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CCHCC mourns brilliant and kind activist, professor and historian Kathy Oberdeck

June 23, 2022

Dear friends,

We have been graced by the steady, compassionate, and righteous presence of our friend and fellow activist, Kathryn Oberdeck.
Now, it is with heavy but grateful hearts, that Champaign County Health Care Consumers and our 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign is mourning a beloved activist and dear friend, Kathy Oberdeck.
Kathy passed away at home on Wednesday, June 8, 2022, after a fierce battle with a very aggressive cancer.
As in all other aspects of her life, Kathy faced her cancer and end of life with tremendous grace and strength, and with deep gratitude for the communities she had become such an integral part of, here in Champaign-Urbana, and across the country and the world.
Kathy Oberdeck’s involvement with CCHCC and the 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign began over six years ago, when Kathy reached out to me and asked if she could attend Campaign meetings. Our meetings at that time took place twice a month and they were at Mr. Pelmore’s home in the 5th & Hill Neighborhood. Kathy started attending meetings, and was immediately welcomed by the 5th & Hill resident leaders, who were pleased that someone at the University cared about their neighborhood and their struggle.
From the very beginning, Kathy impressed me and the resident leaders as a very intelligent, insightful, resourceful, and generous Historian, who demonstrated the researcher/practitioner model, and who was also a sensitive, patient, and effective teacher, helping me, our staff, and the neighborhood residents learn about the city and the history of the neighborhood and surrounding community.

(Please scroll to the bottom of this message to see information about Kathy’s service tomorrow – Friday, June 24, 2022, as well as a link to a letter of support that CCHCC provided for Kathy’s UIUC Distinguished Campus Award for Excellence in Public Engagement.)
The 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign, started in 2007, is an environmental justice campaign dedicated to protecting the health of the neighborhood residents and the rights of the community in relation to the former manufactured gas plant toxic site owned by Ameren, located at 5th and Hill Streets in Champaign. CCHCC is organizing this campaign in collaboration with neighborhood residents and former residents. The Campaign is currently focused on trying to make the IL EPA and Ameren expand the area of investigation in order to identify all toxic contamination that resulted from the operation of the former manufactured gas plant.
The 5th & Hill Neighborhood Rights Campaign has had many significant victories over the past 10+ years, under the leadership of Ebbie Cook (deceased in 2018), along with Maggie Cook, MD Pelmore (deceased in 2021), Eileen Oldham, Sandra Jackson, JB Lewis (deceased in 2021), and Jessie Clarette. Some of those victories include forcing Ameren to excavate and remediate the 5th & Hill property, compelling the City of Champaign to “cap” the toxic pipe that funneled tons of coal tar into the Boneyard Creek, filing a lawsuit against Ameren, and engaging the US EPA to investigate indoor vapor intrusion into residents’ homes (currently ongoing) as a result of the spread of toxic chemicals through the soil and groundwater in the neighborhood.

Kathy was a great person – I don’t mean that lightly – I mean a truly special person. I know that I am not alone in feeling that my life has been immeasurably enriched by Kathy’s friendship and by our collaborations in the pursuit of justice and the pursuit of building a historical base of knowledge that centers the lives of the people of the 5th & Hill neighborhood.
Kathy’s work with us has been heroic, but in a quiet way (which was Kathy’s way) – Kathy centered others and in doing so, she stepped to the side or to the back, that the light might shine on someone who has never thought of their life in a certain way. She was humble, and kind and warm, and funny and she appreciated the humor of others and the absurdity of certain situations. Honestly, she’d been like a sort of “sister” to me in this work.
Kathy is one of the very best people I have ever known. She was true, and kind, and generous, and she had such a heart for justice and for people. She was a beautiful person, inside and out. Kathy has been stalwart in her efforts for 5th & Hill, doing so much work to benefit the neighborhood and its residents. Her commitment to the 5th & Hill struggle was deep and true. It was not just an academic project for Kathy. How many meetings had we been in together, at Mr. Pelmore’s home, and then at Sandra Jackson’s home, and then at CCHCC, and then on the sidewalk in front of Maggie Cook’s home? And over so many years!
And Kathy’s “history harvest” project has elevated the lives and experiences of our 5th & Hill residents, and helped the residents see their place in the history of our community, from a point of rightful pride. Kathy also brought resident leaders like Ebbie and Maggie Cook, MD Pelmore, JB Lewis, Sandra Jackson, and Eileen Oldham to classes at the U of I. The residents absolutely loved these experiences and opportunities and were treated with great respect and love by the students. They often joked that the U of I should give them honorary degrees for all the teaching they got to do with Kathy.
We have shared many sadnesses and sorrows together, as well. We gathered together at Ebbie Cook’s hospital room when he died. I was so touched that Kathy rushed to get there after returning from a trip – she felt the need to be there and to pay her respects. I know that Kathy’s love for Ebbie and our other 5th & Hill leaders is true and deep, and their love for her is the same.
Kathy is beloved and respected by everyone who has worked with her in the 5th & Hill campaign – from the residents, to the students, to the community activists. She stayed true to the campaign and wasn’t in it just for academic purposes. She was a rare academician who figured out a way to use her university assets and work to help further the work and the lives of the 5th & Hill residents. Kathy is genuinely a beloved of all of us who have had the honor and privilege of working with her. Everyone knows that Kathy had a true heart for justice, and that her love for the residents is genuine and deep.
Kathy has made a huge difference. She has lived her life brilliantly and to great effect. She was a deeply principled person and that has always been clear. Personally, just having Kathy be involved with us and be a sounding board and bearing witness to the struggle and helping with this struggle – Kathy has given me a sense of confidence and energy to continue even when I have been at my weariest.

CCHCC will continue our fight for justice for the people of 5th & Hill, and we will honor Kathy in this struggle. The work she has done will not have been in vain. It is foundational and we will build upon it.
We wish to thank Kathy’s beautiful family – her husband William Munro, and her daughters Fiona and Cara – for sharing Kathy with us, and in doing so, having her become an integral part of our community that is fighting for justice.

Memorial Service for Kathy Oberdeck:
Below are the details for the memorial service for Kathy Oberdeck.
WHEN:  Friday, June 24, 2022
TIME: 11 a.m.
WHERE: St. Matthew Lutheran Church, 2200 S. Philo Road, Urbana
DETAILS:  Out of concern for those who are vulnerable, the family requests that attendees wear masks.
The family will be setting up a scholarship fund at the university in Kathy’s memory. In lieu of other expressions of sympathy, the family requests that any memorials be made to that fund when it is set up, to Sola Gratia Farm or to Champaign County Health Care Consumers.
Kathy Oberdeck’s Obituary.

UIUC Distinguished Campus Award for Excellence in Public Engagement
To read CCHCC’s letter in support of Kathy’s award, please click here.

As I reflect on Kathy Oberdeck’s life and work with CCHCC and 5th & Hill, I am filled with wonder and gratitude for her and for her family who shared their partner and mother with us – along with all the people who make up the 5th & Hill Campaign, and CCHCC. We are a collection of people who work to improve the health and lives of our fellow community members, and I can’t help but be filled with gratitude for the grace and sheer goodness of people like Kathy Oberdeck, and all who work for the greater good.
Rest in grace and in power, Kathy. You will never be forgotten.

Claudia Lennhoff
Executive Director
Champaign County Health Care Consumers