By Susan Johnson
After 21 years of working for The Rock River Times, I am calling it quits — not necessarily retiring altogether but switching gears. Social Security is good, but it’s not enough; I’d like to see what other direction my life can take.
I started out as a typist for a small monthly publication (that had just been changed from The North End Times) and wound up as copy editor of The Rock River Times, now a weekly with a circulation of 22,000. What many people may not know is that I never applied for this job in the first place. That’s right. I had some previous job experience, and in July 1993 was working as a part-time secretary for Stanley Campbell, executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries. I also did some typing for his Rockford Peace & Justice Action Committee, and some of them occasionally stopped in to the office. That’s where Jon Bystrom first met me and saw me typing.
Jon was helping Frank Schier get his paper started, and Frank needed a typist, so Jon passed on my name to him, as he said. One day early in July, I was at home and got a phone call that went something like this:
“Hello, my name is Frank Schier. I’m the editor and publisher of a monthly newspaper, The Rock River Times. Could you come to work for me? How fast can you type?”
Really, there wasn’t much more to it than that, if you can call it an interview. I told him that on a good day, I typed about 80 words a minute. I also told him about my other job, which as it was part time, he said was agreeable to him. I had never met Frank Schier or even heard of him until then. I met him when he came to the house and picked me up for the job. Yes, I was hired sight unseen, over the phone — no résumé, no references, no tests. However, when Frank timed my typing, he found that I had spoken the truth.
For several years, I managed to work both jobs, splitting hours and days. I’ve seen many milestones at the paper and marked a few of my own. The first article I wrote for the paper — which wasn’t even assigned — was about Roy, Frank’s dog. I wasn’t sure if it would even be accepted, but Frank liked it and published it, and we got some nice comments. And after I’d been working there a few weeks, I asked Frank, “Would you like to see a résumé?” That’s when he learned that I had taken a one-year course at a local business school, knew shorthand, and had also taken a correspondence course in journalism from the Newspaper Institute of America.
In December 1993, we went weekly; suddenly, the pace was quickened, and we had deadlines! Since I had previously worked at the CETA office, I knew about working on deadlines. Although the staff often worked late Tuesday nights, I wasn’t among the last to leave and usually got a ride with someone. One of the employees, Melanie, often brought her kids over to the house, so some of my duties included babysitting.
In early October 1995, we moved into the storefront office at 128 N. Church St. So many things have happened here, it’s impossible to mention more than a few. Once, during the 1990s, a summer storm knocked out all the electricity in our area. It was a Tuesday night, deadline, and suddenly all our power was gone. Marilyn Lamar called her husband, John, as they had power in their East State Street apartment above what is now Brio. He came over with candles and cardboard boxes, and the necessary computers were quickly packed up and transported to the apartment to finish the paper over there. Yes, we made deadline.
Also, in the 1990s, on a frigid Tuesday night in January, we had been working late, and after we had mostly finished, I left with Jon, who was giving me a ride home. It was about 1:15 a.m., Wednesday. Snow and ice covered the streets, and the air felt like arctic temperatures. We got as far as the intersection of Kilburn Avenue and School Street, and Jon’s car suddenly died. He tried several times to get it started — no luck. But there was a pay phone by the gas station on the corner, and Jon went over to call our boss, who was still working at the office. As I sat there shivering in the ice-cold car, even bundled up with winter clothes, I thought, where are the police when you need them? Then, as if in answer to a prayer, a police vehicle suddenly showed up. Jon immediately hailed them, and they stopped. He explained the problem, and they came over and tried unsuccessfully to start his car. While we waited for Frank to arrive, a lady police officer asked, “Would you like to warm up in our van? We have a heater.” It was the best thing I’d heard all evening. It was actually a paddy wagon, but who cares? It was a warm place to wait, and gratefully, we both got in. When Frank arrived about 15 minutes later, he opened the door and looked at us smugly. “Ha!” he laughed. “Partners in crime.” Frank then gave me a ride home, and the police eventually got Jon’s car to start. Only on this job, I thought later, could something like this happen.
Some of the stories I’ve worked on over the years stand out in memory. In September 1994, I wrote about the white buffalo at the Heider farm in Janesville, Wisconsin. Years later, Frank and I would revisit the farm on a weekend, hosted by Dennis “White Bear” Dillard.
In 1996-97, the paper was in a precarious financial position after an IRS attack, and a benefit for The Rock River Times was held Feb. 8, 1997, at Herb Garden in Stewart Square. Our friends came through, and more than $2,600 was raised. Several local bands provided live music. I stood up with Frank as we read an original humorous poem together.
In April 2000, the newspaper was the target of vandals as our front window was broken on the evening of April 17, while Frank was here working on deadline. The incident occurred after a WWF event at the MetroCentre. Frank tried to chase two men who reportedly ran into Swilligan’s across the street. Police were called and took a report, but the vandals were never caught. I was surprised when I came into work the next morning and found our windows boarded up. That was when we made our own front page as news.
The Ditzler family’s trials have been part of our history as well. This paper has always been in the forefront of the fight to preserve our natural heritage, and TRRT was the only public media voice speaking up for this family in their fight against Winnebago County. In 2000, the county wanted to seize some of their land for the Springfield-Harrison extension. Some friends and supporters had several gatherings at their 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.
Our Sept. 6-12, 2000, issue documented the destruction in a tribute to what was and could never be again. Several of us contributed to that issue. Frank’s editorial, “Take a drive on Cunningham Road, and honk,” encouraging people to see what their tax dollars were spent on, and to tell the Winnebago County Board members how they felt about it; my article “Obituary for a Woodland: Reliving Tom and Jan Ditzler’s Nightmare” — reporting on a walk through the ravaged woodland and a memorial service for “Emma,” the white oak. This tree had become a symbol for all those fighting to preserve the land, and it was the first victim to fall to the bulldozer; one of my friends said the article brought her to tears. There was also a photo spread by several contributors: Ken Bard, Jessie Crow, Peter Heidenreich, Frank Schier, Tim Woolsey. It showed “Emma” in all her splendor in blossom in spring, the tree’s remains, lying across Kent Creek, a rock bridge for equipment, and a scar on the property on the opposite side of the creek. This was the issue of which I was most proud, chronicling the story of a losing battle to save something priceless and irreplaceable, tragic though it was.
Also, over the years, we have given special coverage to the annual “Honor the Mounds” ceremony at Beattie Park. This became my regular summer assignment, meeting old friends and making new ones while working in a beautiful park. Mac and Juanita, thanks for some wonderful memories!
In February 2012, I was assigned to cover the Archaeological Institute of America’s event at Burpee Museum of Natural History. Dr. Shannon Fie of Beloit College was going to speak on the topic “Early Pipe-making in Illinois during the Middle Woodland Period.” I got a friend to take me there, and I brought my notebook and pens. While the subject was fascinating and educational, it was difficult in a way I’d never imagined. A video screen was set up in the room, and a slide projector was ready. I was taking notes as the slides began, when suddenly — zap! The lights were turned off. All of a sudden, I found myself trying to take shorthand notes on a page I couldn’t see — writing blind. Somehow, I managed to make sense of the notes later, after verifying some facts with the speaker, but it was quite a challenge.
Last September, I was able to cover the visit of Dr. Duke Pesta, who spoke about the problems of Common Core in our schools. It ended up being a three-part series and stirred up quite a bit of interest. I was glad to be able to do this, as it was my request to do this article.
Not all the subjects I wrote about were straight news. I’ve done several book reviews and once had the opportunity to do a theater review (The Rock and the Rabbi at The Fireside Theatre in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin). Though I’m not usually a sports fan, I did make one exception. At one time we had a sports writer, Phil Pash, who wrote about all kinds of sports except one — he wouldn’t touch horse racing. I told Frank, there’s a group of sports fans out there who are being ignored. So, he let me try a horse racing column for the Triple Crown season. That’s how “Heartbeats & Hoofbeats” was born.
I’ve made several friends over the years, not just at the paper. Christina Ditzler and Jessie (Crow) Mermel are friends dating from the battle to save the Ditzler wetland in 2000. Idella Blakely at the Winnebago County Clerk’s Office is a special friend. I was privileged to attend the wedding of Brandon Reid, our senior assistant editor.
Now it’s time to say adieu — and wish everyone well as I begin a new chapter in my life.
From the Jan. 28-Feb. 3, 2015, issue