By Frank Schier
Editor & Publisher
The other day, I had lunch with Rockford Park District Historian and former Executive Director Webbs Norman, and we both remarked about how little note had been made of the passing of Seth G. Atwood.
We agreed to get together and try to do some justice to a figure and family that had really figured largely in Rockford history and had tremendous direction on where Rockford is today. The following interview attempts to bring you Webbs’ substantial knowledge, experiences and memories, and I tacked on my less extensive ones.
Webbs Norman remembers Seth G. Atwood
I knew Seth as an industrialist and businessman, a natural entrepreneur.
But I came to admire his core values. He had excellent vision. He knew that when Sputnik went up, he needed to diversify his business interests. He knew the Japanese and Chinese were going to build good cars. He was really a business genius, and he read tremendously to keep up with the trends.
Grandfather and father was Seth B. He lived on National Avenue, and Seth had his famous house north of the Auburn Street bridge. Seth B. started business in Madison, Wis., and moved it down here. In 1909, he moved the business to Rockford, and that was the year the park district was founded. If you look at the 100 years of the park district, which is how old it is now, the Atwood family has had a significant impact on 82 of those 100 years. And the Atwood family still remains active to this day in the Rockford Park District as Bruce Atwood,. Seth B’s Grandson, and Seth G’s son, is on the board of the Rockford Park District foundation. Bruce is very proud of his grandfather because of his involvement with the park district from 1928-1960, and that is why Bruce spent his 12 years on the park district board, and his 16 years on the park district foundation board.
The key element was that in those years Seth B. served, they were the same years that Earl Elliot served as executive director—34 of those years. Between the two of them, at that time they really fashioned an urban park system, including the 1,000 acres the Atwood family donated to the park district and the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District. Seth B. and Earl could really develop public policy and implement it. That kind of public service, talent, time, and contribution of treasures is really unmatched in most cities in America, and Seth G. carried that heritage forward, as his son is doing. It’s really a neat family story.
Talent runs in the family. Diane, Seth G.’s daughter, is an architect. She and Seth designed their family’s beautiful, 126-foot yacht.
While he was alive, and although he never served on the park board, Seth G. also gave major financial support to the construction of the floral clock in Sinnissippi Gardens, and he also made significant donations to the Nicholas Conservatory.
As I said, he had good insight into the future. He knew that Sputnik was not a just a military matter. He knew that Sputnik would affect the ways his companies did business with Detroit, technologically.
Also through Seth’s involvement in the auto industry, he knew the global model was coming in business and education. He knew that the old industrial model of 26 kids in a row had to change. It had to change to a more open process of learning and an exchanging of ideas and thinking, increasing the core skills of the 3Rs to a higher level. Fifth and sixth-grade reading levels were no longer acceptable. In 1992, he was, with other industrialists, instrumental in forming the Community Education Task Force. It was mostly known as the Group of 8.
Seth came alive as a member of the task force.
As a member of the Group of 8, he quickly became the dean of the education process. He spent a great deal of time in Washington, D.C., at the Department of Education and at schools around the country. He contributed majorly to the content of the report that was submitted to the school board Jan. 24, 1994. Like a lot of new ideas, it takes a while to catch on, and 15 years later what the task force recommended in the way of charter schools are now being done.
I have heard Seth G. say many times that the work he was doing in the task force was the most important he had ever done, and my gut feeling is that the community is benefiting from his experience to this very day. You don’t always get an immediate response, that’s an unreasonable expectation.
One more significant contribution that Seth G. made was the significant expansion of the Atwood Outdoor Education Center Building, and that was about the time of his floral clock contributions; and of course, the conservatory contributions came later.
To do a better job of communicating through the park district, we did a survey in 1978 to find out who the people of Rockford trusted, and the Atwood family came out at the top. They were highly regarded in this community.
Seth G. was also one of the first industrialists to adopt a compensation and insurance program that was very fair to all concerned. He always believed his employees should be treated fairly.
He expanded his family business into banking, land acquisition and agriculture and everything else.
The Time Museum at the Clock Tower was amazing. It was one-of-kind in the world, and it didn’t get much local support. As he was closing down his other businesses in the 1980s, that was part of his business decisions. Apart from Anderson Gardens, I can’t think of other world-class features Rockford has had. That was just part of his business decisions at that time.
Now, Bruce carries forward his family’s history, as he has for 16 years on the park district foundation board. When he was on the board (of commissioners) for 12 years, and served as president, Bruce was an excellent park district commissioner. He introduced Policy Governance, he and Tom Kalousek (now executive director of the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District). Tom worked for us then and went to a national conference and got Bruce a book on Policy Governance. Bruce started talking to his fellow commissioners about it. That was a major step in improving the efficiency and effectiveness of our board/staff relations and operations. Bruce was also very active in other organizations the park district partnered with such as the YMCA.
He is now a professor up at Beloit College. He teaches higher math. He loves it. He has found his center.
The loss of Seth G. is a great loss to this community, but his legacy will go on for decades because of what he and his family did make and continue to make possible.
Frank Schier remembers Seth G. Atwood
The first time I saw him was when he was walking across the factory floor, trailed by about three or four middle management types at the Atwood Vacuum, Tool and Die Plant on Eddy Avenue. I was running a small punch press, which stamped out housings for automobile emergency brake assemblies. Aside from mowing yards in my teen years, it was the first “real” job I had, the summer in-between high school and Rock Valley.
I had grade school friends I played with through high school on National Avenue; and of course, we all knew the Atwood homes and stayed out of their yards.
Seth G.’s sister Barbara lived on National, too. She passed recently, too. She was quite the naturalist, and was very proud of the large selection of trees in her yard. The riverfront to her home was the only “natural” one on the river. You couldn’t see her house from the river, the trees were so big and thick. Somebody purchased the home and damn near clearcut the whole yard to build an addition. I was sick when I saw it, and I can’t imagine what Barbara would say. A few of the larger trees were saved. I hope they do a “lot” of new plantings.
After the factory, the next time I saw Seth G. was in 1982. I had just returned from Seattle and was hired at the Clock Tower as a bartender in Quark and a waiter in the brand-new Bellamy’s. It was a five-star model restaurant. I remember serving the family Caesar salads and chateaubriand off the table-side service carts we had. As I recall, they were very nice, and I was very nervous. They owned the place. The Clock Tower was “the” hotel complex of its day, much like Walt Williamson’s Wagon Wheel Resort was in the ’50s and ’60s. It’s nice to see it shining again with Coco Key indoor water resort, the big pool, Totally You Hair Salon, the great naturalist photographer David Olson, Sundial, Tilted Kilt and the tennis club being refurbished. I’m staying for a weekend soon, for new-times’ sake.
Back in time, I was so sad and irritated when we lost the clock collection to auction and the Museum of Science and Industry. Rockford had the chance to retain it but would not or could not come up with the funds. Seth wanted out, and out the clocks went. There’s a huge video arcade for Coco Key where the clock museum used to be. As Seth G. was not one to skimp on what he valued, that place was built to withstand a nuclear attack, which I hope will never be handy to know nowadays.
I really met Seth G. for the first time on my front porch. This paper was run out of my house for the first three years of its existence. It was in the first or second year, and we had done our historical architectural protest to try to save the old YMCA residential building. We lost. We had also done some stories about Rockford Blacktop’s plowing rates and an editorial stating the company pretty much had the run of city hall in every way.
I remember it was after deadline because our first bookkeeper, the great Sally Alberts, and I were the only ones there. Soozie Johnson and Jon Bystrom were off, so it was a Thursday or Friday, when this very tall, slim, older man, dressed casually, knocked at the door. I opened it, and said with a grin, “You, sir, are what my mother would refer to as a ‘long drink of water,’ what can I do for you?”
“I’m Seth Atwood,” he said with a smile, “And I’d like to talk to you.” I was so surprised, I felt like ice cream hitting a burning sidewalk in the middle of July. Awkwardly, I invited him in, and we sat in the front bay-window room at the table that is now in the middle of our production room downtown.
He was very nice and essentially said he had read some of our stories and wanted to meet me. He quizzed me on my background, and nodded knowingly when I said my mother was a teacher. Naturally, education was a topic of discussion, and I had the distinct feeling Seth already knew more about me than most did at that time. He even brought up my canoeing. I think I asked him what he thought of his task force being called the Gang of 8, a play on words on the Chinese 1970s group in the Maoist Cultural Revolution. I don’t recall him being amused. Still, he was very nice, formal, and I really liked the fact that he came over to an old house on Court Street to find out about a fledgling paper. The Atwoods, while admired by many, were seen as too controlling by others. It was mind opening, for us both, to put some face time to a local family of legend.
That’s what the Atwoods were to most of us, legendary in local wealth, power and philanthropy. Besides seeing him in his yard as a little kid, I never met Seth B.
Little did I dream then I would receive the Seth B. Atwood Park and Conservation Service Award last year. Although the evening is still a blur, I think I met Bruce Atwood again there. He’s a good man.
This year, I still can think of several people who deserved the Atwood Award more than I—one in particular—and I wish they could win it. This year’s winner, the 35th, will be presented at the Rockford Park District City of Gardens Kick Off Dinner and program at 5 p.m., April 14, at Cliffbreakers. With this award and the many parks named for the Atwood family, who gave this community 1,000-plus acres and much more, why don’t you give a little, too, and attend the Atwood Awards? You might learn something from them; I have. Barbara, both Seths, and the family still with us would like that and your new gardens, too. Hope to see you in there and/or in your garden. The Atwoods like to grow things. You help out, too.
From the Mar. 3-9, 2010 issue