A trailblazing public servant, Barbara Leavitt Brown used her talents to inspire and educate her fellow citizens and her students, forging pathways for a new generation of women in politics.
Barbara Colleen Leavitt was born in Red Bud on October 30, 1954. She was the first daughter of James and Colleen Leavitt, who had deep roots in southern Illinois. On the Leavitt family farm in Ellis Grove, Barb grew up with two older brothers, John and Carl, and four younger sisters, Shelby, Joann, Karen, and Rebecca. All of the Leavitt kids were instilled with a strong work ethic from an early age. They helped out on the farm, where the family raised both crops and livestock, and worshiped at St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Shawneetown Trail.
Education was important in the Leavitt household, and Barb grew up to be a standout student with varied interests, nurturing a love for learning that would last for the rest of her life. She developed an interest in languages, studying French, and in music. As a teenager, she began playing the organ for services at St. Mary’s. She would continue to play there for several decades. At Sparta High School, she was a member of the National Honor Society and was named an Illinois State Scholar. After graduating in 1972, Barb enrolled at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, majoring in political science.
Barb would eventually earn three degrees from SIU, and she became an important member of the alumni community in the region, serving as both the president of Randolph County’s alumni association and a member of the SIU Foundation board of directors. In May 1985, Barb and her sisters were the subjects of a profile in the Southern Illinoisan, celebrating the number of SIU degrees—eight—that they had collectively earned. That spring, Barb graduated with her doctoral degree in political science, capping “the formal end of an education that started with first grade in fall 1959 and continued more or less without interruption through December 1984, when she completed her dissertation.” Education was definitely part of the family’s heritage, and the Leavitt sisters worked hard to support themselves financially during their college years, waitressing at a local truck stop and heading home on weekends to help out on the farm. The profile noted that “Mrs. Leavitt believes that the hard work gave each daughter a strong appreciation for the value of her education and a commitment to success.”
In August 1976, Barb married a fellow SIU student, Richard Brown. While she completed her graduate degrees, and he finished law school, they also expanded their family. Barb affectionately referred to their three sons, Jay, Matt, and Nate, as “those Brown boys.” The Browns worked hard to balance the demands of their jobs with the responsibilities of parenthood. Barb embarked on a career as a lecturer in the political science department at SIU in the fall of 1983, extending her passion for education to her students.
Barb’s political science studies also inspired her to take on a hands-on role in local political organizing. In the summer of 1976, she was named as an alternate delegate representing southern Illinois at the Democratic National Convention in New York. “This is my first experience with this,” she told a Southern Illinoisan reporter during the convention, “and I find very much of this exciting.” It was an understatement. She would ultimately attend eight more national conventions as a voting delegate.
In an era when women were beginning to be more visible in the political world, Barb was a trailblazer in Randolph County politics. At first, her political interests were primarily centered on recruitment and organization. Encouraged by mentors like SIU professor John Jackson, she became chair of the Randolph County Democratic Party in the early 1980s and worked to develop local candidates. In time, she would also serve as chair of the Randolph County Democratic Central Committee and vice chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois. Barb firmly believed that opportunity was the only serious barrier to increased political involvement for women in the region. “Mrs. Leavitt Brown does not see any organized opposition to women [candidates] in Southern Illinois and she believes women are beginning to seriously consider seeking high office,” the Southern reported in 1981. “Her own case may not be typical, she acknowledged, but, ‘I’ve found the party system here in Southern Illinois very open for myself.'”
As she climbed in the ranks of local politics, Barb made sure at every turn to extend a hand to help others join her. She was an active member of numerous organizations dedicated to opening more doors for women in the political arena. In 1986, she joined with Sheila Simon to found the Women’s Coalition for Southern Illinois, encouraging more female candidates to represent the region at all levels of government. The new coalition, Barb told reporters, was “meant to provide an alternative for women who haven’t been involved in politics” at a time when only two women were representing southern Illinois in the state legislature. “We have women with such a variety of talents and skills in our area that we thought [the new organization] would benefit our party and our candidates,” she explained.
Encouraging women to bring those talents and skills to government became one of Barb’s signature projects in the political field. She lent her own talents to organizations like Southwestern Illinois Democratic Women and Southern Illinois Democratic Women, and she was a co-founder of the Illinois Women’s Institute for Leadership. She often delivered keynotes and joined panel discussions on ways to enhance political opportunities for female candidates and on the perceived priorities of women at the ballot box. At John A. Logan College in 1988, she noted, “I think the perception is that there is an agenda out there that women are working toward, and it is somehow so different than what men are into. In reality, I think women voters have the same concerns that men do.”
The expertise Barb developed in southern Illinois politics attracted the attention of candidates at all levels of government, and she was called on to play notable roles in presidential campaigns for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. As Barb’s profile in state and national politics rose, she decided to seek political office herself. She ran twice for a seat in the Illinois State Senate, and in 2000, she was elected Randolph County Circuit Clerk. She served in the position for more than a decade. Staying in Randolph County had been a priority for the Browns, who wanted to raise their three sons near family. All three followed in their parents’ footsteps, attending college at SIU in Carbondale.
Barb’s career as an educator at SIU, which lasted until 2000, became one of the defining achievements of her life. She was a mentor and advocate for countless students who learned to become more engaged citizens in her political science classes. Along with writing textbooks and teaching traditional courses, she found other creative ways to spark her students’ interest in the political process. These educational opportunities included programs like Model Illinois Government, which allowed students the chance to experience first-hand what it would be like to work as legislators and jurists in Springfield. “It’s the one opportunity students get to take the lessons they learn from books and the classroom and apply them,” Barb explained. “Being in the State Capitol gives a great aura to the experience.”
Teaching summer classes also offered Barb unique chances to introduce students to historical and political educational moments. For many years, she led the annual Independence Day celebrations at the Liberty Bell of the West Shrine on Kaskaskia Island. Barb was a proud organizing member of the local chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and she was dedicated to supporting and honoring veterans. She often brought international students and scholars from SIU to join in the celebration at Kaskaskia, offering them a rare glimpse of Randolph County’s unique historical significance.
Barb used her skills and connections to support the people of Randolph County throughout her lifetime. She served on the board of trustees at Chester Public Library, was a member of the local Rotary International Club, and was a founding member of Chester’s 4-H Club. She was a longtime supporter of the American Cancer Society, helping to establish Randolph County’s Relay for Life program.
At the end of her life, Barb persevered through a lengthy course of treatment for cancer. She passed away on May 5, 2016, in Chester. In the years since her passing, her family and friends have kept her spirit of service alive through programs like the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute’s Barb Brown Springfield Internship, which provides a paid internship in Springfield for an SIU student working in the fields of public policy, public service, or government, and the Barb Brown Memorial Endowment, which has provided scholarships at SIU for female students from high schools in southern Illinois.
Senator Dick Durbin, a longtime colleague and friend, called her “a trailblazer, a devoted mother, an inspirational professor and a tireless public servant.” Barb Brown’s legacy of service and dedication to the people of Randolph County challenges us all to become more involved with work in our communities, sharing our gifts and talents to inspire those around us to think bigger and reach higher.
Barbara Leavitt Brown was inducted into The Randolph Society in 2022.