Burnell Russell, Volo’s first mayor dies: ‘He put Volo on the map’

Burnell Russell served 22 years as the first elected mayor of Volo, retiring in 2015. Daily Herald file photo from 2015.

The small but growing village of Volo lost a longtime champion Thursday with the death of farmer, ardent hometown supporter and former Mayor Burnell Russell. He was 93.

The versatile Russell served in various agricultural, educational and municipal roles over the years with equal enthusiasm.

“Dad was a very respected man. Whatever he did, he put his all into it,” said Pat Oaks, one of his four daughters.

Russell was Volo’s first mayor for 22 years. The community had remained virtually unchanged for more than 125 years before being incorporated in 1993.

Born and raised on a farm south of routes 12 and 120, Russell was among those who didn’t want to see the unincorporated community absorbed by neighboring towns and lose its identity.

It took special legislation and some rounds in Lake County court, but voters in a 1993 referendum approved the creation of the village by a 5-to-1 ratio.

He began to oversee the evolution of Volo from a bump in the road to fast-growing village after being elected mayor in the first municipal meeting in the basement of a resident’s home.

Then-Mayor Burnell Russell stands inside the clerk's office near the main reception area of the new Volo village hall at Route 60 and Fish Lake Road in 2008. Daily Herald file photo from 2008.

“They all said that we would never be able to do it and that we would just cave in,” Russell told the Daily Herald in 2003. “Well, we did it. We’re still here.”

By that time village officials had brought development to the Route 12 corridor, in part through economic incentives, and were working on bigger plans. For a time, there was rivalry with Fox Lake regarding annexations along Route 12, which some described as a border war.

Russell didn’t see it that way, he told the Daily Herald in 2001.

“I just always felt that we should make the best use of this land as we possibly could,” he said at the time. “Some people don’t agree with how it was done, but it makes sense to us.”

Mayor Stephen Henley – the second top elected official in Volo’s history – met Burnell when Henley moved to town in 2007.

“He was my mentor in many ways,” Henley said. “He was a very wise man with common sense.”

Henley said Russell laid the cornerstone and envisioned changes that boosted the village’s population from 180 in 1993 to more than 6,100 and growing today.

“He gave us the opportunity to move ahead,” Henley said.

“He loved the people of Volo. He loved the village so much. We’re just following in his footsteps,” he said.

Russell graduated from Wauconda High School in 1945. He later served on the Wauconda Unit District 118 school board for 20 years, four as president.

A hog and grain farmer, Russell also served on the Lake County Farm Bureau board from 1971 to 1992, four years as president.

Executive Director Greg Koeppen started after Russell’s tenure but said he would often stop to chat.

“He never lacked a story or a good joke,” Koeppen said. “It would always start with, ‘Can I tell you about ...’”

Koeppen said Russell always looked for new and innovative ways to promote agriculture and see it succeed and remain an important part of Lake County history.

“He was a man of many hats and many talents,” Koppen said. “He was extremely proud of being mayor. He put Volo on the map, no doubt about that.”

One of Burnell’s long-range visions was bringing Lake Michigan water to the village, a 10-year process.

“His foresight in wanting a quality water supply for his growing community will be a benefit to Volo for a long, long time,” said Lindenhurst Mayor Dominic Marturano, president of the Lake County Municipal League.

Besides his daughters, Russell is survived by six grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and many nieces and nephews.

Visitation will be from 4 until 7 p.m. Thursday, followed by a memorial service at Kisselburg-Wauconda Funeral Home, 235 N. Main St., Wauconda. Burial will be private. Call 847-526-2115 or visit kisselburgwaucondafuneralhome.com.