Throughout a lifetime of service to her community and her country, Dorothy Rabe Ivanuck used her talent for organization and management to improve the lives of the elderly, the impoverished, and the downtrodden of Randolph County.
Dorothy Ruth Rabe, the second child and only daughter of Charles Henry Rabe and his wife, Emma Castens Rabe, was born in Steeleville in March 1923. Dorothy was the granddaughter of four German immigrants, all of whom had traveled to America in the middle of the nineteenth century in search of a better life. Like so many other German settlers in Randolph County, both of Dorothy’s grandfathers were farmers, a grueling job that required stamina, persistence, and a fair amount of good fortune for success. After working as a hand on his parents’ farm during his teenage years, Charles Rabe ultimately chose a different path for himself and his family. Charles and Emma settled in town in Steeleville, where he worked as a manager and a salesman in a general store.
Both Dorothy and her elder brother, Charles Jr., were educated in Steeleville’s schools and worshiped with their parents at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. In the early 1940s, Dorothy completed three years at Steeleville High School; because Steeleville did not offer a fourth year for her class, she headed to Sparta to earn her high school diploma. After graduation, she headed to the city, attending business school in St. Louis. The skills that would become such a central part of her life’s work – the ability to lead, to organize, and to manage – were honed during her time in college.
As Dorothy continued her studies, however, the nation’s attention was drawn to growing conflicts abroad. The country entered World War II in December 1941, and by the spring of 1943, Dorothy had decided that she wanted to serve her country during the war. After enlisting in the navy in March 1943, Dorothy was assigned to a newly-authorized branch of the service: the United States Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. The reserve had been formed as a way to free up male Marines for combat roles, allowing women to take on the necessary jobs of running the branch on the home front, including clerical work, recruitment, and other professional roles. The reserve’s slogan – “Free a Marine to Fight” – emphasized the crucial support work taken on by the women who enlisted.
The early recruitment for the women’s reserve was so successful that many were put to work right away, delaying their training. Dorothy was one of these enlisted women. The newly-minted Private Rabe was quickly placed on duty at the Marine Officer Procurement Office in St. Louis. By July, however, she had packed her bags and headed south for training at Camp Lejeune, the reserve’s central facility in Jacksonville, North Carolina. There, Dorothy participated in drills and other physical training exercises and learned about military history and law, and defense strategy. She also saw the firepower of the Marine Corps in action, watching demonstrations of various weapons being used on the battlefield – but, as a member of the women’s reserve, she wouldn’t have been trained to operate them herself.
Dorothy was assigned to Company B, Women’s Reserve Battalion, and she quickly began serving as a clerk to her 1st Sergeant Officer. Her proficiency as a clerical worker proved to be an asset during her time in the Marine Corps. By October 1943, she was working as a typist with an air engineering squadron based out of the USMC Air Station in Cherry Point, North Carolina. Later the same month, Dorothy was sent back to the procurement office in St. Louis. In 1944, she also spent time working in procurement district offices in Iowa, both in Des Moines and Sioux City.
As the war raged on in Europe and the Pacific, Dorothy thrived in her role with the Marines. By the autumn of 1944, she was working in the Marine Barracks at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., where she served as a clerk for the commanding officer. She remained in Washington for the rest of the war, and by January 1945, she was promoted to the rank of corporal. Now an officer, Dorothy continued to do clerical work for her commanding officer. Her military records also note that she was assigned for at least one short period to work at the new United States Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, where so many sailors and marines were being treated that temporary buildings had to be constructed.
Dorothy was discharged from military service in September 1945, two weeks after the end of the war in the Pacific. She remained in the reserves for several years afterward. But with the end of the war, a new chapter in Dorothy’s life was beginning. In the summer of 1950, her parents published a notice in the Southern Illinoisan announcing her engagement to Marion Arthur Ivanuck, a dentist who had also served in the war. Born to Polish-American parents in Royalton, Marion was two years older than Dorothy. Just like her elder brother, Charles, Marion had earned a bachelor’s degree from the St. Louis College of Pharmacy; afterward, he completed his dental degree from the School of Dentistry at Washington University in St. Louis. During the war, Marion had served as an officer in the Army Dental Corps.
Captain Ivanuck and Corporal Rabe were married at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Steeleville on September 16, 1950, in front of a gathering of a hundred family members and friends. The newlyweds returned to St. Louis, where Marion was stationed with the Dental Corps. As she had in the Marines, Dorothy focused on clerical work, finding a job with an aerial map company in St. Louis. The couple welcomed their first child, Suzanne Lynette Ivanuck, nine months after their wedding. Plans to expand their family had to be put on hold, however; Marion’s service with the Dental Corps continued through the Korean War. Their second daughter, Leslie Colette Ivanuck, was born in June 1957, six years after her elder sister.
In the summer of 1952, the Ivanucks made the decision to settle in Dorothy’s hometown. The Southern Illinoisan announced that Marion would be taking over the dental practice of the late Dr. Matthew Sheldon, who had passed away suddenly in Steeleville earlier that year. At first, Marion practiced in Steeleville only on the weekends while completing his military obligations during the week, but as soon as he was discharged from the army, he began working there full time. The couple quickly became involved in the community; Marion ran for a spot on the Steeleville school board, while Dorothy was installed as historian of the Steeleville American Legion Women’s Auxiliary unit. The move also allowed them to spend precious final years with Dorothy’s father, who died in Steeleville in November 1955.
As she raised her young family, Dorothy continued to pursue a busy, full life, working outside the home and participating in various community organizations. She was an active member of the Chester Women’s Club, especially the organization’s gardening group, serving in various executive roles. She also took a job as a clerk stenographer at Menard Penitentiary in Chester. Meanwhile, as Marion’s dental practice became established, he ran a successful campaign for mayor in Steeleville, a post he would hold for more than a decade. In 1965, while serving as mayor, Marion joined a commission working to form a new organization dedicated to establishing antipoverty programs in Randolph County.
The new agency, the Western Egyptian Economic Opportunity Council, was part of a larger, nationwide effort to combat problems caused by poverty in America. In 1964, Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act, which authorized the creation of Community Action Agencies throughout the country. These groups, part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty initiative, were tasked with providing low-income Americans with access to job training, education, small loans and business incentives, and other avenues to enhance their quality of life. In his State of the Union Address in January 1964, Johnson declared, “Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support. But this attack, to be effective, must also be organized at the State and local level. For the war against poverty will not be won here in Washington. It must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House. Very often, a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty but to cure it – and above all, to prevent it.” With programs aimed to relieve the stresses of poverty for people of all ages – children, adults, and the elderly – the ambitious initiative was rolled out in local governments across the nation.
The new Western Egyptian organization aimed to bring these new opportunities to the people of Randolph, Perry, and Monroe counties. Marion helped to secure headquarters for the new organization in Steeleville, but in 1966, he resigned from the council’s board of directors. His resignation paved the way for Dorothy to become the first executive director of Western Egyptian in May 1966. Under a headline trumpeting “Woman Heads Poverty War,” the Southern Illinoisan reported, “Mrs. M.A. Ivanuck of Steeleville will begin work today as the executive director of the Western Egyptian Economic Opportunity Council. The director’s office will be in the Steeleville City Hall. Mrs. Ivanuck will direct antipoverty projects for Randolph, Perry and Monroe counties. She was appointed to the post by the board of directors of the council.” All of Dorothy’s experience directing and organizing resources in the Marine Corps during World War II were now focused on a new war – this time, a war on the scourge of poverty at home.
Western Egyptian hit the ground running with its first initiative: Head Start, a program providing Early Childhood Education services to children from low-income families. By the summer of 1967, more than two hundred children were being served by the council’s Head Start Program, with centers in Randolph County located in Chester, Red Bud, Evansville, Sparta, Steeleville, Tilden, and Coulterville, as well as additional sites in Monroe and Perry counties. Transportation was provided to bring the children to and from the Head Start centers. Medical and dental care was also available for children who needed it, and each child was given a morning snack and a hot meal at lunchtime. The council was also able to send staff members from the Randolph County program to a week-long child development seminar at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, where they learned more about the program’s goals of increasing the social and intellectual levels of pre-kindergarten children living in poverty.
The council’s early offerings were extensive, including a family planning program and a job-training scheme, Operation Mainstream. The council also quickly set up a summer Neighborhood Youth Corps for the area. The corps was one of the work-training initiatives available for local agencies, offering opportunities for young people to gain on-the-job experience. All 80 positions available were quickly filled. Teams from the new Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program, the domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps, were also soon on the ground in the tri-county area. One couple working for VISTA, Bill and Bonnie Eberle, were located in Sparta, where they started a tutoring program for elementary-school children. The young couple was instrumental in the transformation of the former Vernon School building into a community center in Sparta. Although the Sparta Neighborhood Center was troubled at times during the late 1960s and 1970s by disagreements over staffing and administration, the center afforded the citizens of Sparta access to a clothing store and a homemakers’ club, as well as a day care program and various classes, including home economics, money management, and public speaking courses.
Dorothy’s work as the council’s executive director included administering the organization’s various programs, as well as securing funding and grants for continued and expanded services. Finding diverse sources of funding for programs was key, especially when the federal government began to change the way local agencies received money. Dorothy’s connections helped her to keep Western Egyptian going, even when other agencies were forced to close due to lack of resources. For example, she worked with the office of Congressman Ken Gray to secure a grant for emergency food and medical assistance for the area, money that was earmarked specifically for the aid of persons suffering from malnutrition. Under Dorothy’s direction, the council also worked with the Illinois Law Enforcement Commission, partnering with them to fund a youth counseling program.
Remarkably, Dorothy also found time to serve her community in additional ways. She was appointed to a position on the governing board of the Illinois Association of Community Action Agencies in the late 1960s, and in 1972, she ran (unsuccessfully) for a spot on Steeleville’s school board. In the early 1980s, she was appointed by Governor Thompson as a member of the Advisory Council to the Illinois Office of Voluntary Citizen Participation. She was also an early, passionate advocate for the establishment of a health department in Randolph County. The Southern Illinoisan noted that Dorothy “led the fight in favor of a public health department in the 1965 referendum.” When the introduction of Medicare required the county to establish a Board of Health in 1966, Dorothy became the board’s secretary. In 1973, as county officials debated the need for additional public health services, Dorothy was staunchly in favor of expanding the medical services provided to the community (including Western Egyptian initiatives like Head Start and the family planning program) by establishing a dedicated health department. By the end of the 1970s, the Randolph County Health Department had greatly expanded the services it offered to the public, with the aim of enhancing the quality of life of the county’s citizens.
Personally, the 1970s brought significant challenges to Dorothy’s life. Her mother, Emma Castens Rabe, died in May 1970, only a few months before the wedding of Dorothy’s daughter, Suzanne. In April 1973, the family grieved when Suzanne’s young husband, Jeffrey Carter, died in a car crash. And in 1976, the Ivanucks were stunned when their 19-year-old daughter, Leslie, died suddenly while studying at Maryville College in St. Louis. Even while suffering through personal tragedies, Dorothy continued to press on at Western Egyptian to alleviate the suffering of others in her community. For example, the council focused several efforts in the 1970s on improving the lives of the senior citizens of the area. In 1974, the Retired Senior Volunteers Program aimed to capitalize on the talents of the retirees in the community. Dorothy also noted that volunteering would provide important personal and social benefits to the men and women who joined the program: “This will give senior citizens a chance to get out of their homes and to break their normal routine.”
Four years later, the Southern Illinoisan produced a glowing profile of one of Western Egyptian’s most successful programs: their Senior Nutrition Sites. Opened in 1976, the Steeleville site was particularly thriving, and additional sites had been opened in Chester and Sparta. “The wholesome meals the site makes available to the town’s senior citizens,” the newspaper reported from Steeleville, “are supplemented by large doses of activity, companionship and good times.” What had begun as a chance for senior citizens to share a meal had “blossomed into a full-scale community center,” with local seniors staying on after lunch, “busy playing cards or shuffleboard, making quilts, working on other craft projects, practicing for the site’s traveling kitchen band or even fixing up the site itself.” Meals were provided for a suggested donation of 75 cents, though no one was turned away hungry. The paper found that the food was surprisingly good, but it was the social benefit provided by the site that was most impressive: “Retired folks, who might otherwise be sitting at home, lonesome, have found a place to keep active, to make new friends and to keep in touch with old ones.”
During Dorothy’s long tenure as executive director, Western Egyptian established program after program to improve the lives of the people in Randolph County and the surrounding areas. Weatherization programs, including a partnership with Jackson County, helped to make homes more energy efficient. Food pantries and emergency voucher programs worked to feed the hungry. Legal clinics offered services to those who couldn’t afford representation. Energy bill relief assistance programs kept citizens cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Home rehabilitation services offered opportunities to fix and maintain residences. Specialized volunteer training enabled retirees to assist others in preparing their tax returns. Scholarships gave promising students the ability to continue their education. Collection drives even provided children with toys for Christmas. And in 1993, as one of the worst floods in history ravaged Randolph and Monroe counties, Western Egyptian secured grant money to meet both immediate, live-saving needs and long-term recovery requirements for those who had lost everything to the rising river.
In 1989, as Western Egyptian celebrated its 25th anniversary, Dorothy spoke to the Southern Illinoisan about her experience working for the council. “We help all ages — from the very, very young to the very, very old,” she emphasized. “I’ve been the only executive director they’ve had. I’ve seen a lot of changes and a lot of growth.” Her tenure continued for another decade, culminating with her retirement in 2001. During the decades she spent at Western Egyptian’s helm, Dorothy had secured millions of federal and state dollars for the people of Randolph, Monroe, and Perry counties, continually seeking new ways to improve their lives – and, in return, improve entire communities. She had devoted her working life to, as one of her many awards noted, “helping people help themselves” for almost forty years.
In 2000, Marion and Dorothy celebrated their golden wedding anniversary, marking the occasion twice – first with a Mediterranean cruise, and then with a small dinner in Steeleville for family and friends. After her retirement, the couple had more leisure time to pursue some of their favorite hobbies at their home on Mulberry Street, including tending to their garden. Their daughter, Suzy, moved back to Steeleville to help care for them in their twilight years. In October 2004, at the age of 81, Dorothy died. Marion followed almost exactly a year later, shortly after the Randolph County Board of Commissioners renamed the local bi-county health department building in his honor.
Dorothy received numerous honors and accolades for her work during her lifetime. Her greatest tribute, however, is surely the continued existence of the Western Egyptian Economic Opportunity Council itself, which is still working to benefit the people of the area more than 50 years after it was originally founded. The Head Start Centers and Senior Nutrition Sites which seemed so experimental decades ago are now a part of the fabric of the community. Using the skills she learned while serving her nation during the war, Dorothy shaped a legacy that is carried on today in each child who blossomed thanks to early education, in each homeowner kept safe from the heat and the cold, in each college student able to explore his or her promise and talent, in each senior citizen who found purpose and companionship during retirement, and in each young adult who has discovered the dignity of gainful employment. Ultimately, her efforts built a better life for us all – because improving the life and future of any member of a community helps the entire community grow and thrive.
Dorothy Rabe Ivanuck was inducted into The Randolph Society in 2019.