Volo's first village president set to retire
Burnell Russell's long career as Volo's village president started because of a lie.
"I told my wife I didn't want to be a part of it, but Betty said 'Burnell, why don't you do it? We'll do it together,'" Russell said with a chuckle. "So I did it ... but she didn't help me at all. She wasn't exactly truthful that we were going to work together."
Russell will step down Tuesday after nearly 23 years as the town's only village president when he led Volo's conversion from a small unincorporated farming community to a rapidly growing suburb.
He chose not to seek re-election in December because, he said, it was time to give someone else a chance.
"I'm getting older -- I'll be 87 this summer -- and I can feel my body get older," he said. "It's time for someone else to take over. There comes a time when you just have to quit, and at this point, I think I would do more damage than good."
Russell did run for a village trustee seat, but lost by 65 votes. After the election, he declined to submit his name to be appointed by newly elected Village President Stephen Henley, who vacates his trustee seat and replaces Russell on May 5.
A livestock farmer by trade, Russell said he never intended to stay in office as long as he has.
"I don't know why I stayed with it for so long, honestly," he said. "I really can't give a reason why I stayed with it as long as I did. But, I'm glad I did."
Russell said he was part of a group of farmers and other people living near routes 12 and 120 who wanted to control the fate of their land and not be swallowed up by neighboring Lakemoor, Fox Lake and Wauconda.
They pushed the state legislature and the courts to give them a chance to incorporate, forever changing the unincorporated land originally named Forksville into the village of Volo.
"Father (James) Lyons at St. Peter's Church deserved most of the credit," Russell said. "When it went before the legislature, we heard (House Speaker Mike) Madigan wasn't going to call the motion. But Father Lyons stood up, walked over to him, and spoke with him. Next thing we knew, Madigan called the motion."
Rather than holding an election that first year, the positions of village president and trustees were appointed by a judge, Russell said.
"I did not want to be a part of it at the very beginning," he said. "I did it because my wife and everyone else wanted me to."
But Russell became the man with the gavel who led Volo to its nearly 20-fold population increase while in office.
He spearheaded construction of a new village hall, helped secure water and sewer lines that added to a home and business explosion, and he was the major push behind a plan to bring Lake Michigan water to town.
Lake County Board member Bonnie Thompson Carter, a Republican from Ingleside, said Russell pushed a vision for Volo that converted it from primarily farm fields.
"Clearly he had a vision at the very beginning, and he worked really hard to make it happen," Carter said. "Even when I didn't agree with what he did or the way he did things, he was really supported by his community. Volo is in a real nice position today because of the vision he had and the work he's done."
Russell said the town had a population of 208 when it incorporated in 1993, and those numbers fell to 180 when census figures were released in 2000.
Because the quality of the farm land in Lake County was far less than the land downstate, Russell said he realized a change was needed.
"We could work just as hard on our land, but it would never produce as many crops as downstate," he said. "So, as far as I was concerned, it was time to start building."
The push helped Volo's population jump to 2,929 at the 2010 census -- it's about 3,500 today.
"We're still building," Russell said. "And, the best part is that we have quality businesses and people moving in."
The number of businesses in town has grown from 10 to 53.
"Things just seemed to always happen at the right time for us in Volo," he said. "I still look back and wonder how we ever did this. But, I just look at it all today, it's amazing how well everything has worked."
Russell admits there have been some questionable decisions in the last 22 years.
One was the controversy around his idea to build a peaker power plant on his own front lawn.
"I still don't think that was a bad idea," he said with a laugh. "But, I promised residents that I would put it up for referendum, and if they turned it down, I would let it go. And we did."
Carter, who fought Russell on the project, said she admired him for the way he dropped the issue immediately after the referendum.
"One thing about Burnell is that he would never get excited," she said. "He always said the right thing would happen at the right time, and if it's meant to be, it's meant to be. I will miss him."
Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor said he was impressed with Russell while the two worked on the county's community development commission. Lawlor said he's keeping Russell on the commission as a citizen volunteer because of his knowledge.
"He's done a really good job," Lawlor said. "Plus, with his experience in Volo dealing with the explosive growth on the western part of the county, he's a huge help."
While he's stepping down from public service, Russell said he'll keep an eye on things.
"But, I think we're at a good beginning in Volo," he said. "My advice is keep it going."