PEORIA — Steve Sonnemaker, the longtime Peoria County clerk and the driving force behind the war memorials on Courthouse Plaza, has died at age 66.
"He was truly a non-uniformed American hero," said Hal Fritz, a member of the committees behind the memorials and a recipient of the Medal of Honor. "Steve always said, 'I didn't serve, but I feel that it's my obligation to fulfill this responsibility to the best of my ability,' and he did so with great honor and in a humble manner. It was not 'look at me.' He took a team approach to make this happen for the people of Peoria County, the state of Illinois and the nation so they could understand the roles of veterans.
"He was a fantastic American," Fritz said.
Sonnemaker is the third official from Peoria County to die in the past week. He was hospitalized for the past few days due to an undisclosed illness, and Peoria County Coroner Jamie Harwood said he died at 6:43 p.m. Friday. Just a day before, State's Attorney Jerry Brady died. And earlier in the week, County Board member Greg Adamson died.
Sonnemaker began his 38-year career with Peoria County as a County Board member from 1980-1984. Sonnemaker then continued to serve in elected office as the county's auditor from 1984-2006 and as county clerk since 2006.
Friends of the man whom many referred to as a "pillar" of the courthouse gathered at the hospital to be by his side. And as news filtered out, the accolades poured in.
"He was just a genuine guy. I never heard him say a bad word about anyone. He was a good person and a genuine and kind person," said Jimmy Spears, the owner of Jimmy's Bar in West Peoria and a longtime friend. "It's just a terrible loss to Peoria."
Circuit Judge Kevin Lyons, another longtime friend of Sonnemaker, added that he was a guy who managed to put people at ease. His easygoing drawl and his gentle nature made people naturally seek him out.
"Steve was so very good at putting a soft and sincere touch on issues and people that I needed to view in a different light. He would be patient where I would be too quick to judge or complain. He was a simple and honest public servant his whole adult life and always saw the world as pleasant and peaceful. We are a sad and grief-stricken courthouse this week," Lyons said.
Harwood agreed, adding that Sonnemaker was a mentor to him.
"There is no orientation on how to be an elected official, but Steve made sure I was given all of the information I needed to be successful in what I was doing. Steve would often ask me in conversation, 'Harwood, are you sure you really want to say that?' ... giving me pause to reconsider how I delivered a particular message," he said. "There were many times I wasn’t quite sure Steve knew how to interpret my sense of humor, which always made me laugh. Steve not only had a great care for me, but he also showed great care for the operations of my office and for my staff."
Gabe McLeod, one of his top deputies in the county clerk's office, summed up Sonnemaker in one word — "helper."
"He was always looking to help people. That's what drove him. the man, everyday. He had a driving desire to serve and to help. He chose to serve and to live the life of a public servant, but really, that life chose him," he said.
Phil Salzer, a Peoria County Board member and another longtime friend, remembers when Sonnemaker hired him as a part-time employee back in the 1980s. He was a terrific boss, Salzer said, and showed then, as he did years later, the ability to listen and to guide others.
"He's the type of a person whom you would want as a friend. He was a guy that you could trust. That's one of the biggest things — that you could trust," he said.
And people sought Sonnemaker out for that reason, said Circuit Judge Jodi Hoos, who had Sonnemaker work on her campaign when she ran for judge.
One could always find Sonnemaker walking through the halls of the courthouse. He'd stop in an office, sit down and talk with people. He was a friend to all. A longtime smoker, he was often seen outside walking up and down the sidewalk, always greeting people and offering to help if they needed it.
And he was also the target of practical jokes, often by his close friend Circuit Clerk Bobby Spears. An ongoing joke between the two men, whose offices were on opposite sides of the building, was that Steve would walk to see Spears, but that wasn't reciprocated. Spears found a unique way to challenge that assertion. He'd go into the office, eat some of the candies that Sonnemaker had, and then leave the wrappers lying around.
"He'd go crazy and say, 'Oh, Bobby, you left those candy wrappers on my desk," said Spears with a laugh.
He then recalled how he had sent a lot of old furniture that was meant to be thrown out back up to the clerk's office as a practical joke. The laughs came hard and fast when those two would hold court anywhere in the courthouse.
But then Spears got serious and his voice started to crack.
"He was as honest as they came. And he was a good person," he said, beginning to choke up.
One of Sonnemaker's passions was veterans.
Many have said the memorials for the veterans of World Wars I and II as well as the recent addition that honors all who served from Korea on wouldn't have happened without Sonnemaker. He tirelessly campaigned for the memorials, nudged people into donating, attended hundreds of meetings over the years and personally campaigned for the memorials.
"That memorial would not be in existence without Steve Sonnemaker. It wouldn't. He was the one who pretty much ran the committee, put it together, got the fundraising. He did everything but build it," Hoos said.
Sonnemaker served on the board of American Gold Star Families, which honors those who have lost a loved one in military service. Patti Smith, the group's founder and another longtime advocate for veterans, said he cared deeply about the families.
"I was awestruck when I watched Steve pull into the parking lot for our board meeting with oxygen tubes on his face. He didn’t attend the meeting but came to deliver a check for our upcoming 5K Run for Fallen Heroes. That was the last time I saw him. Steve had a very caring heart for others, and our Gold Star Families will miss him," Smith said.
Sonnemaker served as president of the Illinois Association of County Auditors from 1987-1992, president of the Illinois Association of County Officials from 1998-1999 and executive trustee for the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund from 1996-2006.
“Steve embodied the values of compassion, humility and generosity,” stated county clerk’s office chief deputy Mike Deluhery. “He will be greatly missed by those whose lives he touched and the community to which he was dedicated.”
Andy Kravetz can be reached at 686-3283 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @andykravetz.