My name is J. A. Werner. I grew up in Rantoul and graduated from Rantoul Township High School.
My father was stationed at Chanute Air Force Base, and eventually my parents retired here. I left the area in my 20s and moved out to Washington, D.C. after visiting a friend and her husband (also from Rantoul). I have been there ever since.
Over the years my visits to Rantoul have diminished, especially with the death of my parents. The pull to drive through Rantoul when I’m in the area always starts with that optimistic smile and ends with a sad heart. So much has changed. So many opportunities have been lost.
My last visit was in August. My husband and I drove through the center of town (so deserted on a Saturday afternoon), passed the location of my mother’s old health food store, down Grove Avenue (what happened to all the trees?) and turning left onto Illinois Drive, where we used to live.
Then there was the drive around the base. I was surprised to see how vacant it looked without “Buckingham Palace” (headquarters), the groups of dead trees, the closing of the museum and the unkempt landscape that had always appeared so trim and military.
I begin to think about my parents and how they loved the town, how my mother used to write a column for the Rantoul Press called “Chirp and Chatter.” I searched the Rantoul Press archives for copies of those articles, but they didn’t go back that far. Then I saw a request for a columnist. My nostalgia kicked into overdrive as I wondered if maybe I could follow in my mother’s footsteps. Revive her column (“Chirp & Chatter 2.0”).
Over the years I have met people who were stationed at Chanute. They were there for plane maintenance training, firefighter training, officer training and someone who ran the officers club. And yes, the B-52 bombers. Small world. They remembered how flat the countryside was; how you could tell what time it was by the train; what fun it was to see the store windows on main street painted in October for Halloween; see the Christmas decorations during the holidays. It was a small town — our hometown.
I was happy to hear about the new sports complex and the opportunities it will bring. My dad would have loved the idea. He told me how hard he and others had worked to make Chanute work for Rantoul after it closed. They wanted to open an airport.
The control tower, hangars and runways were already there. They even explored the possibility of moving the U of I airport to Rantoul. However, it never worked out. Another idea they attempted was to bring Parkland College to the base (before it was built in Champaign).
The building known as “Buckingham Place” was a perfect location. It already was set up with classrooms. There were dorms nearby (officer quarters) and an administrative office (headquarters). Even housing for teachers if necessary, but those ideas never materialized.
I know my dad would be smiling now, knowing the opportunity to bring economic growth to Rantoul has finally arrived — an early Christmas gift of hope and growth.
J. A. Werner is the self-published author of “The Cellomaker” series and a Rantoul native who now resides in Washington, D.C.