From humble origins to a lifelong legacy of public service, the always dapper Zack Monroe brought a smile to everyone he met.
It is difficult for me to write just a few words about Zack Monroe because what I really want to do is talk about him for a couple of hours. I first met Zack through his son Roger, when he and I were attending Woodruff High School. Just a few years before he died, I was fortunate to spend about 25 hours with him, laughing, talking and learning about Peoria. His cheerful smile, that bright bowtie, and his wit and sense of humor saw Zack through a tumultuous life of politics and intense business transactions—and stayed with him until the very end. Roger, his talented son, likes to proudly tell people that his father was a self-made man, since he felt forced to drop out of high school to help support his family.
Zack, whose full name was Zackie Oral Monroe, was born May 4, 1906, on a farm just outside Sullivan, Illinois. When he was 15 years old, he left the farm and made his way to Peoria to look for a job, arriving with 25 cents in his pocket and armed with a few meager barbering tools, ready to conquer the world. That took some doing, but I think he got the job done.
He came here through Bartonville, where he slept in a boxcar at night after a long day of walking the streets of Peoria talking to barbershop owners. He wrapped himself in newspapers to keep warm, and as soon as the sun came up, he was back on the streets. Oh, he had a certificate that said he was indeed a barber, but his young age was definitely against him. Finally, a kind barber allowed him access to his barbershop on Sundays to cut hair. That was all the break that energetic, young Zack Monroe needed.
A Cut Above the Rest
From those humble beginnings, Zack pulled himself up by his worn-out bootstraps to become one of Peoria’s most respected and admired public servants and entrepreneurs in its history. Without the benefit of a formal education, he spent his life educating young barbers, not only in the art of cutting hair, but in how to handle the financial aspects of the business as well. He eventually went on to own two barbershops on North Adams and virtually founded, and most certainly perpetuated, the Peoria Barber College, which is still here to this day and known as the oldest barber school in America.
Zack bought and refurbished many old houses in Peoria, which he rented and sold as time went on. He got a lot of good-natured ribbing from his many friends when he bought “a house of ill repute” in town and turned it into a dormitory for his barber students. I worked in downtown Peoria for 18 years, and I can still see my friend walking around town, always well-dressed, always with a bright bowtie, smiling and greeting everyone he met. More than once, he was approached to run for office here in town, and finally, he agreed.
Zack Steps Into Politics
In 1945, the war was winding down, and Mr. Zack O. Monroe was elected to the Peoria City Council, representing the people of the 10th ward, where he served with distinction for eight years. In 1953, Zack was elected supervisor of general assistance for Peoria Township. He used to chuckle at that fancy title—most folks that needed help simply called it “relief.” I remember that desperately-needed help while growing up with a family of 13, and I never forgot it. Mr. Monroe held that office, improved it, and helped thousands of folks during the 40 years he held that position. How he found time to accumulate his own wealth and take care of his wife and four children while continually serving the public has always baffled me. To add to that, in 1953, he was also elected to the Peoria County Board, holding that job until 1970.
Outside of his political endeavors, Zack devoted precious time to his church as superintendent of its Sunday school, and founded the Dad’s Club at his children’s grade school. For more than 50 years, he was active with the Scottish Rite Masons, the Eastern Star and numerous other service organizations in Peoria. Always ready to help, he donated $50,000 to the Forest Park Foundation to build an animal display zoo for blind children. In 1993, the Peoria Jaycees presented Monroe with the Charles Schlink Memorial Good Government Award, and other local organizations have recognized him for “saving thousands of dollars for Peoria taxpayers” during his time as supervisor of general assistance. On the wall of our Peoria Civic Center, a plaque honors Zack for his many years of public service.
Zack Monroe retired in 1993, and at a celebratory reception, true to his nature, he thanked his employees and friends. “I will miss my employees very much. They are the ones that helped me do the job right. I will also miss working with people who needed help.” Zack died at his home on November 24, 2002, at the age of 96. Tributes poured in from people from all walks of life, most of them speaking of Zack’s inspiration to them and how citizens should realize what this man has done for the City of Peoria. As for me, I am just proud to say that Zack Monroe was my friend… and I still miss him. iBi
Norm Kelly is a Peoria historian and author of mystery and true-crime books. He can be reached at [email protected].