FULTON – In Grace Whitten’s kitchen, it feels like home.
“Those are my twins,” she says, pointing to two school photos of her 14-year-old granddaughters on the side of her refrigerator. “And that’s my priest friend.”
The room smells of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, and a plate of them rests on her kitchen table. She smiles widely and offers an ice cream sandwich.
Grace has lived in this house on 13th Avenue in Fulton for 10 years; there are a lot of memories here.
Photographs of family members line the walls, as do mementos from her 40-year career as a journalist: a plate from a printing press, framed copies of her cooking articles for Sauk Valley Media. And elsewhere, an award from the Quad-City Times for her favorite story – a feature she penned in 1999 about a blind man’s journey to regain his vision.
This week, that career officially came to an end as she announced her retirement.
Larry Lough, the SVM’s executive editor, said Grace would be missed – by the newspaper staff as well as her many readers.
“Grace has been a great ambassador for the newspaper,” Lough said. “Her genuine warmth and charm have allowed her to develop a wonderful connection with readers through her weekly column and her many cooking demonstrations at shows and exhibits.”
Grace was born in Tahoka, Texas, on Oct. 7, 1936, but did most of her growing up in Roswell, N.M. “That explains a lot, doesn’t it?” she says, laughing.
A kind, funny and modest woman, she always loved writing and remembers penning poems as far back as the fifth grade.
“All my life all I wanted to be was a writer,” she says. “That was my dream.”
She was married in New Mexico, and that’s where she had her first child.
The family moved to Downey, Calif., a small town just outside Los Angeles. But they didn’t want to raise their children there, and when their neighbors, who had been from Savanna, Ill., started showing them pictures of the area, they decided to move. First to Savanna, and then to Fulton.
Family has always been important to Grace – for a long time, she chose to raise her children rather than work outside the home. But when one of her friends who was a correspondent for the Quad-City Times fell ill, she asked Grace to cover for her. And that was it. Grace was hooked.
“I was kind of apprehensive because I was big and pregnant, and there were jokes that I might have the baby in City Hall,” she says. “But then I thought, ‘This might be my only chance.’”
Her friend never came back, and Grace got the job.
That was in 1973. Since then, she’s led a long and impressive career as a newswoman and raised a beautiful family: In addition to her six children, she now has 20 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren – soon to be 25.
Through the years, she’s risen through the ranks. First, with her job as a stringer for the Quad-City Times, then adding on more newspapers: The Fulton Journal, the Clinton Herald, the Rockford Register Star.
“The Times wanted one feature every week, and because of that they knew me,” she says. “They knew that I could write.”
She was busier than ever and loving it, and right in the middle of it all came her divorce. As a part-time stringer, Grace had no insurance, and with six kids, that just wasn’t going to work.
She had to go to work full time.
At the time, Bill Baker was editor at the Clinton Herald.
“I bugged him and bugged him, and he just didn’t ever call me,” Grace said. “He said I didn’t know computers, I didn’t know layouts.”
So Grace asked a friend to teach her. Meanwhile, she pursued a degree in English at Sauk Valley Community College.
Then one day, Bill Baker called.
“I came home from class and my son was home, and he goes, ‘Mom! Mom! Mr. Baker wants you to call him!’,” she says. “And so I went over to see Mr. Baker, and he said, ‘Well, I was just wondering, would you like to come and work for us?’”
That night, Grace took all of her kids out for supper, a rare treat for the family.
She spent 20 years at the Herald, starting out as a farm reporter. She moved up to regional reporter, then regional editor, then cops and courts reporter – one of her favorite positions – and then assistant editor.
In 1997, she was offered a job with the Quad-City Times as Clinton bureau chief, where she spent a number of years before she tried to retire for the first time.
But it didn’t last long. Turns out that camping – one of her favorite pastimes – isn’t so fun during the week, when the rest of your friends aren’t out there.
She was hired as Morrison bureau chief for Sauk Valley Newspapers on Sept. 10, 2001.
“I loved the atmosphere,” she says. “When I went in, I just felt happy, so I took the job.”
When the paper closed the Morrison bureau, she moved to the main office. That’s when she started writing about food. Her section, “Dash of Grace,” had a strong following, and in 2005, the newspaper put together a cookbook – a compilation of some of Grace’s favorite recipes from the years.
“The woman who owned the house before me used to say ‘You’re making my little kitchen famous!’,” Grace says, laughing. She’s always laughing. Laughing and telling stories and cooking.
There’s a sign on her kitchen wall that reads, “We may not have it all together, but together we have it all.”
Sitting beneath it, she smiles and offers another ice cream sandwich.