Joanne Trapani made state history in 1997 when she became the first lesbian elected to the Oak Park village board and again, four years later, when she was elected village president. But friends remember her best as someone who worked determinedly to make the world a better place.

“If Joanne saw something that she thought would make things better for people, she just made it happen,” said longtime friend Colette Lueck, herself a former Oak Park trustee.

At 71 years old, Trapani died Nov. 29 from cancer. Not a native Oak Parker but a native New Yorker, Trapani moved to the Chicago area in 1976 and quickly established herself among the groups fighting for the promotion of LGBT rights, including the Oak Park Area Lesbian and Gay Association (OPALGA) and the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Taskforce, which she co-chaired. 

“She was a dynamo. She was a ton of energy,” said Lueck who got to know Trapani through OPALGA, as well as from serving on the Plan Commission during Trapani’s term as president.

As a friend, activist and elected official, Trapani left an indelible mark on the village of Oak Park and state of Illinois. She contributed to the passage of not only the Oak Park Human Rights Ordinance but the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance as well as the Illinois Human Rights Amendment. Trapani was inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame in 1993.   

“She could be delightful, and she could be abrasive, especially if you didn’t agree with her,” said Lueck.

Trapani had a knack for identifying special qualities in people, forging relationships and encouraging others to contribute their skills to the greater good of the community. 

One of Lueck’s favorite memories of Trapani is the fundraiser she hosted in 1996 for Barack Obama, a relatively unknown politician running for Illinois Senate. Lueck met Obama, who would go on to become a two-term U.S. president, in Trapani’s backyard.

Longtime friend Ray Johnson, whom Trapani met through OPALGA, described her as “generous, fun, kind” with a penchant for speaking with “brutal honesty.”

“She was the type of individual who said what was on her mind and said it directly and distinctly,” said Johnson, a former Oak Park trustee. “That didn’t always go over well with some people.”

Johnson credits Trapani with inspiring him to take on a more active role within the community through village government, as a member of the Community Development and Plan Commissions. He went on to become a three-term village trustee and served at least two years on the board with Trapani as village president.

Looking back on Trapani’s time as village president, Johnson believes the community was hard on her.

“I definitely think women who are strong leaders face the most difficult misperceptions from people,” said Johnson. “I do think that there were some moments where people were unduly harsh with Joanne.”

People were particularly hard on Trapani when it came to economic development, according to Johnson, including the Whiteco building on Harlem Avenue just north of Lake Street, which was one of Trapani’s big accomplishments as president. 

“When you look at the vitality of downtown Oak Park that was built upon that project, you can’t help but say that Oak Park has been transformed in many good ways,” said Johnson.

While they never lost touch, Johnson does regret not expressing to Trapani the impact her friendship has had on his life.

“I wish there was a time to share with her what she meant to me.”

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