Utica mayor Fred Esmond, who piloted the village through floods and the 2004 tornado, died Wednesday after a long battle with cancer. He was 63.
Esmond had been reelected in April to his fourth term, beating current village trustee Jim Schrader, and leaves a nearly full term unexpired. The village board meets Oct. 9 and could appoint an interim mayor at that time.
Schrader had only praise for his former opponent.
“The Fred Esmond I knew was the best kind of person you could ever hope to meet,” Schrader said. “He blended a calm, easy demeanor with a sharp business sense and a vision for our town’s future that couldn’t have been pulled off by anyone else.
“I considered him a mentor and will miss him very much.”
Esmond will be most remembered for steering Utica through multiple catastrophes, led by the 2004 tornado that claimed 10 lives, as well as multiple floods of both Clark’s Run and the Illinois River.
Under Esmond’s watch, Utica constructed a replacement village hall, erected a memorial plaza to tornado victims, sought millions in state and federal relief funds and launched the realignment of Route 178.
“If I had to say two words, I would say Fred was simply brilliant,” said village engineer Kevin Heitz. “He just had a way of getting the right people involved at the opportune time to get things accomplished.”
Esmond first was elected village president in 2001 following predecessor Joe Carey’s decision to run for circuit clerk. His first few years were notable for residential and commercial growth, including annexing Grand Bear Lodge into the village limits in spring 2004.
Within weeks, Esmond would face the greatest test of his mayoral career. A tornado cut through Granville and Utica on April 20, 2004, destroying the village offices, dozens of homes and killing eight in the collapse of the Milestone Restaurant and Lounge. (Two more deaths would be retroactively blamed on the storm.)
“He handled it very calmly, very matter-of-factly,” recalled former fire chief Dave Edgcomb, who joined Esmond in a overseeing a massive rescue and recovery that attracted national media attention.
“He kept people of the village informed and kept their best interests in mind,” Edgcomb said. “He’s going to be sorely missed by the residents of Utica and the neighboring communities.”
Just days into the recovery, Esmond and village trustees made the farsighted decision to realign Route 178 from downtown Mill Street, funneling heavy trucks through a north-south bypass completed in summer 2012.
Grief-stricken villagers were largely incensed at the realignment proposal and the initial discussions were loud and emotional. Esmond took the opposition in stride and never wavered in his decisive but sympathetic approach to the realignment.
“I’ve been around a lot of government officials at all different levels, and Fred had the most unique way of handling crowds,” village attorney Herb Klein remembered. “His demeanor was excellent. He just had a calming influence on everyone. Fred treated everyone with the same level of respect whether they agreed with him or not.
“He was a great guy.”
The tornado and ensuing reconstruction were hardly Esmond’s only crises. The Illinois River flooded Utica south of downtown twice in the past five years, damaging the village hall earlier this year.
“There’s probably not any other mayor in the United States that had to go through as much as he went through during his tenure,” Heitz said.
“Utica not only lost a great mayor, but I lost a best friend,” he said. “He was simply a great man who always found a way to get things done,” Heitz said, adding that Esmond always thought about the good of the region, not just Utica. “He would tell you time and time again, it’s not about Utica, it’s not about La Salle-Peru; it’s about the whole Illinois Valley area.”
Toward the end of his tenure, Esmond was gravely ill. He quietly underwent procedures and an invasive throat surgery — he could barely whisper at his final village board meeting — but remained active throughout his illness. Klein could recall a single village board meeting that Esmond had missed due to illness.
Esmond publicly acknowledged his cancer at the September board meeting, during which appreciative villagers gave Mill Street the honorary name, “Fred Esmond Avenue” — Mill Street officially retains its name — and designated Sept. 21 “Fred Esmond Day.” La Salle County circuit clerk Andy Skoog, a former trustee, praised Esmond as “one of the greatest mayors of all time” and “by far the best (Utica has) ever had.”
Esmond was visibly moved but unable to audibly express his thanks. He scrawled some notes on a yellow pad as he shook hands with well-wishers and showed the surgical scars on his neck.
Though he was hospitalized days ago, village officials said his passing came as a shock.
“He was such a wonderful person and he has such a long legacy,” said village clerk Laurie Gbur. “We were all devastated by this news.”
Funeral arrangements for Esmond are pending in Burgess Funeral Home, Utica.
Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Craig Sterrett can be reached at (815) 220-6935 or email@example.com.