As the president and CEO of one of Effingham’s most influential organizations, the Effingham County Chamber of Commerce, it’s hard to keep Norma Lansing out of the loop.
But it was a genuine shock when EDN Editor Jeff Long announced Lansing had been named EDN’s Citizen of the Year at the chamber’s annual Business Recognition Gala.
“I was told it was somebody else. I've been telling everybody who this other person was,” she said after receiving the award. “I guess I should retire because you're able to get things over on me and that didn't used to happen.”
EDN selected Lansing, who retired at age 68 this week, to receive the award for being a leader in the Effingham community for more than four decades, helping shape the business culture of Effingham and being at the head of many of the community’s most recognizable events over those years.
Throughout her tenure, she spearheaded internal and external projects, with a special focus on expanding the membership and prestige of the chamber and on establishing pathways for young people in Effingham County to connect with businesses through events, programs and educational initiatives.
Though the names “Norma Lansing” and “Effingham Chamber of Commerce” are nearly synonymous now, they weren’t always this way. Lansing started from humble beginnings.
“I grew up on a farm,” Lansing said in an interview. “I think that's the interesting part of my background is how it went, how it weaved to a job with the chamber.”
After spending her childhood days watching her father run the farm and getting a sense of the frontlines of running a business, Lansing graduated from Newton High School in the early 1970s. Thinking about what she wanted to do, she wasn’t left with options that she liked.
“When I went to high school, most women probably went into teaching or nursing for the most part and so I went along and I always thought I would be a teacher,” Lansing said. “Even though I was a good student when I got out of high school, I was kind of like ‘I'm done with school.’”
Lucky for her, she found another path. A friend had a job at the Effingham Daily News and told her about an opening for a newspaper reporter. Though she had an offer to work at a local bank, Lansing enjoyed writing. So, a job filing stories for the local paper was a good fit.
“I covered everything from murder trials to writing about weddings,” Lansing said.
Lansing spent seven years, 1971 to 1978, at the paper. She eventually became the paper’s special page editor.
During that time, she began to be interested in the Effingham Chamber of Commerce. The chamber’s office was in City Hall and Lansing would stop in when she covered city meetings, getting to know the secretary and eventually volunteering there on her afternoons off.
Lansing’s afternoons at the chamber were filled with typing up information that came into the chamber, filing records and any other clerical work that needed done.
“Folding, stapling, mutilating as we used to say,” Lansing said with a laugh.
Eventually, Lansing started working for the chamber while her kids, Jeff Willenborg and Erin McDevitt, were young.
“I worked part time that way and discovered I was a better mother by being out of the house for a few hours than being with them all the time,” Lansing said.
Pat Copple met Lansing during this time and the two became friends while they both worked at the chamber under the leadership of Saralee Griffith.
“You could see that Norma was already full of ideas, but not imposing on anybody,” Copple said.
Copple said the years they worked together were comfortable and filled with laughter. Copple was around in 1988 when Lansing was selected as the chamber’s new executive vice president, a role later reconfigured as president and CEO.
“She hit the ground running,” Copple said. “She moved into working with a board of directors very comfortably.”
Copple remembers one project the chamber took on during this time under Lansing’s new leadership.
“One of the bigger projects — and this might sound stupid — was the rodeo,” Copple said.
For 23 years beginning in 1992, Effingham County hosted the Illinois High School Rodeo Association State Finals. The chamber, which was influential in bringing the event to the county, sponsored it for the first 10 years, ending their partnership in 2002.
“We went from working with business people to high school cowboys and cowgirls,” said Copple. “We would put on our cowboy hats and western shirts and have a good time. It was a lot of work, but it was fun.”
“It was a good thing for the community,” said Lansing in an interview earlier this year. “I think we can do some of those things, those bigger things, that can bring recognition to the county.”
Throughout Lansing’s time at the chamber, her staff has been made up mostly, often entirely, of women. Though more common today, having women leading business groups like the chamber hasn’t always been the norm.
Becky Brown, the chamber’s membership director, started working for the chamber in 1994 after being the organization’s first intern. She said the environment fostered by Lansing’s leadership and the other women in the office helps the chamber be welcoming and effective.
After her internship, Brown went to work at another business and left the very same day, coming back to Lansing, asking for a job at the chamber.
“Working in an office with three women, every time someone came in they always introduced me. They just made me feel very welcome,” said Brown. “When I went to this other business, that was pretty much all men, it was just a different feel.”
Copple said Lansing led the chamber in a way that didn’t let gender get in the way of doing high-quality work on behalf of the Effingham community. The work environment, while welcoming, was tough. Lansing has always demanded high-quality work from everyone at the chamber.
“She could use a red pencil as an art,” Copple said with a laugh, adding Lansing may have kept some of her editing skills from working at EDN.
“Whatever you sent up to her, it came back with changes. She was an editing pro.”
The 1990s also saw a personal development for Lansing. After her first marriage ended in 1993, Norma became close to Ken Lansing.
“I met Norma when I was on the board at the chamber,” Ken said.
Becoming friends, the two married in 1996. They celebrated 25 years together this year. When asked what her secret was, Norma had an easy answer: friendship.
“As well as being married to each other, we're good friends as well,” Norma said.
In the late 1990s, Norma led a major structural change to the chamber: moving. After jumping around and trading offices for several years, Lansing moved the chamber into its current location on Keller Drive. This was after the chamber’s previous locations proved too small to be useful any longer.
“We had to put some files in the bathtub! You had to pull the shower curtain to hide it,” said Copple. “Norma was the one that worked with the board and worked with the staff and asked, ‘Can we do this?’”
Over the next few years, Lansing would oversee major developments at the chamber, including what she says was one of the most important projects of her career: Effingham Vision 2020, a community planning project aimed at strengthening Effingham’s economy and community from 2005.
“Effingham was looking at losing its largest employer and the impact that was gonna have on the economy,” said Lansing.
Often strategic plans like Vision 2020 are discussed, written about and then their results are put in a nice binder and set on a shelf. Lansing says she’s proud of the chamber’s contributions to the project because its participants avoided that pitfall.
“That's probably one of the most impactful things that have happened in the community as a whole, but also for individual businesses who really took back those concepts,” she added.
The Effingham County CEO program, an educational program offering entrepreneurship classes and mentoring to high schoolers in the county, came out of this planning process and Lansing was heavily involved in the program’s founding and served on its advisory board for several years.
The program has had over 380 students over the years, with several going on to open up their own businesses in Effingham County.
That wasn’t the first time, nor the last, that Lansing would be involved in trying to connect young people to the business sector in Effingham. For several years, Lansing helped organize the “Future Fair,” a career expo for high school students to learn about career opportunities.
“I think for way too long it was all about you got to go to college, you got to go to college and not every kid is college material. They're just not. It’s not their thing,” said Lansing. “It wasn't my thing!”
Lansing was instrumental in creating Manufacturing Day, a program to partner with high schools throughout the region to introduce students to manufacturing as a career.
“We created Manufacturing Day in 2014 to help students realize that manufacturing is a good career,” said Lansing in an interview earlier this year. “We’ve had typically more than 300 students.”
Manufacturing Day has attracted lots of attention, with media outlets covering it, businesses trying to get involved, and even a visit from then-governor Bruce Rauner.
“It’s about making connections,” Lansing said.
This philosophy of making connections runs deep in the way that she has approached educational programs throughout her career, and Lansing’s latest experiment in this field is also the one with the largest potential for lasting change in Effingham.
Lansing wants to open a school.
The Effingham Regional Career Academy is a collaborative, intergovernmental public-private partnership aimed to provide skills for high schoolers, people looking for professional development or a change in career.
The school is going to be part of Lake Land College and managed by the team that runs its Kluthe Center for Higher Education & Technology. Assuming that capital can be raised, a multimillion dollar facility is being planned to be built next to Lake Land’s existing Effingham campus. At least 14 school districts from around the region have already signed on to participate in its programming.
“This is going to provide a tremendous amount of opportunity,” said Lake Land College President Josh Bullock at a luncheon this spring where he described the project.
This month, Lansing was elected president of the ERCA Board of Directors, ensuring that Lansing will see the project through.
Between the continuing development of ERCA, the COVID-19 pandemic and high-profile awards, the last year has been a high point in Lansing’s career.
“She deserves this award for the last year alone,” said Copple.
Lansing helped oversee several new programs created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, ranging from changes to existing programs to allow for virtual versions of events to be held to whole new programs aimed at supporting chamber members.
“2020 changed a lot of things for a lot of businesses,” said Lansing.
Lansing helped put together a newsletter early in the pandemic, rounding up funding opportunities, best practices for keeping employees and customers safe, and updates on the latest legal requirements of businesses.
Lansing and the chamber also launched a grant program for businesses in Effingham County, handing out more than $15,000 to businesses at the height of the pandemic.
In the past year, Lansing has also led the creation of Axis@109 West, an experimental coworking space and incubator that was shuttered in part due to the pandemic, as well as a diversity and inclusion initiative aimed at welcoming new people into the community and offering multilingual, culturally sensitive resources to newcomers.
All of this work — and the 40 years leading up to it — resulted in Lansing leading the chamber to win the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives’ Chamber of the Year Award in 2020.
The association that gives out the award has 7,500 members across 1,300 chambers of commerce and other business organizations throughout the United States and Canada. Each year, they offer competitive awards to just a few chambers from around the country.
Lansing led the chamber in applying for this award several times before, first qualifying for the award in 2012, then again in 2013. The chamber was a finalist in 2017 and again in 2019. Finally, in 2020, the chamber won the award, largely due to the chamber’s growing membership, diversity of members and directors, and for two key programs: Manufacturing Day and Axis@109 West.
“It’s quite an involved process, actually,” Lansing said when the chamber won the award. “It’s not easy.”
And now, after 45 years, Lansing is retiring from her role with the Effingham County Chamber of Commerce. Her time there was marked by many programs she initiated, events she led and almost doubling the organization’s membership.
Despite her retirement, she is still thinking of new ideas. In an interview four days before she was set to retire, she rattled off a half a dozen ideas for new programs and initiatives that she was in the process of starting.
Lansing’s role at the chamber is being taken over by Lucinda Hart, a Texas-born nonprofit executive with experience working for the Hospitality Financial and Technology Professionals Association and Big Medium, an arts nonprofit in Austin.
The future for Lansing, though, isn't going to be a quiet retirement. She’s already confirmed that she’s staying on the board for ERCA and has been approached to sit on several other boards in Effingham and at Lake Sara, where Lansing lives.
Lansing will also use the time to continue in her love of travel. She has led several chamber-sponsored international trips, the first to China in 2013.
At this year’s Business Recognition Gala, among the many retirement gifts, Chamber Board Chairman Jeff Speer presented Lansing with tickets to Hawaii.
“I get to go to Hawaii?!” Lansing exclaimed on stage.
Lansing said a few days in Hawaii will be the kickoff to a spree of trips, some personal and some sponsored by the chamber. Destinations include Australia, New Zealand, New York, Italy and Croatia.
“We’ve got trips planned and things we’re gonna do. We’ve got grandkids and great-grandkids,” said Ken Lansing. “We have lots to do.”
Before Norma gets into her retirement plans, though, she said she has an idea of what to do first.
“Maybe catch up on some sleep,” she said, laughing.