Some history and a new 20 years
Editor’s note: The following retrospective article is reprinted from the Dec. 31, 2008-Jan. 6, 2009, issue of The Rock River Times. Watch for a report on the intervening five years in next week’s issue.
By Frank Schier
Editor & Publisher
New Year’s is a natural time of reflection on the past and wonder about the future.
The year 2009. Sounds strange. This past year marked the 20th year of this paper, and 15 years of publishing and editing The Rock River Times. Actually, that’s 17 years of newspapering for me, when the two years of just writing and selling for the paper are counted. In comparison, the now of the future seems surreal at times.
Seeing the future and a need for another voice in Rockford’s community of journalism, John Gile started publishing The Rock River Times’ predecessor, The North End Times, in November 1987. He mainly covered northwest Rockford, with wonderful stories about local history and businesses in the area.
As John told us for our 20th anniversary issue, “My writing career changed and forced me to relinquish publishing The North End Times in the fall of 1989, when a book I wrote, The First Forest became a best seller and led to speaking engagements across America and abroad. I sold the paper to Owen Phelps and the Phelps family in 1990, and they, in turn, sold the paper to Publisher Frank Schier.”
That sale was in December of 1992, and the first edition was published in January of 1993. I hope I have done justice to John and the Phelps’ endeavors.
Newspaper veteran Owen Phelps and his parents, Owen Charles Phelps Sr., and Joan Justen Phelps, had formed a corporation called Ventures North to take over the paper from John Gile and to start other projects. I cannot thank all the Phelps family enough for their mentorship and patience with a “know-it-all” novice. Some would say I haven’t changed much.
When Owen met this fellow, I was looking to publish stories and photos about a trip down the Rock River from its source in Wisconsin. Sometime, if you ask me, I’ll tell you quite a story that starts, “Once upon a time, a college professor, Joan Surrey at Rockford College…. But that story is for another time in print. Because of Joan Surrey’s efforts, Owen commissioned me for my account of canoeing down the Rock River. His parents accepted it for publication; Phelps edited it and saw that it was featured in several consecutive issues of the paper. I also came to work for The Observer while working on a graduate degree in English at NIU at that time.
The North End Times’ major contributor at the time was Joe Baker, who was appointed editor by Phelps; and after I purchased the paper, he worked hard and with great quality as our senior editor. Baker loves the North End and the internet and did fine work gathering and writing news and features. I cannot thank him enough for continuing his vast experience as a radio, television and daily newspaper reporter in our weekly pages.
As I began my career in then-monthly newspapering, I began to do more for The North End Times and went out to Durand and the offices of The Volunteer (Phelps’ other paper) to learn how to paste up (the manual method before complete computer construction). Also as a North Ender, I saw opportunity in owning the paper, especially if it could become a weekly. Phelps’ parents didn’t want to take on that sort of expansion because they were nearing retirement.
So, in 1992, they were happy to turn over the paper to an interested person from the neighborhood (they lived a block away), and I ran the paper out of my house for the first three years.
Besides the Phelps, Bob Stone, the former editor and publisher of The Rockford Journal, was another of my early mentors. Stone also created the first versions of “People in Our Times,” and wrote front-page editorials. It was quite a coup at the time to bring him and his many years of experience to our pages.
Important dates for TRRT
Our first weekly edition was Dec. 2, 1993.
We moved into the storefront office downtown in October 1995.
Our 500th issue was Jan. 14-20, 2004.
The 20th Anniversary Issue of the paper was our Oct. 22-28 issue of this year. In the last 15 of those years, the paper has grown from an eight-page monthly, with 100 drops mainly in northwest Rockford and an 8,000 monthly circulation, to an average of 48 pages weekly, distributed from Beloit, Wis., to Dixon and Belvidere to Freeport with more than 2,050 drops and circulation of 22,000 weekly, plus 1,500 to 2,000 individual visitors to our Website each week.
Some notable stories
With a great affection for literature and music, I envisioned the paper as primarily an arts paper. Many people had told me stories of begging for coverage from the daily, and I thought real opportunity lay ahead. I made a deal with my friend Gary Wilmer, publisher of RAM Magazine, that he would still own the rock ‘n’ roll scene, and I’d cover the fine arts.
Then, came the proposal to tear down the YMCA residence hall on the river. It was the only public example of the Prairie style of architecture. Doc Slafkosky and Jerry Kortman talked me into filing a legal protest. Considering the people on the YMCA board, that put me on the “not-so-favorite-people” list of the powers-that-be for the first time. This paper continued supporting our historical architecture by backing the renovation of our crown jewel, the Coronado Theatre.
Then, we did the Rockford Blacktop snow plowing story, where we compared Madison’s out-sourced plowing costs with Rockford’s. Rockford lost, and I won the never-ending affection of Chuck Howard.
Then, came the Gary Kaeding case: a man unjustly imprisoned in a domestic civil case. On Nov. 6, 1996, State’s Attorney Paul Logli set the outrageous amount of $1 million bond for Kaeding, charged with intimidation and contempt. Kaeding attempted to file a monster lawsuit that covered the school deseg case as fraud, satanism by public officials, siphoning of public funds, murder by abortion, molestation of children by judges, etc., etc. I told him he might have some basic points, but they had to be separate cases. He didn’t listen, and served public officials personally. They thought he was part of the militant group, Posse Comitatus, because he acted as his own lawyer and based all of his pleadings on old English Common Law. While he was odd, and brilliant, he wasn’t crazy. A few months later, Kaeding was sent to Chester Mental Health Facility, Chester, Ill. While imprisoned there, Kaeding was drugged and beaten, and we put a spotlight on the abuse. If not for the constant monitoring of the case and calls to the governor’s office by this newspaper, Kaeding might have been killed. Despite local news blackouts, the Inspector General investigated the treatment of Kaeding, and he was moved to Elgin. Kaeding was eventually freed. We saved a life, and he lives the quiet life today.
Our coverage has also pointed out other flaws in our political system. With the help of now-Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn (D), in October 1999, a national figure came to Rockford. “Granny D” (Doris Haddock), a tireless crusader for campaign finance reform, came to town as she walked across the United States.
Our coverage of the school desegregation lawsuit was extensive, on which we took the position against tyranny by the court and taxation without representation. While Federal Magistrate P. Michael Mahoney was eventually overturned, our community has really never recovered from the damage to our school system and the economic flight from our city.
We were also instrumental in the removal of a tax. Specifically, the downtown property tax, or TIF, which funded an organization that did not do much for the area. We replaced that with the River District Association.
We tried to aid the Tom Ditzler family in their fight against eminent domain by Winnebago County. In 2000, the county wanted to seize about a third of their land for the Springfield-Harrison extension. We documented that there were Native American burial mounds and artifacts on the property, which the county disputed. Although 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 has kept sinking and needs constant repair, as we predicted.
Our Super Fund coverage advocated for the small business owners who were being saddled with the bill for years of pollution by larger businesses. While the matter was eventually poorly settled in court, we have been saddled with new taxes for a new water system.
One of our stories that reached national prominence was about little Angela Rushford and how the Organ & Tissue Donation section began in January 2003. In one of our classified ads, the plea of a desperate family who were running out of options resulted in a special Christmas present from a live donor. Angela was on a six-month waiting list for a cadaver kidney. David and Shelah Harper of Mt. Morris picked up the paper, saw the classified ad, and called the number. David was a perfect match! This event resulted in the addition of a new “Organ & Tissue Donation” classified section. A story about our classified ad and Angela was published in the Dixon Telegraph. When the story was picked up by the AP Wire Service, we were featured with the Rushfords on the Today show and the CBS Evening News.
In February 2002, Jeff Havens, a chemistry lab manager and instructor at Rock Valley College, was fired by college president Roland Chapdelaine, supposedly because Havens was voicing his political opinions with undue influence on students. Actually, Havens had written several articles urging Rock Valley to become involved with renewable energy and questioning Chapdelaine’s fiscal policies and management. In March, I hired Havens as a reporter for TRRT. Previously, Havens had also written for us questioning the need for a mega-jail downtown, brought on by the Chatmon jail-overcrowding lawsuit. Later, in April, Havens began a series of investigative articles about the financial problems of RVC, attributed to Chapdelaine’s policies. Those articles eventually resulted in the firing of Chapdelaine after a “no confidence” vote of the college’s faculty. The termination of Chapdelaine was front-page news in our 500th issue. The paper, myself and Havens were later sued for defamation by Rock Valley College Board Trustee Don Johannes for libel as to his relations with the college, but the headline in our July 21-27, 2004, issue told the outcome: “Court dismisses case against TRRT.” Circuit Judge Janet Holmgren dismissed the case with prejudice, and the public’s right to know was upheld.
Havens also became known for his writing on organized crime in Rockford. His articles were quite sensational — only because the electronic media in the local daily had not done any major stories on the Rockford Mafia since 1984.
Over the years, the tough side of the paper has been tested in other ways. Our storefront windows were kicked out; my car has been shot with paint guns in the passenger door; gasoline was poured on my back porch; the porch screens and a kitchen window of my home had bricks thrown through them.
Police have been called on the 911 system — with the person calling saying she was my girlfriend, and I was suicidal and had a gun. The police were at my door, at first with their hands on their guns, seven times over two weeks. No one has ever been charged in those cases.
Employees and columnists with interesting agendas have come and gone.
Myself and my employees were repeatedly called to jury duty, until we filed a Freedom of Information request of the records,which was never fulfilled, but I didn’t have the money or time to sue.
Jon Bystrom (who helped me start this paper as the first assistant editor/Spanish writer and translator, and still does excellent work every week) was screwed and lost a massive part of his personal assets in a terrible partnership dissolution, which had elements of this paper involved in the case.
Major advertising accounts have disappeared because of political pressure on the business owners.
The IRS tried to close this paper under the Clinton administration, and U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo told me he could only say it was politically motivated.
Many a mysterious street person has followed me, stalked me, threatened me and been arrested. I can file those charges.
At 15 flat tires, I stopped counting. Many other employees also have had “mysterious” vandalisms to their vehicles and properties too numerous to mention in this editorial.
At times, my personal life has been one of terrible pain and great joy, compounded by the challenges of trust, perseverance and understanding people’s motivations and character, especially my own. Sadly or amazingly, however you wish to see life, I have grown. I have the scars and many people’s love to prove it. For them, I will continue to endeavor to do the right thing and tell the truth.
In eastern Europe, there’s a saying, “Tell the truth and RUN!” Aren’t we glad we live in America, and Rockford, Ill. Now, looking worse than New Jersey because of the scandals surrounding our governor, and all of our other jailed governors, Illinois is absolutely a corrupt state.
Rockford, of course, is no exception, and Patrick Fitzgerald could have a real heyday here if he ever showed up. But Rockford is given the “hands off” treatment by our state and federal investigative arms somehow, as shown by the unresolved “poker game” investigation, which reportedly involved major community players.
That’s the challenge for small, independent newspapers like this one — we have a big job the powers-that-be don’t want done. A sophisticated fear rules many a heart that could be courageous in this town, but those hearts too often fail to find their strength.
At the 10th Annual River District Association meeting, Mayor Larry Morrissey told the story of the founding of the River District and noted a conversation with me. I had told him about a saying I saw on a poster in Owen Phelps’ (then the editor of The Observer) office. It said, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” Larry and the audience laughingly agreed.
Our job, more than lonely and sanity stretching at times, is to have courage for those who cannot muster up the courage. Your encouragement and good company makes our strength possible. Besides standing up to the idiots who line their pockets and ruin their souls at the public’s expense, this paper (with the strength of your subscriptions and advertising) has been able to do some really good things over the years. We think. Let’s look at the years.
1990 — When I was just a reporter for The North End Times, along with Gary S. Wilmer, publisher of RAM Magazine and concert producer Bruce Hammond, we founded the Rockford Area Music Industry awards (RAMIs), which won the Mayor’s Arts Award in 1999 for creative cultural event. Hope to see you at the 2009 RAMI Youth Charity Jam Audition and performance, Feb. 28 and April 3, respectively; the RAMIs Benefit, March 21; and 19th Annual RAMIs ceremony, March 30. The RAMIs have put $60,000 in our endowment, and awarded more than $35,000 to graduating high school seniors for their music education since Gary Wilmer’s death in 1994.
1998 — The Rock River Times promulgated the founding of the River District Association by facilitating the joining of west-side businesses with the River East Association.
1998 to 2005 — The Rock River Times published Larry Morrissey’s first articles and acted as major advocates in his election as the mayor of Rockford.
2004 — We organized the sponsorship and construction of our only downtown public boat docks behind the library and Morrissey building.
The Rock River Times became a member of the Illinois Press Association in 2003. We won awards for two years for editorials and for advertising in one year. Then, I became tired of entering that type of contest. This year, we were accepted as members of the Midwest Free Community Papers and American Free Community Papers associations.
New old directions in ink
As an old boy scout and owner of this paper canoe, together with many great writers, The Rock River Times was “green” before it became a fashion statement and a politically correct and easier opportunity for many. The Rock River is this paper’s namesake. Articles and poetry about canoeing down the beauty of the Rock are what brought me and this paper to you. We have also published articles on E.coli pollution and Mary Ann “Bambi” Aiello’s efforts to save the deer from bow hunters at Rock Cut State Park. We have published Rock Cut State Park’s yearly guide. We have been strong opponents of Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s insipid closure of our other state parks. We also were the first to do stories about Bovine Growth Hormones in milk, which promptly got us kicked out of all the grocery stores. So, we just put our energy into distributing in outlets around them.
This paper has consistently promoted renewable energy since 1992, with noted contributors such as Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl, Jeff Havens, Hans Detweiler, Mark Burger and others. We are proud sponsors of the Annual Illinois Renewable Energy Fair (Aug. 8 and 9, 2009 at the Ogle County Fairgrounds), the Winnebago County Green Business awards (May 21, 2009 at the Rockford Park District’s Webbs Norman Center) and YouthBuild’s Green Building training and program. Please contribute to all of them — you can be doubly “Green” with your greenbacks!
As an extension into the future of our commitment to sustainability and our commitment to the environment since this paper was started, we have developed a section of the paper called “Vitality,” which features holistic health articles, features on organics, sports and a focus on the outdoors, with great and regular contributions from our parks community, such as board members and personnel of the Rockford Park District, the Winnebago County Forest Preserve, and particularly Severson Dells. This paper was a major champion of the successful referendum to begin the separation of our forest preserves from politics. Our editorial position is that our natural areas are our greatest resource and our future for our children. Urban sprawl must come to an end, not only for the common sense of renewable energy, but also for the potential of eco-tourism and the attractiveness of our community to retain our brightest youth and new businesses. Too many bright lights leave our community or never arrive. Let’s look at some who stayed and left and still make a brighter weekly possible.
Great writers and staff
Besides those talents already noted, special thanks go to our outstanding contributors, many friends: Joe Baker, Tom Bauschke and his journeys, the late Chris Bowman, Melanie Bradley, Stanley Campbell, Michael Cannariato, George Anne Duckett, Dr. Thomas Fleming, John Gile, Doug Halberstadt, the late Dr. Robert Hedeen, Jonathan Hicks, Jamie B. Johannsen, Dr. L.P. Johnson, Lisa Ferris Rubin, Dan Klefstad, Brian Leaf, Drew Leifheit, Mike Leifheit, Peter MacKay, Edith McCauley, Don Miller, Diane Joy Moca, Mayor Lawrence J. Morrissey, the late Rod Myers, Anne O’Keefe, Phil Pash, Allen Penticoff, Eileen Peterson, Reggie Roberson, Dr. Philip Schalow, Ken Staaf, Dr. Peter J. Stanlis, the late Robert “Bob” Stone, Christine Swanberg and Penny Wiegert. Special mention goes to Mary Stiles, Rebecca Huber and Denise Guzzardo, our horoscope writers and the good friends and gifts they are — first off, so many people have turned to their page, I always say with a semi-serious laugh, I am going to put them on the front page.
The following people are my daily gifts, and yours, too. They make The Rock River Times: Jeffrey Best, Jon Bystrom, Stephanie Castillo, Jim Hagerty, Jeff Helberg, Susan Johnson, Angela Jones, Marilyn Lamar (my right hand), Kristina Leftwich, Brian Livingston, Jody Marshall, Joe McGehee, Susan Petty, Brandon Reid (my left hand), Rick Rowland, Jeanne Schaeffer and Stuart R. Wahlin.
Finally, all of us at The Rock River Times have you, our treasured advertisers and readers. Thank you! Thank you! We truly strive to be “The Voice of the Community.” If you have something to say, send it in — today — this is the start of a new 20 years.
From the Nov. 28-Dec. 4, 2012, issue
Print This Article