Viewpoint: So long, been good to know ya

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-115575628213164.jpg’, ”, ‘Joe Baker’);

The Bible says there is a season for everything. A time to do and a time to die; a time to stay and a time to go. For me, it is time to go.

It seems unreal, but more than 50 years have passed since I began tracking the events of the Rock River Valley and its inhabitants. Milt Lundstrom was in City Hall when I came to Rockford. Folke Bengston had just recently retired as chief of police, and Tom Boustead had assumed that position. City council sessions were still being held in the old brownstone building across Walnut Street from the main fire station. Today, the building is an apartment house.

Back then and across the river, there were only three courtrooms and three circuit judges in the old, domed courthouse. William R. Dusher was chief judge for a time. He brooked no nonsense from anybody, reporters included. And you’d better not show up in his courtroom without a coat and tie.

If you wanted to know anything about the court system, you talked to Florence Carlson. She was a walking encyclopedia of that operation and could tell you about most of the cases going on or pending.

It’s been an interesting journey. I was there for most of the main events hereabouts, the big fires, the shootings, the wrecks, the heated political meetings and governmental debates. There was the cold war era when Sheriff Kirk King used those fears to push for a new courthouse, declaring the old section of the existing one was in some danger of collapse.

Television was my venue then. King had said the dome on the old courthouse could fall and kill someone with its great weight. We did a TV documentary on the subject. The first scene showed a sign by the courthouse door reading “bomb shelter.” When a crane later picked the old dome off the building, it was found to be nothing more than wooden beams and some thin sheet metal. That’s how the game was played.

Later, I watched at State and Church streets as police led Raymond Lee Stewart from a nearby alley, his shirt soaked with blood from a bullet wound. He had escaped from the courthouse just hours before. Stewart was being held for a series of murders in Rockford and Beloit that saw a fresh victim or two nightly for several weeks.

The passing parade has been varied and interesting. There was the time back in the ’70s when I was with the daily paper, and the news staff was on strike. Wewere on the street for 10 weeks. One day, a former member of our staff came roaring down State Street in a car, “mooning” the picket line in each direction. He was a specimen, to be sure. He married a shrink, and I always said she kept him chained in the basement as a case study.

When I first came to Rockford, there wasn’t much north of Auburn Street; and when I went into the Army in 1954, there was nothing much east of Fairview and East State. Two years later, when I returned, urban sprawl had marched out to Alpine Road. Time does change things.

Now, my 74th birthday is almost at hand. That’s hard for me to grasp; until I try to do something I used to do, and this creaky body says, “uh unh.” Health is not what it used to be, and memory shorts out more often.

That is the signal to step aside and let younger and keener folks take up the charge. I shall watch from the sidelines. These are momentous times for everybody, and especially for journalists. The world is facing shrinking resources, spreading conflicts, possible economic collapse and drastic changes in the way we live. Most aren’t ready for any of it. Others are in denial, preferring wishful thinking to reality.

Over the years, some have approved of the things I wrote, others did not. That’s par for the course. But the attempt to find out what’s real and true has been absorbing, to say the least. Regretfully, I must leave some things undone. It can’t be helped. Still, I have been able to give some help to folks in need, and that has been rewarding.

I have seen Rockford change over time. It is less insular than it used to be. The influx of new blood and new ideas has been of benefit. We are growing a bit more progressive, but much more can be done to make this a more livable city. I hope the leadership will begin to address the long-term issue of survivability. It will grow increasingly pressing as time goes on.

So as I put “30,” the journalist’s sign for the end, to my tenure, I am looking forward to some relaxation and learning new things. The old routine dies hard, but I will manage.

There have been some great folks along the way and some great times. I appreciate them all. As Bob Hope used to say: “thanks for the memories.”


From the Aug. 16-22, 2006, issue

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