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76 Years After Her Nobel Prize, A Tollway for Jane Addams

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I find it charming that a tollway is named for Jane Addams. It's been almost a year since the first American woman to win a Nobel Peace prize was honored with the 76-mile Jane Addams Memorial Tollway. I still get a sassy jolt when I hear her name on the Chicago area traffic reports.

I find it sensible that an Illinois Tollway is named for Jane Addams because women drive, too. I check online to see where traffic jams are so I can avoid them. If the Jane Addams is particularly slow when I need to move along, Jane gets left behind. Ronald Reagan and John Kennedy and Adlai Stephenson (other Chicago-area named highways) certainly cannot be counted on for green light perfection either.

It is joyful to know that the Illinois Legislature wanted to honor the state's native daughter and the Illinois Tollway Board agreed and officially renamed the stretch of I-90 from the Tri-State Tollway to Rockton for her. Jane Addams attended Rockford College in the region and the road connects drivers with Chicago where she founded Hull House, an early and famous settlement house.

In the Addams years, five transcontinental railroads were built and she fought to clean up garbage from the streets of Chicago. Tollways did not exist but she was such an advocate for the useful, she'd surely commiserate with the commuters of the 21st Century.

Addams was a reformer who may well have preferred freeways to tollways if she had lived to see either built, but reformers who are remembered (as she is) haunt us with their history and remind us that simple actions matter.

Dozens of books have been written about the Hull House founder. She herself wrote volumes of progressive books and essays. Her papers are still being mined and interpreted, according to biographer Gioia Diliberto, author of A Useful Woman, The Early Life of Jane Addams who wrote: ". . . a portrait emerges of a fiercely determined, ambitious, complicated woman - one who, for all her flaws, was unfailingly dedicated to improving American life."

At Rockford College, where Addams studied, heavy emphasis is placed upon preparing students for fulfilling lives, careers, and participation in a modern and changing global society through the Jane Addams Center for Civic Engagement.

Addams would have appreciated that five Downstate Dongola middle school students launched an effort to get an Illinois holiday named for her, too. They were in high school on the first Jane Addams Day in Illinois on Dec. 10, 2007. It was celebrated just three months after the designation of Jane Addams Tollway. No woman in the state had been honored with a holiday or toll road before.

In the Illinois Legislature, the joint resolution to create the tollway as an Addams memorial was introduced by two women, Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, and Sen. Mattie Hunter, D-Chicago.

Diliberto tells us that Addams was "the most famous woman in America" by the time she won the 1931 Nobel Peace prize. Do the math: it took more than 75 years before either tollway or holiday memorialized Addams, a civic celebrity.

Process and patience were both lessons left by Addams. Throw in a bit of humility, too, to get the full picture.

Parts of the Jane Addams went almost directly into repairs before her Jane Addams Memorial Tollway signs were installed to anchor the start and finish on the designated leg of roadway. Women of a certain age sympathize with the need for maintenance.

Pavement repair work? I get it. If that outer layer isn't scorched in the summer sun, it's pocked by some irregular (road) rash.

Shoulder work? No surprise. Women often lift heavy weights (from moving furniture and exercising to lifting grandchildren and textbooks). In 1959, the first full year after that stretch of the tollway opened, the daily vehicle average was 10,937. In 2006, the last full year before the roadway wore the Addams name, it carried 301,750 vehicles a day.

Striping? Keep those lines vertical, I pray, for Jane's sake. It also was in for a short section of rebuilding and widening. What woman among us cannot relate?

Media traffic reporters were quick to adopt and use the full Jane Addams name in talking about the tollway, according to an Illinois Tollway spokesperson. The fact that it took decades to celebrate a social justice icon this way will likely be lost eventually in the institutionalization of the place where people commute.

Those who want to know more about her work have the choice of many books and articles. One of the most recent is called Citizen .

Citizen Jane Addams, take us home.