Celebrating Peoria’s (her)story

Peoria Councilwoman Vicki Hunt

By Vicki Hunt

It’s easy for us to celebrate women who have shaped our national history, such as Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy, Maya Angelo, and so many other women who have led the way in politics, education, literature and government.

The recent passing of Peoria pioneer, Priscilla Cook, at the age of 96, caused me to reflect on the many women who have shaped Peoria’s history.  In 1914, a group of farmers’ wives got together to “borrow” money from their husbands to construct the first (and current) Woman’s Club building.  They promised to pay the money back, and they did so through selling the quilts they made, the eggs their chickens laid, and by holding community bake sales. Their legacy lives on today as the club is still active in philanthropic endeavors.

In this young town, Toni Lebario proved that women can own and operate a business in an era when only men were considered capable of doing so. She opened Toni’s, a beauty shop on 83rd Avenue in Old Town and became Peoria’s first Hispanic Woman business owner. Velma Kosier also helped her husband, Conley, open and operate Peoria’s True Value Hardware store, raising her children to appreciate hard work while laboring alongside their mother in the business. That family business just closed after a family legacy of more than 80 years.

Political activism seems to have run deep in Peoria women. Aurora “Chubby” Osuna was a neighborhood activist before the term became popular. She worked hard to get under-served populations registered to vote. She translated testimony from Spanish to English for culprits coming before Judge Puckett. An energetic and interesting woman, she was so patriotic that she had her birthday officially changed to Flag Day.  She was known as the Mexican Rosie the Riveter.

One can hardly write about Peoria women without remembering Arlene Robertson who taught faithfully in the Peoria schools her entire adult life. She influenced many kids to be better than they thought they could be with her kindness and generosity.

And who can forget Dolly Sanchez? Dolly worked in the CAP office, helping migrants get Social Security cards, as well as translating documents for the many who did not speak English. She wanted to make sure every child had a happy Easter, so began hiding eggs in her own yard and inviting children from the migrant camps, as well as those from her neighborhood to come and find them. The party soon outgrew her yard and so she moved it to the park.  Today we honor her caring and generosity by holding a free city-wide Easter Egg Hunt.

Amelia Powers, now 92, still lives in this city she loved.  She was a Peoria School nurse who worked round the clock to make sure less fortunate in the town had good medical care. She made home visits and visits to the work camps of the migrants to make sure they had their inoculations. She looked out for the children while parents worked in the fields.

Priscilla Munden Cook was born into a farm family and married a farmer who eventually served as mayor. She definitely had “Peoria dirt” under her fingernails. Priscilla had a passion for, well … everything. Active in the historic Presbyterian Church in Old Town,  she worked to get it on the National Registry of Historic Places.  Priscilla joined the Peoria Jr. Woman’s Club as a young farm wife and eventually became an active member of the Peoria Woman’s Club, acting as its president as well as serving on many state and regional Boards. Priscilla, known as a pillar of Peoria, could be seen at council meetings, speaking out for causes impacting Peoria, such as turning the old school buildings from storage units to the Peoria Arizona Historic Society which houses much of Peoria’s early history. Priscilla was either the best friend or the toughest opponent of any bureaucrat who tried to derail her dreams. A true visionary, people like Priscilla don’t come along very often. She will be sorely missed.

So many women have helped shape Peoria, far too many to mention in this column. And the city of Peoria is still making history by electing its first female mayor, Cathy Carlat. So the tradition, the spirit and the leadership of the women of Peoria continues to impact the growth and development of this great city. From its birth to the present, the spirit of women can be felt in every corner. Certainly dozens more early leaders helped the young Peoria, and many more modern female leaders are growing up in homes across Peoria today. We salute you!

Editor’s note: Ms. Hunt is the Acacia District Councilwoman for the city of Peoria.

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