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Jamie Daniel helps Geneva's past come to life

Geneva resident Jamie Daniel serves as historian emeritas for the Geneva History Center since retiring from her real estate company, Miscella.
Geneva resident Jamie Daniel serves as historian emeritas for the Geneva History Center since retiring from her real estate company, Miscella.

GENEVA – Jamie Daniel sits at her desk in her Geneva home, surrounded by 35 years’ worth of files and boxes, voluminous papers from her real estate firm.

Into the first box go the things for the shredder. Into the second go the files she will keep. Into the third go the records that the Geneva History Center could use. 

As the center’s historian emerita, Daniels, 91, is happy to give the center records that have a local historic interest. Daniel is a fixture in the city she adopted in 1956. She used to attend every City Council and Committee of the Whole meeting in person. Now she watches the broadcast. 

“She is a great resource for us,” said Geneva History Center Executive Director Terry Emma. “She has so much knowledge.”

Daniel retired at age 90 last year from Miscella, the real estate firm she founded in 1977, and she is not quite sure the quieter life suits her.

“If you’ve been in the middle of knowing what’s going on in town for years, and then all of a sudden, you don’t know anymore, you’re not out and around, it really is a shock,” Daniel said. “I just miss knowing what’s going on. It’s a major change.”

Daniel, who grew up in New Albany, Miss., can name the stages of her long, unusual life – perhaps even count them as several lives: High school graduate, bride, mother, widow, wife, divorced mother, grandmother, volunteer, activist, preservationist, employee, small business owner, employer, real estate agent, great-grandmother and local historian.

But Daniel said she does not feel old.

“I woke up one day, and I was 90,” Daniel said. “When did that happen?”

• • • 

At a recent League of Women Voters of Central Kane County candidate forum at the county’s branch court, there was Daniel, with the other League women, ushering in the candidates and the public. 

Her recognitions and honors are extensive, including Realtor of the Year, Who’s Who in American Women, Preservation Partnership Award, Geneva’s Wood Award in 1972.

Daniel served on the boards of several organizations, including the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, Restorations of Kane County, Tri-City Family Services, Geneva Chamber of Commerce, River Park of Geneva and League of Women Voters of Illinois. She also was a founding member of Mutual Ground, a women’s shelter in Aurora.

As to the freedom women celebrate in today’s world, Daniel regrets one thing: The way many of them dress.

“We worked so hard to stop having women ... get ahead in the world just based on looks and their sexy actions,” Daniel said. “We worked so hard to have women be treated as persons. And now I see these women dressing so provocatively, and it bothers me.”

• • •

Daniel graduated high school at 16, class of 1938. She was offered two full scholarships to college. The scholarships would have paid for her education only, not the other expenses, so she did not go.

“It was the end of the Depression, and there was no way my family could afford even to buy my train ticket to college,” Daniel said. 

She married two years later and had four children with her first husband, who died in 1954. After she re-married, he found a job in Joliet, and they moved to Geneva, where they settled, and she had two more children.

“I did not want to live in a big city, and Geneva was very much like the town I had grown up in,” Daniel said. “I had too many in-laws and relatives there [in New Albany], and we needed a fresh start so we would be a family. I was happy to move.”

Geneva in 1956 was the same size as New Albany with 6,500 people, Daniel said. It had one main street, a highway, a river on one side and a railroad track on the other, just like Geneva. It was home. But not everyone back home was happy about the move.

“One of my mother’s friends stopped me on the street and she said, ‘Honey, what do you mean taking those precious little children up to Chicago where all the gangsters are?’ ”

Daniel laughed, but found local misconceptions about her home state, as well.

“One of my best friends, a graduate of Vassar, said, ‘I thought the schools in Mississippi were no good and your oldest, who went to school in Mississippi, is a merit scholar.’ ” Daniels shook her head. “It’s ignorance on both sides.”

While growing up in Mississippi, Daniel said she did not witness the type of racism often described in her home state. In the area where she lived, although there was segregation, where housing was concerned, people were divided by economics rather than race.

Daniel said she also encountered local prejudice over her accent. When the family was trying to find a place to rent in Aurora before buying a house, landlords would not accept tenants with a Southern accent.

And when they bought their first house, Daniel said the deed was “restricted.”

“The deed said, ‘You may not sell to anyone except a Caucasian. No one may live here except a Caucasian, except for household help.’ And that was in 1956.”

In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that these restrictions could no longer be enforced, but real estate agents and property owners could legally discriminate based on race until Congress passed the Fair Housing Act Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

• • •

Daniel was involved in volunteer work, everything from the PTA to church women’s groups and the League of Women Voters. A progressive, Daniel worked for the Equal Rights Amendment – which failed under pressure from conservative Phyllis Schlafly’s Stop ERA campaign in the 1970s. 

“I continued to do what I did in Mississippi, be a career volunteer,” Daniel said. “PTA, hospital auxiliary, den mother, various church committees, League of Women Voters, local league president and on the state board. I was lay member for the annual conference of the Methodist Church for 21 years. Playmakers. I was in only in of them, in the chorus of ‘Brigadoon.’ I did public relations.”

In 1973, Daniel became public information officer for Mark VII, a company  that wanted to build a 3,000-acre subdivision in Elburn called Blackberry Center. She would be earning her own money for the first time in her life, a part-time, short-term job just until they got zoning.

“I said I have to go home and talk to my husband first,” Daniel recalled. “Part of my job was attending Elburn Village Board meetings and school board meetings – and I would be gone at night. So I asked his permission.”

He gave it. But their marriage broke up four months later, and they divorced. 

She took her maiden name of Daniel back and worked through three years of public meetings for nothing to get built because the project could not get zoning. 

“So when the mortgagor took over the land, they said, ‘Go to work for us.’ And I said, ‘I won’t ever work for anybody again. I’ll do what you need by the day, by the job or by the hour, but not on a salary.’ And they said, ‘Sell this land.’ “

So in 1977, at age 56, she got a real estate license and founded Miscella Real Estate.

This was backward, she said, as most people work for a living in their younger years and then volunteer when they are older. 

• • • 

Now Daniel is focused on clearing out her records in service to the history center. 

Emma credits Daniel with knowing things no one else does.

“Jamie always has ‘the rest of the story,’” said Emma, referring to the late Paul Harvey’s famous tag line. “People will bring up things, and she will say, ‘I can tell you.’ When she comes to our brown bag lunches, and someone has a question, she can say, ‘I can answer that.’ It is just amazing, the memories she has and connections she has. She is really an amazing woman.”

Geneva is known for its progressive and strong women and Daniel fits that character, Emma said, starting with the city’s founding family – Charity Herrington raised 10 children on her own after her husband, James, died.

“She is a true lady,” Emma said of Daniel. “She is today’s Charity Herrington in different ways. She represents the progressive women of Geneva. She is progressive. She is Geneva.”

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