‘The Rock River Times’ celebrates 25 years — part 1
By Susan Johnson
We’ve come a long way in 25 years with you, the readers, following our progress from a monthly neighborhood newspaper, The North End Times, to a weekly, The Rock River Times, with a circulation of 22,000.
For those of you who may not remember our humble beginnings, here’s a recap of where we’ve been and how we arrived where we are.
John Gile started publishing The Rock River Times’ predecessor, The North End Times, in November 1987. Before that, he had received his bachelor of science degree in journalism from Northern Illinois University, had worked as a reporter covering the courts and county government for Rockford’s daily paper, and had served as managing editor of the Rockford Catholic Diocesan weekly newspaper, The Observer. He also founded the advertising agency and public relations firm, John Gile Communications.
The North End Times grew out of a demographic study he did for a Rockford client. Gile contracted with and used data from the national demographic statistics firm used by the White House and NASA. When he received and studied the demographic data, he realized it was badly skewed and grossly misrepresented our area because of the way the data were gathered and presented.
Being familiar with the people and businesses in this area as well as history and events in the North End, plus other topics of interest such as health, city-wide activities and politics, he decided to start a local newspaper. He sent a letter to area businesses announcing the monthly paper’s startup and goals.
“Over the next 23 months,” he recalled, “the paper grew from eight pages mailed to 10,637 homes to 24 pages mailed to about 16,000 homes. Local writers provided features, and an employee helped with the typesetting. I wrote features, took photos, called on area businesses, created ads, designed pages and also set type.”
New owners for the paper
His writing career necessitated the relinquishing of his newspaper publishing, and he sold the paper to Owen Phelps and the Phelps family in 1990. Owen Phelps was the publisher of The Observer, the official newspaper of the Rockford Catholic Diocese. Since Phelps was a resident of Durand, he believed The North End Times should be owned by someone from Rockford’s North End.
His parents, Owen Charles Phelps Sr. and Joan Justen Phelps, formed a corporation called Ventures North and took over the paper from Gile. A company owned by Owen Phelps Jr. and his wife, called The Durand Corporation, began producing the paper in their Durand office, where they also published a local weekly called The Volunteer.
In time, Phelps met Frank Schier, who wanted to publish some stories and photos about a trip down the Rock River from its source in Wisconsin. Phelps read Schier’s account of canoeing down the Rock River and liked it, so his parents accepted it for publication. Phelps edited it and arranged to feature it in several consecutive issues of the paper. Later, Schier also came to work for The Observer while working on a graduate degree at NIU.
The North End Times’ other big contributor was Joe Baker, who at some point was appointed editor. He did excellent work gathering and writing news and features for the paper.
Over the next two years, Schier began to work more for The North End Times and went to Durand to learn how to handle many of the production activities. Since he lived in the North End, Schier saw an opportunity in owning the paper, and hoped to eventually make it a weekly. Phelps’ parents didn’t want to take on that responsibility as they spent most of the summer in northern Wisconsin. They were glad to turn over the paper to an interested person from the North End who was willing to take on the task. So Frank Schier, the former employee, became an owner-publisher.
To aid the new publisher, Phelps set up a revenue-sharing arrangement whereby The Rock River Times and The Volunteer, which meets the requirements for a legal weekly newspaper, collaborated on publication of legal notices for a year. After a year of weekly publication, The Rock River Times also met that requirement itself. Neither the Durand Corporation nor Phelps or his wife ever had ownership interests in The North End Times or its successor, The Rock River Times.
Recording some milestones
Besides Phelps, Bob Stone, the former editor and publisher of The Rockford Journal, was another of Schier’s mentors. Stone also did the first editions of “People in Our Times.” Our first weekly edition was Dec. 2, 1993.
We moved into the storefront office downtown at 128 N. Church St., in October 1995. When the paper was struggling financially because of an IRS attack, a benefit was held on the evening of Feb. 8, 1997, at Herb Garden in Stewart Square downtown. Our friends came through for us, and more than $2,600 was raised. Several local bands provided live music.
Some other memorable dates for the paper included:
1. The Gary Kaeding case — a man unjustly imprisoned in a domestic civil case. In December 1996, a grand jury indicted Kaeding on intimidation charges. On Jan. 1, 1997, he was barred from filing motions; Jan. 22, Kaeding was finally freed and returned to court. Nov. 19, Schier wrote an editorial on “Jury says Kaeding not fit to stand trial.” Nov. 26, Kaeding was sent to Chester Mental Health Facility, Chester, Ill. While imprisoned there, Kaeding was beaten, and the paper reported the abuse. If not for the constant monitoring of the case by TRRT, Kaeding might have been killed. A protest was later held in front of the courthouse downtown, and we reported it, plus the news blackout by media. After repeated calls to the Governor and Attorney General’s offices by Schier, Dec. 17, 1997, Illinois’ Inspector General promised a thorough probe of Chester hospital, and then-State’s Attorney Paul Logli’s reply to Editor Frank Schier was published. In early 1998, Kaeding was moved to an Elgin facility, and later freed by the court.
2. In October 1999, with the help of then-Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, a celebrity came to Rockford. “Granny D” (Doris Haddock), a tireless crusader for campaign finance reform, came to town. The story was featured in our Oct. 6-12 and Oct. 13-19 issues.
3. In April 2000, The Rock River Times was the target of vandals as our front window was broken on the evening of April 17, while Schier was here alone working on deadline. The incident occurred after a WWF event at the MetroCentre. Schier tried to chase two men who reportedly ran into Swilligan’s across the street. Police were called and they took a report, but the vandals were never caught.
4. TRRT was the only public media voice speaking up for the Tom Ditzler family in their fight against Winnebago County. In 2000, the county wanted to seize some of their land for the Springfield-Harrison extension. A group of friends and supporters had several gatherings at the Ditzler place. TRRT documented that there were Native American burial mounds and artifacts on the property, which the county disputed. Although then-Gov. George Ryan eventually ruled in their favor, Winnebago County, acting independently, seized the land anyway under a form of eminent domain called quick-take. Early on the morning of Aug. 30, 2000, bulldozers moved in and began destroying a natural wetland, resulting in the construction of a road that kept sinking and needed constant repair. TRRT documented the destruction, complete with news, editorials and a pictorial section.
5. The Angela Rushford story and how the Organ & Tissue Donation section began. In January 2003, a desperate family who were running out of options placed a classified ad looking for a kidney donor, resulting in a special Christmas present from a live donor. Little Angela was on a six-month waiting list for a cadaver kidney. David and Sheila Harper of Mt. Morris picked up the paper, saw the ad, and called the number. David was a perfect match! In a near-miraculous set of circumstances, a little girl’s life was saved, and TRRT was brought into the public spotlight. TRRT was featured on the Today show, the CBS Evening News, and the AP wire as a result of a Dixon daily’s story. The story was told in our Jan. 8-14, 2003, issue. This event resulted in the addition of a new “Organ & Tissue Donation” classified section.
6. The Chapdelaine debacle. In February 2003, Jeff Havens, a physical science lab manager at Rock Valley College, was fired by college president Roland Chapdelaine after a dispute on policies. In March, Editor Frank Schier hired Havens as a reporter, and Havens started writing articles questioning the need for a mega-jail downtown, and arguing for renewable energy installations in public buildings. Havens was fired from RVC for supposedly lobbying a student on a political issue as a staff member. Later, in April, Havens began a series of investigative articles about RVC’s financial problems attributed to Chapdelaine’s policies, eventually resulting in the firing of Chapdelaine (see page A1 for an update on Chapdelaine). His termination was front-page news in our 500th issue. The paper, Schier and Havens were later sued by RVC Board Trustee Don Johannes, but the lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice by Circuit Judge Janet Holmgren, and the public’s right to know was upheld.
7. Our 500th issue was Jan. 14-20, 2004, with a front-page color photo of current staff.
A new venture — renewable energy
TRRT has consistently promoted renewable energy since 2002, with noted contributors such as Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl, Hans Detweiler and others. Since August 2002, the Vogls have held the Illinois Renewable Energy & Sustainable Lifestyle Fair at the Ogle County Fairgrounds in Oregon, Ill.
TRRT spoke with Dr. Sonia Vogl to get a review of the history and plans for the future.
TRRT: How did you get the idea for the first Renewable Energy Fair? When did Frank Schier get involved with it?
Dr. S. Vogl: “The first Renewable Energy Fair was in 2002. Frank got involved before the first fair. It was that winter; he had us on his TV program. We had been going to the Renewable Energy Fair in Custer, Wis., and we went with friends. When we got back here, people would talk about it and say, ‘That’s all good, but how do we get people involved with it here without paying an arm and a leg to travel? What we really need is a network in northern Illinois for the people who are interested.’ We felt that there were enough people interested that we should start it. That’s where we got the idea. So we said, ‘Let’s do it!’ We went to people we knew who could be vendors and people who had heard about it.”
TRRT: How many exhibitors participated in the first fair? How many in 2012?
“The first time, we had over 50. This year, it was over 60. At times, we have had over 100.”
TRRT: What has been the most consistent area of interest through the years?
Dr. S. Vogl: “It has changed. It started out as the Renewable Energy Fair. It was primarily the guys who were interested in technology, but their wives were bored, so we said, how about sustainable lifestyles? Something that they could actually do, like growing your own vegetables, organic gardening, cooking and freezing, canning, dehydrating foods. This summer, we even had somebody talk about pickled food. [We have] homemade soaps and homemade jewelry. This year, we had somebody with alpaca fur. All these kinds of things and our sustainable lifestyle vendors expanded, so we had a nice variety — the beet producer, the Grange, veggie wraps and slushies; to where we actually had real lessons and made solar cookers for a number of years. They made things out of cobb [mixture of clay, sand and straw], an Asian building technique, very ancient. We also had a demonstration of straw building and energy conservation, insulation, geothermal and solar installers and repairers, and wind.
“We have also had native plantings — like prairie and woodland plants; they’ve been a real draw. We have a local organic farmer who comes and sells the things he grows. That’s grown a lot since the last couple fairs.”
TRRT: Is there anything you would like to change for future editions of the fair? What have you learned from the participants?
Dr. S. Vogl: “What we were thinking is, we would like to have more kids involved and more school children — maybe have it after school starts, about the 15th or 16th of August . … After the first week of June, the teachers have no contact with them. Kids are getting more interested. We know the teachers are getting more interested because we had the sixth-graders out on a field trip two weeks ago. We showed them our solar installations and wind turbines. There was a tromb wall [made of stone with glass windows, where the sun shines through and heats the house] and the recyclable picnic furniture. We showed them how we try to live a more sustainable lifestyle. We have chickens and ducks; we raise them for eggs. We have llamas that we raise for their fibers. That’s all renewable and sustainable. We showed them solar cooking and our gardens and a hoop house.”
The Rock River Times has been a major sponsor, presenter and vendor at all 11 fairs. In the last three years, the Rock River Trail Initiative, founded by Schier, was a vendor and presenter as well.
To be continued …
From the Nov. 14-20, 2012, issue
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