Bernice Van der Vries, unfamiliar to most Winnetkans today, is one of the Village’s unsung heroes. When she retired from the Illinois House of Representatives in 1955, journalists described her as “the cornerstone of good government” and “one of the hardest working and best known members of the legislature.”
She was born in Kansas in 1890, married a math professor who worked for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, moved to Chicago in 1918 and Winnetka in 1923. After a neighbor saw Bernice taking leisurely walks every afternoon, she recruited her to help the League of Women voters encourage Winnetkans, especially women, to exercise their right to vote. Within a few years Bernice was president of the League and a member of the state board that helped establish other local leagues. At the same time, she was chairman of a fundraising committee to rebuild the Christ Church Parish House that helped raise nearly half a million dollars as the stock market crashed in 1929.
Winnetkans elected Bernice to the Winnetka Village Council in 1931, making her the fifth woman to serve as trustee. She served as chairman of the Village Health Committee and worked with the health commissioner to pass ordinances requiring immunizations for school children and health inspections for stores and restaurants that sold food. She also co-founded the Winnetka Historical Society in 1932.
In early 1934, after Anna Wilmarth Ickes announced she would not run for a fourth term for the 7th district of the Illinois House, a group of Winnetka women approached Bernice about taking on the job. In a 1979 interview, Bernice remembered the visit: “I was certain they were there to complain that the dog pound wasn’t luxurious enough, but it was worse. They wanted me to run on the Republican ticket for the state House of Representatives.” With just two months to campaign before the primaries, Bernice and her supporters sent out over 50,000 pieces of mail and Bernice spent every day meeting with businessmen all over the district that stretched from Glencoe to River Forest to Calumet City and Chicago Heights. Bernice said in a 1934 article, “although the main plank in my platform was concerned with the schools, the only places I could speak were beer gardens and road houses” (because women’s clubs were reluctant to host a partisan speaker).
She won the primary running against ten men in April and easily won the election in November 1934. The Tribune reported: “Bernice T. Van der Vries came through in fine style to capture a seat in the state legislature. New Trier is destined to have representation of superlative quality in the law-making department of the state capitol.”
When Bernice started in the House, she was one of three women in the Illinois General Assembly. By her retirement in 1955 there were eight, 32 by her death in 1986, and now there are 73. Bernice was the first woman appointed Chair of a House Committee – the Municipalities Committee – where she worked to consolidate Illinois School Districts from 12000 to 3000, promoted state aid to public schools, fought to remove the 5,000-person population limitation for city manager government and helped pass the legislative apportionment amendment in 1954. She was active in health and human welfare and was responsible for a 1943 bill that updated terminology regarding mental illness, replacing terms like “insanity” and “lunacy.” Her efforts led to the licensing of nurses, nursing homes and physical therapists. She steered an anti-rabies bill through the House in 1953, requiring all dogs be vaccinated and licensed. In 1945, she helped pass legislation that created the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). After she left the General Assembly, she was appointed to the Board of the CTA where she fought for safer public transportation for fourteen years. Bernice Van der Vries says in her oral history that her pioneer ancestors “founded towns and worked for their betterment.” Bernice was a pioneer also, a woman who worked her entire career for the betterment of life for Winnetkans and all Illinoisians. ■