NILES -- Johnie Rodebush has always been up-front with voters, he says. So much so that, in this month's election, he made it a point that his image on his campaign brochure depict him as he currently appears.
"I wanted them to see a recent picture. I didn't want people to see me when I was 25 years old, like in the obituaries,'' the veteran Cass County commissioner said Friday.
No, Rodebush doesn't look as he did when he was 25. Tack on another 65 years and you get what you see.
Yes, Rodebush, a four-time chairman of the county board even during stretches when he was the panel's only Democrat, is 90 years young. Perhaps his age was a factor in his loss to fellow commissioner Robert Ziliak, a Republican 26 years Rodebush's junior
But if Rodebush, who was elected to his first term on the county board in 1968, holds a grudge, it's not apparent. He referred to Ziliak as "a good guy'' and "good campaigner.''
"He had a sign everywhere,'' Rodebush said. "Everywhere I put up a sign, within a few days he had a sign right next to it.''
Consolidating county commission districts from 15 to seven didn't do Rodebush any favors. Not only did it put him up against a fellow incumbent, a situation reflected in other districts as well, but the inclusion of all of Milton Township added more Republican voters to the mix. Also, only a portion of Rodebush's home township of Howard remained in the new district.
"I knew it was futile to run again but I thought I'd go down swinging anyway,'' said Rodebush, who received 1,307 votes to Ziliak's 1,892.
Actually, election defeats aren't new to the resilient Rodebush, an Arkansas native who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1981 and who served 26 years on the county board before Howard Supervisor Fred Leet defeated him in 1994 by 26 votes. Other close Rodebush-Leet encounters followed, with Rodebush winning back the seat in 1996 and Leet turning the tables in 1998 before Leet resigned and Rodebush regained the post.
In his nearly 40 years on the board, party politics always took a back seat to the county's needs, Rodebush said, recalling he was board chairman in 1977 when the $2.3 million Cass County Medical Care facility became a reality on Hospital Road. Funded by a 2-mill property tax, Rodebush said he appealed to the state Health Department for a 100-bed facility, knowing full well it would be shot down and that he'd wind up with the 80 beds he originally wanted.
It was Rodebush's idea as well, he, said, to fund such other projects as the county's new Law and Courts Building through the county's delinquent tax revolving fund. The funding source saved county taxpayers millions of dollars, he said.
"I don't know how many times I wound up going to Lansing on that,'' he said. "That was nearly an $8 million project.''
Next month, Rodebush will attend his last county board meeting, at least in an official capacity. As for his plans in the aftermath, he'll spend more time with his wife of 20 years, Barbara, and he'll continue to remodel a house next door that he picked up in a tax sale.
"I got it for $2,800. It was falling down,'' he said.
His money-saving habits die hard, county government or not.
Staff writer Lou Mumford: