As COVID-19 shook the world, Monica Hendrickson was hurtled into the Peoria spotlight.
Until then, Hendrickson diligently but quietly had been serving as public health administrator of the Peoria City/County Health Department. But as COVID hit, she realized that central Illinois needed straightforward updates about the burgeoning pandemic.
Hendrickson quickly became a familiar face on local TV as she delivered daily reports to the public and media with the latest data and advice. Amid the tempestuous and unnerving unknown of a pandemic, she became a steady and reliable voice for the community.
“I think a leader is one who tries to bring everyone up,” she said. “Just because you’re head of an agency doesn’t make you a leader.”
The leadership lessons for Hendrickson began in her childhood.
Now 39, she was born in Michigan to Ujwala and Bhausaheb Shete, both immigrants from India. The latter continued his education in America and became a nuclear engineer, a job that prompted multiple moves amid three states. The relocations helped Hendrickson learn flexibility.
“When you move enough times, you have to be adaptable,” she said.
One stop also taught her resiliency. She spent much of her childhood in Augusta, Ga., where she sometimes encountered racism in an area with few Asian immigrants. Though most of her classmates treated her as just another kid, others would curse at her and yell, “Go back where you came from.”
“You gauge how to communicate in those different types of avenues,” Hendrickson said.
Other teaching moments came from family. Her father, who never stopped marveling at the notion of borrowing books – all free! – at public libraries, forever pored over words and pictures with Hendrickson. They especially enjoyed National Geographic.
“We looked at places we’d want to visit,” she said. “It made the world much more understandable.”
One family trip took them to China, where they viewed the Terracotta Army, the famous collection of sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. Her wide-eyed father gushed in wonder, “I saw the image in National Geographic, and now I’m standing here.”
Her budding curiosity extended to science. One day, she impetuously took apart the household rotary phone. Her mom barely blanched before telling her, “Put it back together” – which the young girl did quickly and with aplomb.
Hendrickson also enjoyed parsing math and science equations, so much so that she planned to study medicine when she left home to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But during a trip to India, she observed the health woes caused by poverty, hunger and poor housing. Wanting to address those challenges on the front end of the equation – why see just a handful of patients a day when you can prevent illness among the masses? — she decided to pursue epidemiology.
She later earned her master’s degree in public health at the University of Michigan, learning to use statistics and data to analyze and prioritize health policy.
“I started realizing that (public) policy matters,” she said.
She worked in public health in multiple places in Illinois before becoming the public health administrator of the Peoria City/County Health Department in 2017. She coordinated the policies and activities of the department, in connection with state and federal mandates, all along crunching numbers in her self-described role as a “data nerd.” Like most public administrators, she largely functioned in anonymity.
In March 2020, Hendrickson became the leader and linchpin among representatives of multiple agencies and organizations that came together to form a cohesive front against the virus. Though lacking experience in dealing with the press and its questions, she appeared at daily televised news conferences to deliver the updates to the public, and quickly came to appreciate the gravity of her role.
For the residents of central Illinois, “I think it became important for them to see their local leadership,” she said.
But Hendrickson did more than just deliver information. For many citizens, Hendrickson — her tone and manner bereft of any drama or hyperbole — became a reassuring authority.
County Board Chairman Andrew Rand, who appeared at many of those press conferences with Hendrickson, marveled at her ability to take command during an uncertain time, as well as stay clear in her messaging. “She probably would have been described as demure before COVID,” Rand said. “But she transformed into a calming, community voice.
“I don’t think anyone with a memory about all this will ever forget her.”
Not everyone was a fan. She and her staff were continually pelted with emails and voice mails criticizing the department for overblowing the epidemic. About 10 percent of the public, she thinks, never will believe the seriousness and scope of COVID-19, as if it were all a hoax. She never minded the give-and-take regarding the science, but drew the line at the occasional email threats – “You guys are killing our kids,” “Be careful where you go,” etc. — which she’d pass on to the police.
She shakes her head with a smile, recalling her lack of preparation for such trying times: “We did not have a special class on … how to debate an individual who doesn’t want to hear the truth.”
Hendrickson found comfort in family life. While she was busy at work, husband Matt – an engineer at Caterpillar Inc. – could work from home, where he tended to their daughters, Maya, now 10, and Indra, 6. Her family drives her to extensive work in the community, which has garnered her multiple awards.
“We want to make sure our kids are involved in a community they’re proud of,” she said.
These days, though COVID has ebbed and the daily press conferences have ended, Hendrickson is routinely recognized in public. Many people – obviously impressed by her handling of the pandemic – have asked if she plans on moving on to another job in a bigger town.
“I feel Peoria is a great place to live and work,” she says with a wide smile. “I love the job I do. And it’s not done.”
Phil Luciano is a senior writer/ columnist for Peoria Magazine
and content contributor to public television station WTVP.