By John Russell Ghrist
I have always thought newspapers are the true chroniclers of time. Each edition of The Rock River Times and others are stored downtown for reference. Some are even microfilmed so future researchers can learn from the past. A guard circles the local history room at regular intervals, protecting this city’s great collection of its heritage.
Another piece of this city’s history will now be deposited at the main library. It will be the last issue of the Rockford Labor News, dated April 12, 2013. The owners have announced they are closing. Indeed, an historical era has ended. How many things last 100 years? I have already read the last issue. The paper’s final publication is a shell of its once grandeur. It completes a cycle of required legal announcements, and says a brief goodbye. Sadly, its demise will probably go unnoticed.
The owners the Rockford Labor News, Don and Mary Brady, are calling it quits because of age, health and economics. Don recently celebrated his 86th birthday, and the Bradys are observing their 60th wedding anniversary. They have spent the better part of their lives sometimes devoting seven days a week to publishing the News. The Bradys took time out to attend church on Sundays, but mostly could be found weekends busily putting their weekly paper to bed. I hope they now will be able to enjoy their retirement and family.
The Bradys have tried to sell their publication for the past two years, but there were no takers. Sadly, their newspaper has gone the way of many others that have been victimized by numerous online editions, along with some union conflicts, not enough paid advertising and relevance. Although, Brady insists a publication is still needed in this community to advance the viewpoints of labor. I found young people here never heard of the Labor News, while many seniors were surprised it still existed until recently.
The Bradys achieved a publication milestone when evidence of its long heritage was revealed in the opening of a time capsule. The paper had, indeed, been published since 1912, trumpeting the fact that the News has been around for 101 years, a feat the Bradys can certainly be proud of.
In the past, I have submitted many volunteer free-lance stories to the News, staying away from labor issues. That was Don’s job. But the paper was more than a platform for what workers were saying about contracts, pensions and rules. Many issues chronicled the history of the city, which included coverage of parades, the obituaries of interesting people, and other timely stories. No other publications wanted me to regularly write for them, and the newspaper supported many of my projects, like the last appearance of the Bill Engberg Orchestra and the development of Rockford’s community radio station, WTPB LP 99.3 FM.
When I first started submitting articles to the Labor News, people would shutter and refuse to talk to me. In its earlier years, the publication had a reputation as a “scandal sheet.” One person once told me her parents never wanted to read her name in the Labor News.
It always meant trouble and embarrassment for those whose identities and deeds were chronicled there. However, that is what newspapers are supposed to do — to report the news in an unbiased fashion and keep a check on the wrongdoers in the community.
The Brady’s paper also featured in each edition a sad notorious collection of “he grabbed her, and choked her” domestic-type items. These were stories that revealed the large amounts of inner-city crime, drug busts and accidents involving those with no auto insurance. These were items that were ignored by most publications, and detailed what our police officers dealt with on a daily basis. On the front page were photos of four of the latest criminals wanted by the Crime Stoppers.
Inside the News office, in an old, weather-beaten building on Broadway, are numerous desks where reporters once sat. They filed their columns and chased ambulances and fire trucks around. Don’s late father, Cap, truly knew the beat of the city, and knew much about its past. Today, Don has revealed the Forest City’s darkest secrets in a few stories, but keeps most of it humbly to himself. In his own subtle way of reporting, he has tipped his hat to those who did good, and boldly brandished the names of others caught in the world’s oldest occupation on street corners. His paper did successfully shut down the operations of the abortion chamber next door. Numerous picketers were housed out of the cold in the newspaper office.
What caused the Labor News to close? Many seniors remember seeing its newsboys peddle the paper outside the city’s numerous companies years ago when Rockford was basically a labor town. The factories are gone now, and the jobs were outsourced. At the few newsstands where the paper was sold, I would see folks briefly scan it and then place it back in the stack and not even purchase one. One restaurant owner refused to sell it over a one-time confusing distribution incident.
Today, there are many papers in this city. Most just contain ads and can be found strewn around doctor’s offices and blowing down the street. They have limited circulation and have taken away vital advertising from legitimate publications here. Every enterpriser has the right to start up a newspaper, circular or shopper, but most of them are only useful to line the bottom of a bird cage.
Don and Mary Brady supported the good in this town, and their newspaper was sadly taken for granted in recent years. The Rockford Labor News will not be forgotten by those who remember its purpose to promote worker and union activities in this community. The issues of this longtime, 101-year publication are now a part of the city’s long heritage. They will take their place in the archives of the library’s downtown local history room, with the rest of the city’s past.
John Russell Ghrist is a local resident.
From the April 10-16, 2013, issue