Will McGaughy

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Will McGaughy: Better to be inside
with the action than outside hollering

 

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Will McGaughy thinks East St. Louis will be one of the greatest cities in Illinois.

But he wants to make sure that the black people of East St. Louis will be there to enjoy it and to participate in the prosperity.

McGaughy suspects a master plot to run the blacks out of East St. Louis by building Section 8 housing in the O'Fallon, Belleville, the other outlying towns, and by making the housing in East St. Louis untenable. Then there will be a flip-flop and the whites will move to East St. Louis and the South End where they can sit on their decks and watch the Arch.

"But Will McGaughy will be right here, watching the Arch from his deck," McGaughy said as we sat on that deck at 1402 S. H St., just north of what used to be called Rush City.

McGaughy said the first East St. Louis economic bailout legislation offered by the state provided for overseers to govern all city finances; part of the conspiracy to take East St. Louis away from the blacks. It was State Rep. Wyvetter Younge who forced the changes in that plan and made it acceptable; she did what she was there to do, McGaughy says with conviction. He writhes with anger as he discusses Belleville News-Democrat editorials that criticize her for endangering the future of the city with her holdout against the bailout bill. She may do some foolish things sometimes, but she is for the people, and she forced the changes that made the bailout bill acceptable, he said.

In the process she also obtained pledges by Gov. Jim Thompson to follow through on authorizations and appropriations that have been passed years ago, but which have been bottled up, including money for sewers and a housing manufacturing plant.

Some people call Will McGaughy crazy. They mean he does things they consider irresponsible.

Sometimes Will McGaughy calls himself crazy. He means he takes chances doing things he thinks need to be done.

He's not crazy.

McGaughy, 57, first burst into the attention of the citizens of outer St. Clair County back in the '70s when he brought a truckload of dogs from the East St. Louis dog pound to Belleville and turned them loose in the new county courthouse. He was commissioner of health, education and welfare for the City of East St. Louis, and had found that it was the county's responsibility to impound strays. Vic Canty was County Board chairman, and had made promises, but nothing was happening. Will said children in East St. Louis had to carry clubs to beat off the strays. He found a way to focus attention on the problem.

"Some of those dogs went right into the offices and up to the women working there. One of them patted the dirty, mangiest dog on the head and said "poor thing." Hell, they thought more of the dogs than us," he said, his blackness showing.

Will never forgets he is black, or his "brothers." He's not a racist, he doesn't dislike whites, nor does he try to use them. But he thinks black.

"How, Will," I asked, "can you get people to come down into East St. Louis? White people are afraid to come here."

Will's son Felix Xavier answered for Will. "I'm afraid to go to Freeburg at night, or Pinckneyville, or lots of other towns."

That's the difference between thinking black and thinking white.

But as a matter of fact, Will, his son and other guests on that porch agreed that whites in East St. Louis, minding their business, seldom have a problem; when they come looking for drugs, or white men looking for black women, or messing around doing something they shouldn't be doing anywhere, then sometimes they "get their heads blown off." But most crime in East St. Louis is black against black. Thousands of whites still drive through East St. Louis on Bond Avenue, Missouri Avenue, State Street, even past 15th and Broadway, once thought the worst intersection in the city, unharmed every day.

McGaughy cited the author's experience driving and photographing throughout the city for months with no problem, few even paying any attention.

McGaughy is the East St. Louis Township supervisor. He also has been a member of the County Board of Supervisors since 1978. He serves on important committees, and he affects what happens in East St. Louis and in all of St. Clair County. But he started out a "street person," a hustler, who never finished high school.

Will had only an eighth grade education when he went into the Army as an infantryman. When he got out he was what he described as a street person hustling dollars shooting dice, playing cards in a tavern at 19th and Wilson. At 21, he was in a car outside the tavern waiting with some others for the shift change at Monsanto Chemical Co. on payday - waiting for the workers to come and be hustled. Another driver bet the driver of the car he was in that he could beat him driving to the Monsanto gate and back. Will said he had no bet on and be wasn't going to get killed in a drag race, so he got out of the car. As they were returning the railroad crossing gates came down and he thought the race was over, but they shot through the gates; the first car stopped, the car he had been in skidded into it then came down the hill and ran over and three others. He lost his right leg at the knee.

He studied and took a test to obtain a GED (general educational development high school equivalency certificate), and studied accounting at Mildred Louise Business School for two terms. His grammar is not the best, he sometimes drifts into the street language that helps him communicate so well with "the brothers," and yet he is just as apt to use technical terms he has picked up in government service of one kind or another. One recalls that Congressman Mel Price was a terrible public speaker; that former East St. Louis Mayor Al Fields, as shrewd a politician as Mayor Charles Daley, was almost incoherent in conversation and that Red Foley, when he was East St. Louis township commissioner, would have sounded like a noon factory whistle if his cuss words were beeped out. Whites have trouble understanding Will, but if they listen closely enough to understand, they will hear straight talk. He may be wrong, but he claims that as his right, too.

Will took a job with Charles Merritts driving a cab, became shop steward of Teamsters Local 971. They were in negotiations over pay, terms for leasing cabs. He was driving home one night when a shot was fired at him. He called a 10-50 on his radio - a call for the cabbies to rally - and took off in pursuit. The cars raced through the South End and Monsanto to the man's home. Police came, but did nothing to him. Will wrote a sealed letter telling what he thought was happening, took it to the East St. Louis Journal to be opened in case of his death, and found a man with a shotgun to ride in the back seat of his cab. But the other cabbies urged him to back off, saying he should quit before he was killed. He decided that if they weren't willing to fight for a better contract, neither should he, so he quit driving a cab.

McGaughy was anti-government, the guy on the other side. He got up in city Central Democratic Committee meetings and told them what they were doing wrong. He was among activist demonstrators in the '70s, but came to the conclusion that there was no point in being "outside hollering when the action was going on inside." He ran unsuccessfully for township supervisor, but was elected to the County Board in 1978. When Township Supervisor Clyde Jordan died, he succeeded him in that post. As a County Board member, he was appointed to the St. Clair County Mental Health Board while this writer was president of the board, and while the Specialized Living Center in Swansea was being completed and staffed.

He established a predecessor to the WIC (women, infant and children) program providing surplus food to pregnant women and lactating mothers in East St. Louis in the'70s, the first in the nation, and set up the Metro-East Health Services Center at 15th Street and Broadway which was a predecessor to the health maintenance organizations (HMOs) of today. He was ousted by the board for lack of education and a professional hired - a high-flying expert who flew to his California home weekends at the agency's expense. He was indicted for stealing funds, Will recalls, but never served time. Meanwhile, the center closed and the building still stands empty.

McGaughy said that he went into politics "to try to make some changes within the structure. I haven't been able to make all the changes I want, but I have been able to effect some changes, you know."

When the Model Cities urban renewal program was started about 1972, Will was to be relocated across town. He refused, buying a house for $1,000 and spending the $15,000 allowed by HUD and a great deal of his own money to reconstruct it. Now he is building a waterfall and fish pond in his back yard. He said he wants to show you don't have to leave the ghetto to live comfortably.

So here are some of Will's views:

1. Crime. There are maybe 30 tough criminals in East St. Louis. The other criminals are "punks," who would change their ways if there were alternatives; jobs and opportunity and law enforcement.

East St. Louis has some excellent policemen. They solve murders without the Major Case Squad, and as part of that squad go into other communities and solve crimes. The police force overall needs equipment and encouragement.

Newspapers make East St. Louis sound like the capitol of killing. Some of the most gruesome murders have been in Belleville.

2. Drugs. They are largely local; significant but local. People from East St. Louis go to other urban centers, buy drugs and bring them back to turn over to dealers who pass them on to peddlers.

"The average young brother out there is selling dope because he don't get no money any other way. Other brothers out there are using that dope because he don't see no future. If they see a future, they got some other avenue, they can be changed.

"If I've got jobs, alternatives, I can stop 98 per cent of this crime myself.

"If you get the sellers out of the picture the men who bring in the dope will have t~ sell it themselves, and they'll get caught. Now as long as they don't get caught bringing it in, they turn it and the chance of arrest over to the sellers.

"I can go anywhere in this city and I don't worry about dope. I've never seen anyone selling it or using it. I don't know why. Maybe they respect me, maybe they're afraid of me because I'm crazy and they don't know what I'd do.

"I gave a picnic in Orr-Weathers Homes, where they say dope is the worst. I invited the brothers to come, and the old folks in the project too. After all, the brothers are their kids and grandkids. I had 2,000 weiners and barbecue sandwiches, snoots and all that. There was not one incident, not one. People sitting in chairs eating with their kids and grandkids, maybe some were dope dealers, I don't know, they all looked alike to me and they don't do it around me.

"One dope dealer come to me, told me he needed to be locked down for treatment. I couldn't help him. I gave him $20 1 had in my pocket. He said he needed help. I found out he was selling dope to kids. He got sent up, doing seven years now, He begged for help."

3. Jobs. McGaughy said he can't count the calls he gets every week from people looking for jobs. "I can't help them. I could run 'em around, I don't do that. I tell them I don't have anything and I think they respect me for telling the truth."

Factories need to be attracted. To get them we need good schools for the children, good police protection, decent city services, fire protection, tax incentives, a shopping district. We have a prime location, we should offer the incentives to get the plants and get more taxpayers.

4. Taxes. The key to bringing taxes into line is code enforcement. Property owners tear down old housing rather than repairing it, taking the buildings off the tax rolls. The city could make the owners repair or sell the buildings to someone who would repair them and offer them to the people. As the housing is removed, tax rates climb. Property owners also could be forced to keep their weeds cut, improve the appearance of the city. It would take a whole staff of lawyers, but in the long run, it would be worth it, he said.

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McGaughy says his home (above) once looked like his neighbor's (below)

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Tax rates are too high, but those who are "all right" get certificates of error, other ways to reduce their taxes; those who aren't "all right" pay too much.

5. Development. Exciting breakthroughs are coming because of location, riverboat gambling, the airport (Scott joint use), light rail, the Arch. People come from all over the world to see that Arch; "Look down the street, you look right through the center of it from here."

6. Housing. The federal housing officials and the East St. Louis Housing Authority seem to be working against the people of East St. Louis. The public housing is taken off the tax rolls, making the city poorer. There are houses boarded up all over town because the tenants are suing the Housing Authority and the buildings are tied up legally. The people sue because they pay forever and never get title to the houses (See related article from the Housing Authority). Other buildings that could have been turned into apartments or condominiums by HUD or some other federal agency have been left to deteriorate. The old Christian Welfare Hospital is an example; so was St. Teresa's Academy. "Some vacant public housing could be turned over to tenants for a few dollars and they could fix them up." Instead they stand vacant.

7. Population. The census will show a big loss, but thats because the Census Bureau is not doing its job. McGaughy did not send in his return, and in July no one had contacted him. "If they can't find me, how are they going to find the other brothers." Many of the housing units have more people staying in them that are authorized, and the residents are not about to turn in papers saying they are staying there. The blacks that have left East St. Louis and are paying rents of $500 to $600 a month in O'Fallon and Belleville are being urged to return.

8. Politics. Will is for Carl Officer's re-election as mayor, period. Officer is not a people person, he's a businessman, " but that's just his nature."

 

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