McNeilly, longtime public servant and community leader, passes away at age 79

On Oct. 26, Dr. Diane McNeilly of Rochelle passed away at age 79. She left behind a legacy of impacts made in the area on public service, education and recreation.

‘She was very enthusiastic about assisting in the development of Rochelle’

ROCHELLE — On Oct. 26, Dr. Diane McNeilly of Rochelle passed away at age 79. She left behind a legacy of impacts made in the area on public service, education and recreation.

McNeilly moved to Rochelle in 1966 with a bachelor’s degree in physical education. She started working at Kishwaukee College as women’s athletic director in 1969 and spent her entire teaching career there, eventually becoming vice president of instruction. She earned her doctorate in education from Northern Illinois University in 1984.

McNeilly and her second husband, Dr. Norman Jenkins, worked together at Kish until they both retired in 2000. They were recognized for their achievements in education in 2019 when Northern Illinois University presented them with the John C. Roberts Community Service Award.

“She was an excellent instructor there,” Jenkins said of McNeilly’s time at Kish. “She did well in every position she held there. She was very much involved in the development of Kishwaukee College and its growth. And it did grow and develop very substantially while she was there. She was eventually in charge of all the instruction at the institution, which of course is very important at a higher education institution. She was very instrumental in that position after having been an instructor as well.”

Outside of her professional life, McNeilly had decades of involvement in the Rochelle community through a number of governing boards, nonprofits and civic organizations. She had a passion for sports and recreation, which led to her involvement in Spring Lake Pool, founding the Rochelle Rays Swim Club and serving as a Flagg-Rochelle Park District Commissioner.

McNeilly also served on the Rochelle Township High School District Board of Education, the City of Rochelle’s Planning & Zoning Commission and the Downtown Rochelle Association. 

“She was very enthusiastic about assisting in the development of Rochelle and all of the activities of the organizations that had an impact on the city,” Jenkins said. “She was very active in all of them and interested in the development of the community. She was very protective of the community and its assets. I think she was proud of being involved in all of the activities that developed in Rochelle. She was very much involved in many, many things that brought development to Rochelle.”

Former City of Rochelle Mayor Chet Olson said McNeilly was integral in the creation of LOTS (Lee-Ogle Transportation System) and the Hub City Senior Center. That allowed for more public transportation for seniors and residents in general in the city and area, something McNeilly was passionate about. 

In her work on the Planning & Zoning Commission, which she served on up until a few months ago, Olson said McNeilly made a priority of having enough affordable housing in the community. In her Downtown Rochelle Association work, she looked to help the downtown area and its business owners survive amid transitional periods in the area. 

“When a lot of the retail in town moved out to shopping centers, it kind of left the downtown in disarray,” Olson said. “She was very concerned about that and making sure our downtown kept working towards redevelopment. She was always very community-minded when it came to Rochelle and how things kept developing and concerned with the citizens and their needs and everything that went along with that.”

Olson said he couldn’t think of anyone else from the area with as much public service experience as McNeilly. 

“Having her working to improve the community when I was mayor was a great asset to myself and the city,” Olson said. “Rochelle has been very blessed with people volunteering. As mayor we had different commissions for different things. She was involved in making sure a lot of those commissions stayed on the right track. She was very good for our community and she's going to be missed. God bless her and I'm thankful for all of her service throughout.”

McNeilly had a passion for political activism, especially civil rights, which led to her years of leadership of Rochelle’s League of Women Voters organization. 

“That was an organization made up of women in the community that were all interested in the activities surrounding the positive development of the city,” Jenkins said. “I think the fact that she was so intensely involved in all of the activities that she was, that's her most memorable trait. As a leader in the community, she was very intensely involved in everything and interested in the development of all of the activities in the city. All of that made a huge difference to the positive development of the city.”