like glimpse into history. They can’t be “seen” yet, but they are the bright lines of hope that will illuminate the times ahead.
The mission of the Bicentennial is to remind stakeholders of this generation that it will take equal parts toil and invention to advance Illinois into its rightful future. It’s why looking back to look forward is so important. It provides an insight into work ahead and the sense of pride needed to propel the state’s legacy for generations to come.
So, come to the birthday party on Monday and see what light the 200 candles shed on the state’s prospects. It will reveal the amazing things that have gone into making Illinois what it is today … and what it can be tomorrow.