A Highly Personal History
Scott P. Richert remembers local historian Jon Lundin.
We’re about 50 miles east of Toledo, cruising along the Ohio Turnpike on our way to Cleveland for the wedding of longtime Chronicles contributor Tom Piatak. Satisfied from a lunch of cabbage rolls, paprikas dumplings, and Hungarian sausage at the original Tony Packo’s, I have Amy’s MacBook open on my lap and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. album shuffling on the iPod. “Dancing in the Dark” isn’t helping me shake the feeling that I should quit browsing news items in NetNewsWire, avoiding the writing I intended to do. (“I get up in the evening, and I ain’t got nothing to say / I come home in the morning, go to bed feeling the same way.”)
The Rockford Register Star’s newsfeed provides only headlines, so I’m running through it quickly and inattentively. As I move on to the next item, the words of the previous headline finally register: “Local author, historian Lundin dies.”
Startled, I read Amy the headline, then pull out the cellphone to call the office. When Aaron answers, I ask him if he’s heard the news. “I don’t have internet access out here on the turnpike, so I’ve only seen the headline. What happened?”
He hasn’t heard, so he pulls up the Register Star’s website. The story is under a different headline now: “Lundin was Rockford’s ‘Historical Consciousness.’” Indeed. Rockford has had her share of historians over the years (though relatively few serious ones since the 1940’s), but only Lundin ever truly earned the title of “Rockford’s historian.” Through his books, most notably Rockford: An Illustrated History, and his constant presence whenever and wherever anyone might require an historical perspective on the challenges facing Rockford (especially in manufacturing), Lundin worked tirelessly to remind Rockfordians of their heritage. His interest didn’t stop at the borders of the city, or even of Winnebago County—a proud Swede, he wrote a brief book on Swedish immigration to Rockford—but like every good patriot, he put those broader interests in the service of his hometown. He placed himself in its service as well: Jon cut short a promising academic career at Yale and Oxford, where he was completing his dissertation on a Jacobite poet, to return home. It may not be fair to say that, if something had no relevance to Rockford, Jon wasn’t interested in it; but in the time I knew him, he certainly was much less likely to talk about it, and he always had a way of turning the conversation back to what did interest him—and what should have interested his interlocutors as well.
Unfortunately for me, our conversations were too few. I had met Jon a few times over the years, but my first extended discussion with him was held standing up in my office, when he came to buy a stack of the November 2005 issue of Chronicles. My column that month (“Revitalizing Rockford”) was based on a speech I had given at a one-day conference on the crisis in manufacturing. Jon had come to the lunchtime talk by Rockford Institute board chairman David Hartman on border-adjusted value-added taxation, but he couldn’t make it to the evening presentation, where I had presented a Frank Capra-esque solution to the crisis, drawn from the history of manufacturing in Rockford and from the contemporary experience of organizations such as the Manufacturing Alliance of the Rock River Valley.
When the column came out, MARRV board member Bob Trojan sent a copy to Lundin, which inspired the unexpected visit and the purchase. I couldn’t have gotten a word in edgewise if I had wanted to—but I didn’t want to, because it was fascinating just to listen to Jon explain the overlap he saw between his ideas and mine, and how manufacturing could yet be revived in Rockford, and how the future didn’t have to look like the present. He asked if he could come back sometime to talk at greater length, and then, without warning, he said goodbye and was down the stairs and out the door.
Jon never did come back to the office, but, a little over a year later, we met up again, this time at an awards ceremony for MARRV. I had written a profile of MARRV in this space (“A Third Way,” October 2006), and Dee Lynn, MARRV’s secretary, had called to ask me to come. Under the pressure of deadlines, I almost blew it off at the last minute. I arrived late, and, on the way in, a young lady handed me a form to fill out for door prizes. I almost passed the opportunity by, but she gave me a pen, and I obediently filled out the ticket.
The top prize, I discovered when the drawing began, was a big-screen TV donated by Wal-Mart, and I spent the next several minutes in fear of actually winning it. I didn’t have to worry: My ticket was drawn a few prizes before. Jon’s friend Mike Molander had donated autographed copies of Rockford: An Illustrated History and Lundin’s Swedetown, and I couldn’t have been more pleased to win them. I’ve consulted Rockford: An Illustrated History extensively over the years, but I had always had to check a copy out of the library. Mike, who had attended the conference on manufacturing and read my article on MARRV, insisted that Jon should personalize the autographs.
When I presented the books to him, Jon told me how sorry he was that I had won his books and not the TV. I looked up at him in surprise—he stood a few inches above six feet—and saw the twinkle in his eyes. He had about as much love for Wal-Mart as I do. We spent the next half-hour discussing my columns, manufacturing, Wal-Mart, MARRV, National Lock (one of the greatest manufacturing success stories in the history of the United States, let alone in Rockford), and P.A. Peterson, perhaps Jon’s greatest inspiration and one of the giants of Rockford industry, whose investments in local companies, and his philanthropic work, helped usher in Rockford’s golden age. Then Jon asked if we might meet sometime for lunch, said goodbye, and once again was gone.
Thus began my acquaintance with Jon Lundin. I wish I could write “friendship,” but that would be claiming more than I have a right to, and it would do a disservice to the many, many men and women in Rockford with whom Jon maintained lifelong friendships. I think that we were headed there, but we ran out of time.
After our discussion, I decided that I wouldn’t wait for Jon to set a lunch date. I sent him a copy of my speech from the 2006 meeting of the John Randolph Club (published as “Are the Good Times Really Over?” the following January) and reminded him of his need for food. A few weeks later, he called. In the avalanche of e-mails that he received every day, he’d apparently missed mine. But Bob Trojan had once again intervened, sending him a copy of my speech. “Let’s have lunch,” Jon said. “Do you like Laotian food?”
Aaron and I hadn’t been to the Lanexang, on the lower end of Seventh Street near Broadway (an area once known as “Swede Heaven”), in several years. Jon, however, ate there often, and always the same dish, and he always asked politely for a slight alteration, even though the waitress already knew how he liked his food. Their exchange illustrated a certain humility, a sense that Jon had that there was no particular reason why anyone should remember something about him, and that humility was reflected in our conversation. He offered me a copy of an editorial that he had written and told me I could keep it—if I wanted to. He had been trying to work through some of the same issues involving trade and manufacturing and free enterprise that I had touched on in my columns, and he wanted to know how our thoughts had so closely converged. The truth is that his historical work had helped me throw off the last vestiges of economic determinism. The great entrepreneurs and inventors of Rockford hadn’t worried at all about comparative advantage, and the best factory owners had always paid their workers a living wage, no matter what others were paying in other parts of the country—and they still made a profit. We talked about whether competition from China made that impossible today, but Jon wasn’t too worried—the answer lay in out-innovating the Chinese, discovering new processes and products that they simply could not produce (not yet, anyway).
As we were leaving, Jon pointed out a house at the end of the parking lot. “That was P.A. Peterson’s house,” back when Seventh Street was the heart of Rockford, before Peterson himself moved up to State Street. Mostly covered in siding, the stone exterior showed through at points, and Aaron and I suddenly saw through new eyes a building we had passed hundreds of times.
We had only one more lunch with Jon, again at the Lanexang. We talked about MARRV, and the recent announcement that this cooperative organization that we had both firmly believed would play an important role in the future of manufacturing in Rockford had been bought by SupplyCore, a Rockford defense contractor. Jon didn’t hide his disappointment. Rockford would need something to take its place, and Jon was already giving some thought to the matter.
Jon had to leave early to sign some papers drawn up by the Illinois Department of Transportation. IDOT, he explained, is widening Kishwaukee Street based on a traffic study conducted years ago, when far more factory workers and trucks traveled the road. Though the current width can more than handle the current traffic, the bureaucracy could not be swayed, and IDOT had raised the threat of eminent domain on several houses that Jon had restored. In the end, he had convinced them to take just parts of the lawn and to save the houses, but he had to sign the papers that afternoon or the deal was off. Still, he hung around until less than five minutes before his meeting, not wanting to cut the conversation short.
As he left, he promised to get me a copy of his newest book, a biography of Rockford manufacturing legend Howard Colman. As Aaron and I settled up the bill, we talked about all of the questions we had for Jon that we would have to save for our next lunch. Now, those questions will go unanswered. I wish I woulda known, I wish I coulda called ya, just to say goodbye . . .
Jon Lundin was 64, though he could have passed for 15 years shy of that. Death came for him just a month before his 30th wedding anniversary. Two and a half months earlier, on February 22, as my family and I waited for a table at Altamore Ristorante to celebrate Amy’s birthday, we could hear laughter and sounds of celebration in the dining room. While we were wondering whom the party was for, Jon came out, eyes twinkling and face flushed with excitement. I introduced him to Amy and told him it was her birthday. “It’s my birthday, too!” he exclaimed, then blurted out, “How old are you?” When Amy told him that she was 39, he replied, laughing, “So am I!” On one level, that was probably close to the truth: Jon had energy and vitality unmatched in men half his age. He left behind more unfinished projects than most men even start in a lifetime.
Another song ends, and Amy shuts off the iPod. I look up from the laptop and see our exit approaching. We haven’t heard all of the album, and I consider turning it back on until we reach our hotel. I glance at the screen to see which song is next, and then unplug the iPod. “Your Hometown” is one of my favorite songs, but the last thing I want to hear about right now is “Main Street’s white-washed windows and vacant stores.” Today, I want to see my hometown through the eyes of one of the greatest of its native sons, who, in the Prologue to Rockford: An Illustrated History, displayed an honesty and integrity lacking in far too many historians, amateur or professional:
The book is in all respects a highly personal history whose approach is both qualitative and selective. I have left out some stories and included others for the simple reason that I liked some stories better than others, and I have depended on anecdotes to make my points because I think they are more apt to be remembered than simple facts. . . .
Local history is always a mixed bag of fact and fantasy, including a number of things of questionable authenticity that we are reluctant to ignore. I have made every effort to corroborate the accuracy of the details in the following pages and have tried to be objective in recounting them; but I still believe the only real reason for writing a book such as this is that it’s interesting, and whether entirely true or not, that it makes a good story.
It does, and he did. Requiescat in pace, Jon Lundin.
Scott P. Richert is Chronicles' executive editor.
This article first appeared in the July 2007 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.