The 2018 RCHS History Makers award recipients contribute to the historical preservation and betterment of the Rock County communities of Janesville, Beloit and Footville. The following are the stories of three of the six award winners, receiving the Scholar, Good Neighbor and Young Historian awards. Read the first post of this series.
Tom McBride: Recipient of the 2018 History Makers Scholar Award
Tom McBride is Professor Emeritus of English at Beloit College, and a local author of Historical Fiction and Mystery.
How did you become a writer?
I taught at Beloit College for four decades, I retired and had certainly written at Beloit College, mostly non-fiction scholarly essays. So, I wasn’t new to writing. But, while at Beloit, I knew creative writers who wrote fiction. I never imagined that I could ever do it. I had written a number of non-fiction books by way of the Mindset List that Ron Nief and I wrote together, so I was well versed in non-fiction.
One day, I was reading a fictional book about Henry James. And I learned that Henry James hated to fire anyone. He had a butler who had become quite a drinker and had a tendency to spill soup and drinks on guests, but still, he could not bear to fire him. So, what he did was seat the guests so that they had their backs to the servant so they couldn’t see how drunk the servant was.
I began to think, what if we were to have that sort of attitude toward an appliance? What if we were so attached to an old washing machine that even though it no longer functioned very well, we couldn’t get rid of it, couldn’t let it go.
I sat down and wrote this story, a goofy story, about this guy who was in love with his old Norge. He spent a fortune refurbishing it, getting new parts and so on. Eventually, it got to the point where he couldn’t repair it anymore. So, he paid his last money to have it moved to the beach, and he himself curled up inside of it and was found dead inside his old Norge. I thought, “Hey, I just wrote fiction!”
I started writing some short stories based on my Texas childhood. Then I wondered if I had a novel within me and thought it would have to be set on some small college campus, because that’s where I had spent my working life.
So, I started writing a novel called “Godawful Dreams” about a fictional college in Vermont called Illyria College, which was about to close its doors. The president was a very pretentious man, who looked the part, kind of like a ship’s captain. But, he couldn’t raise money and had to turn to his ex-wife to bail the college out. There were a lot of subplots.
Each day I wrote a chapter. A friend who said, “It’s amazing what you’re doing.” And I said, “I’m just going to write a chapter a day.” Eventually, I published it and Wisconsin Public Radio picked it up and it was the basis for “A Chapter a Day.” Sales were very good! This was all since 2014. With the modest success of that, I continued to write fiction.
I realized that I have certain gifts for it. I have a fairly good gift for pacing, I have a really good gift for dialogue. I don’t have a very good gift for visual description and I don’t have a very good gift for plot. But, I’m able to overcome that a little bit by letting the plot build to the characters. I know that some writers can just outline the plot and there they go. But, I can’t do that.
The History Makers Scholar Award is given to an individual who has achieved excellence in historical scholarship, theme, or topic connected to Rock County that has made an educational impact. Tell me, why do you prefer historical fiction?
Historical fiction, for me, is fascinating. For one thing, I’m part of The Mindset List project. That project is all about how generations have totally different experiences. And what one generation finds normal, another generation finds unbelievable.
So, if I were to tell a young person today that once upon a time there were radios in cars, and you had to turn them on and wait a minute or two for them to warm up before they would begin to broadcast, they would find that very difficult to believe. So, I think historical fiction is inherently educational because the past is a foreign country that the young need to visit.
In “The Jaded Lady of Janesville,” I really wanted the younger readers to have a sense of what Janesville was like in the late 30’s. I wanted them to know what it was like when war clouds were gathering and how the United States did not want to get involved at all. I wanted to describe what it was like to live in Courthouse Hill, which was where I grew up. What it was like when GM and Parker Pen were the mainstays of Janesville and how, in many ways, kept Janesville out of the depths of the Depression.
Of course, I wanted to throw in something lurid, because people wouldn’t just want to read about a story, in particular a story about the intersection between Britain and the United States at a time when Britain was under tremendous siege and peril and the United States thought of “Let’s just mind our own business.” So, I put all of that together and that’s how “The Jaded Lady of Janesville” came about.
Editor’s note: “The Jaded Lady of Janesville, Wisconsin” is available at the Rock County Historical Society gift shop.
What is your favorite Rock County setting?
There are two. In “Bent Dead in Beloit: A Mystery,” you have a scene at Homecare Pharmacy in Beloit. I’d been going to Homecare Pharmacy ever since it opened, ever since it changed from a grocery store to a drug store. I know people there and used to get all my prescriptions there. I thought that I should have at least one scene there.
The scene is when this Beloit cop meets the wife of his partner and he is just totally in love with the wife of his partner, but she is indifferent to him. So, everything he sees in Homecare Pharmacy, things she picks up, like the tissue paper, he thinks, “She cares more about that than she cares about me!” So, Homecare Pharmacy is kind of a sentimental place for me.
The second location is Courthouse Hill. In “The Jaded Lady of Janesville,” when Anna Marie Loy comes to Janesville from London, she stays with a cousin who has married an American. They live in Courthouse Hill at 220 Sinclair, which is where I used to live. So, I’m able to describe the house intimately through the cousins’ letters.
In the living room at 220 Sinclair is a stained-glass window. And in the summer time, when the light comes in in the afternoon, you’d have this tremendous rainbow on the carpet. That was one of the things that I most loved about living in that house. So, of course, I had Anna Marie’s older cousin describe this back to Liverpool. She had said that thought she didn’t know how long Anna Marie would be staying, that she would love this rainbow. Of course, that was ironic, because Anna Marie was far too dark in her own psyche to appreciate a rainbow.
There’s a house on the corner of Sinclair and Van Buren which was actually a Sears Roebuck catalog house, where the plans were ordered from Sears. As part of a joke, I had the owner of the house be a Mr. Gasper. That was a little homage to Patrick Gasper.
In your opinion, what is the value in teaching and preserving the history in our area?
I have this idea that the history of a particular community is glamorous. It’s a strange word to use, but if you look at the history of Janesville or Beloit or Rock County, or any other non-Chicago, non-London city, there’s a tendency to say, “Well, these places are in the middle of nowhere.” But, in fact, every county in the United States has an interesting history. Rock County is one of those. If you look under enough rocks, no pun intended, you’ll find a lot of fascinating stuff has happened here!
If you move to Janesville or move to Beloit or you’re working for Beatrice Foods or for Grainger, you should know that you’re moving to a place that has an interesting history, and interesting ancestry. To me, history is kind of glamorous. You could apply that to Chicago, as well. You might say, “Oh here’s the Sears Tower or the Art Institute.” But you also have, “Here’s where the Saint Valentine massacre took place,” one of the great historical events in Chicago. Or, “This is where the Pullman Strike took place.”
So, you come to Janesville where we have the Rotary Gardens and great historical neighborhoods. But, it’s more than that. This is where the first great General Motors plant was. To me there’s a kind of glamour to it.
As an English professor, did you sneak some history into your English lessons?
Well, I majored in both English and History at Baylor University and I’ve always had a strong interest in history. I taught Shakespeare, and you can’t teach Shakespeare without teaching history.
For example, last night I was watching a documentary on King Henry VII, who was the first Tudor king back around 1500. The documentary was showing the genealogical claims to the English throne and King Henry VII had a very thin claim. And I turned to my wife and told her, “You know, I taught all that genealogy to my students.” You can’t teach Shakespeare without teaching history.
What does this Scholar Award mean to you?
You could have knocked me over with a feather when Jackie Wood told me about it! Of course, I’m greatly honored.
What I would like to do is use the publicity of the award to give some talks at the Rock County Historical Society. I see this award as an opportunity for me to help RCHS and to help the community understand its history better.
Rick McGrath and Ana Kelly: Recipients of the 2018 History Makers Good Neighbor Award
Rick McGrath and Ana Kelly are the owners of Resonate Web Marketing.
Tell me about your historic projects.
Rick: I’ve always had an affinity for old houses and old neighborhoods and it’s a wonderful community. But, though a lot of wonderful people live there, cul de sacs are not my flavor. Never having been here before, I drove around looking for old communities, downtown, the center of the city and the old neighborhoods. I found the neighborhood, the old house and got involved here in Beloit.
Shortly after, Ana and I brought the kids here. It was pretty much commuting distance, interesting house, interesting neighborhood and I got involved. So, we are a bit of a serial old house homeowner. We’ve been working on our house for the last 13 years. That’s been the principal project.
A couple of years in, someone mentioned to me the Landmarks Commission. From the Beloit Landmark Commission website:
The primary purpose of the Landmarks Commission is:
- To designate and promote new and existing landmarks and historic districts
- To regulate the way exterior alterations, additions, and construction or demolition of properties is done in historic districts or those with landmark status (see Certificate of Appropriateness)
- To serve as a liaison between the public and the City of Beloit Planning and Building Services Division to encourage the stability of historic districts and landmarks sites
I got involved and have been on the Landmarks Commission off and on for the last ten years. Currently, I’m one of seven on the Commission, in the past I’ve been the Chair.
When I first came on board, there were only five of us. Most of the activities were handled by the City because there was a Landmarks Commission once upon a time, and things had become contentious. So, people didn’t want to be on the Landmarks Commission, it was not received well. No one wanted to tell your neighbor, “You can’t do that.”
It was tough getting people to serve on this Landmarks Commission, there were only five, and it was a disservice to the community because they couldn’t have a quorum. So, it was the right thing to do; the City assumed most of the responsibilities. This well-meaning, but understaffed Landmarks Commission was relegated to demolitions and not much else.
The first thing I did when I got on the commission was recruiting. We got up to seven members and got the ordinance changed so that the things the City staff were doing, now went back to the commission, who rightfully should be making those sorts of decisions. The city has a variety of different commissions, and most of them are one or two people short. For the last 10 years, we’ve always had seven people. That’s something I’m proud of. We are actively making decisions and trying to be of service to the community.
Why is preserving historic places to you?
Rick: My sense of things is that ever since the suburbanization of America has become more generic, there’s such a thing as “Generica.” The identity of a community is largely tied to what is unique about that community and its historic sense, its personality and its connectedness.
There are wonderful people who live out in their planned communities, but I believe the level of detachedness works against people’s wanting to connect with other human beings. I think they tend to be more anonymous, they tend to be a little bit more isolating and just kind of generic. It’s a place where you live. It’s less of a home, but more of a place where you go after work.
I think more and more it’s shifting back towards connectedness and community. The people in general, especially the younger people, are choosing with their dollars where they live and what their priorities are. A lot of that has to do with traditional communities and their level of interaction.
Ana: An example of when you change something is when people are in a house for not that long and then tear out a historical part of a house because they want the convenience of a door right there. People have to understand that you’re only the steward of a house for a little while.
Rick: That’s the key aspect. When you get into old houses, yes, you own the house. You’re paying the mortgage, you own the deed, but to some extent, the house kind of has its own life. So, you’re more of a steward of a house. So, if I’ve moved into a house that’s one hundred years old and maybe live there ten, fifteen, perhaps twenty years, and then there will be another house. So, am I leaving the house in better shape or worse shape for having experienced us?
What has sparked an interest in history in you?
Ana: Rick was more into historic preservation. We used to be involved in the Historic Walks in Elgin, IL, and volunteered for that, as well. Once you see it, you can’t NOT see it. I’m much more conscious now about the history. When we moved into the house, we went to the historical society to find out more about the history of the house. At one time, we hired someone to get our home included in the historic district. It might be included soon.
Rick: Maybe it’s because I grew up in an apartment building and, as a child, I thought Victorian homes were really cool and all that goo gah. Then, as an adult and had options on where and how I wanted to live, I looked into an old house that had some character to it and some proximity to the downtown.
One of the things I appreciate about where we work here in the Irontek building and where we live is that I can walk to work. There are very few communities, very few professionals in America, who can say, “I can walk to work.” Ana sometimes rides her bike to work.
Once upon a time in my career, I owned a small direct-order catalogue, Renovator’s Resource, and it was a specialty catalogue marketed towards owners of old historic homes, a selection of products, mostly books but it evolved into tools and supplies.
What has been your most challenging piece of renovation?
Rick: There are individual projects, like an old house, and there are community projects, so it depends on which we’re talking about. As far as the house, we do spend a lot of time working on the yard and the garden.
When we travel with business, we usually go through the historic districts just to see what other communities are doing. On a trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan, we took our bikes with us and stayed at a bed and breakfast. As you kind of go through a neighborhood, oftentimes before you can see the house, you see the yard. And THAT is your first impression. You can have a beautiful house, but if you have no landscaping, it’s just grass up to the foundation and a house, that just looks naked. So, yard after yard, it must be a cultural community, perhaps a Dutch community. There were a lot of what one might call “statement gardens.”
We came back and said, “We’re going to put in a statement garden. Someone’s got to be first.” So now, there are a bunch of nice yards, lawns, gardens. There are a bunch of them up in Janesville, as well. You can live in squalor inside your house, but if your yard looks like hell, it reflects on the entire neighborhood. We’ve been trying to encourage people to try to lead by example and to fix up the visible part of the yard.
Tell me about the Plant Exchange.
Ana: Last year, Rick organized a Plant Exchange. We’re trying to get a date for this year, as well. People donate plants, they bring plants and they take plants. It’s free, it’s for the neighborhood for the visible parts of their yard. We are hoping that people will bring pictures to share this year of how these plants changed their yards. There are some neighborhoods who can’t afford plants or don’t know what to plant.
The Good Neighbor Award is given to an individual or community organization for the continued preservation and care of a historic home or neighborhood in Rock County. One question I always like to ask of those who work to restore the history of the community is ‘What motivates you?’
Rick: Building community, I suppose, connectedness. This internet marketing thing kind of feeds my anti-social side. So, building up the community, getting involved in the neighborhood kind of helps me get out of my comfort zone a little bit.
Ana: We kind of share our resources that we find. So, because of your interest, you end up finding things and we share them. We had a neighborhood association, it’s been a couple of years. But, life gets busy and when you try to do it on your own, it’s tough to make things happen.
The signage in the historic district was one of the big initiatives that Rick worked on for years. Then, add it all together, we had the meetings with the community, and it took five or six years before someone else helped that along. We finally have signage now. But, nothing happens overnight, and there’s always controversy.
Rick: That’s the hard part, as I mentioned we’ve done our own property. Trying to do it on a neighborhood level is difficult. Many hands make for lighter work, but the opposite is true also. It’s hard to get things done by yourself. So, if you’re not a very dynamic person, it’s good to have friends who are, so they can enlist people.
What does this award mean to you?
Ana: I was surprised!
Rick: It’s an honor. We’re really involved with community, but because of that, most of the people we know are also involved in the community. I suppose if we played tennis, most of our friends would be tennis players. Most of our best friends are involved in the community, to the extent that we are. So, it’s a pleasant surprise.
Are you looking forward to the History Makers event?
Ana: Yes, I hear there’s dancing!
A Cappella Choir: Recipient of the 2018 History Makers Young Historian Award
The following answers are by Adam Miller, director of the Craig High School A Cappella Choir.
How did the opportunity arise for the A Cappella choir to go to Washington DC?
I received an email from a Janesville Performing Arts Center Board Member, that the White House was looking for singers to perform over the holiday season. We’ve maintained a pretty close relationship with JPAC and utilize them when we can. It was kind of like, “Are you interested?” And my response was, “Absolutely! We ARE interested in doing this!”
So, we put together an “action team” to fundraise and figure out how we could do this. I really wanted this opportunity to be available for all the students, not just for those who could afford it. Therefore, I felt the need to fundraise to cover the cost for everyone. I was able to do it, which is awesome.
How were the students chosen for this gig?
We had 50 students audition. They had to sight read, learn something on the spot and sing. It was a quick turnaround. About a week after the audition, I had selected the students and we started learning the music. We had to perform for two-and-a-half hours at the White House, so we set some time aside, had extra rehearsals outside the school day. We had about 10 to 12 rehearsals. We learned about 45 minutes’ worth of music and just repeated it in various orders.
The Young Historian Award goes to an individual, youth or youth organization (18 and under) who achieves excellence in history, humanities or a social studies field in Rock County. What did this chance to make history for Rock County mean to you and to your students?
I think it was an opportunity of a lifetime for all of us! Something like this isn’t going to come around once again in their lifetime. Entry to the White House these days is pretty secure. It just doesn’t happen. For us to be invited to go sing there was a really special thing for all these kids. I’m hoping it’s a memory that will last a lifetime, because that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about the moment, it’s about the memories.
What were some of the things the students were able to do there?
It was a very fast 60-hour trip. We stayed in downtown DC, we toured the Capitol and spent some time with Speaker Ryan. It was the day he signed the tax bill, which is absolutely nuts that he found some time for us, but he did! We toured the Smithsonian Museums, the National Mall and we had some really excellent dinners. You know, if you’re going to sing at the White House, you might as well treat yourself a little bit. It was a busy time.
How did this experience enhance the learning of your students?
It’s real-life application. They had a goal, they were pushed with work ethic and they rose to the occasion to meet the goal. The real-life applications of choir in general teaches teamwork, dedication, it teaches humility, hard work and so many of the soft skills that aren’t taught in the other classes.
Do you feel they gained a more enlightened view of our nation’s history with this trip?
Yeah, I think many of these students had never been out to DC. They were able to take in the sites. We had a really cool tour of the Capitol, it was a VIP tour, unlike the average tour. We saw some cool stuff there. The students walked where history happened! It was an awesome experience for them.
What does this Young Historian Award mean to you and your students?
It’s an incredible honor that I feel really blessed to have received. I’m grateful that the Rock County Historical Society recognized what these students did and how the arts are mixed into everything. You can’t have history without talking about art. It’s really cool that we were considered to be a part of this.
Are you looking forward to the History Makers event?
Yes! We’re very excited. It’s a busy day for me. We have State Solo and Ensemble that day, as well! But, we’ll just have to go from there to there and it’s going to be a great day and a great time. I’m excited to be able to see the students again as a group, and we’ll have a little performance for the event.
The following answers are by Lauren Sherman, a member of the Craig High School A Cappella Choir and a former Rock County Historical Society volunteer and intern.
The Young Historian Award goes to an individual, youth or youth organization (18 and under) who achieves excellence in history, humanities or a social studies field in Rock County. What did this chance to make history for Rock County mean to you?
As a vocalist it was outstanding to be able to sing for an audience that’s so “high up.” Being in the White House, where the president lives, was a really cool opportunity. For me, personally, I feel really honored that our talent was recognized at that level and that we even got to go, coming from Janesville, Wisconsin. Here we came from the middle of the Midwest and to go all the way to DC was a really crazy, amazing thing!
What sorts of things did you do out there?
We went to the Smithsonian Museums, the Art Museum, the History Museum, the National Mall, we took lots of pictures. In fact, most of us went around doing photo shoots. I did a few dance poses. Most of us were just having a blast together!
Did it make you feel more connected to our country’s history?
The fact that we got to be a part of that moment at that Christmas celebration was amazing. To see our name on that big sign … when I saw that I thought, “Whoa, this is for real! Janesville, Wisconsin in the White House!”
What does this Young Historian Award mean to you personally, with your own connection to the Rock County Historical Society?
I was an Interpreter at the Rock County Historical Society over the summer, and before that I was a volunteer giving tours of the Lincoln-Tallman House and such. Then, I was hired to work at the front desk. Knowing the history of Janesville, the Tallmans, our roots in agriculture, all of it, and now that we made history, this really means a lot. I would see that display of famous people from Rock County on the stand at RCHS, and now knowing that we’re one of them … it’s really cool!
Are you excited about the History Makers event?
Yes! I am very excited! I’m excited to be a part of this.
The following answers are by Jack Jorgensen, a member of the Craig High School A Cappella Choir and a member of the “Tommy” Ensemble Cabaret at the Overture Center for the Arts.
The Young Historian Award goes to an individual, youth or youth organization (18 and under) who achieves excellence in history, humanities or a social studies field in Rock County. What did this experience, this chance to make history for Rock County, mean to you?
I don’t think that any group of Craig students have even been allowed in the White House and to be able to take such a special tour with Paul Ryan. There were people who were videotaping our singing, which was pretty cool. Although the trip was short, we got to do so many things, see the museums and just being in the White House, in that atmosphere, was a totally awesome experience.
What sorts of things did you do out there?
It was pretty awesome. One of my favorite parts was the Capitol. We got to look out of Speaker Ryan’s office balcony, the tallest view in Washington DC, and see his view down toward the Washington Monument.
Did it make you feel more connected to our country’s history?
Oh yes, especially with that Capitol tour. We got to see so many historical monuments. We see them in text books all the time, but to actually see them in person and to understand the history is a lot different and is a lot more special. It sticks with you longer. We got to see the famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware, and other art and everything about DC. It was magical!
What does this Young Historian Award mean to you and your peers?
We made history! No one had done this before. It’s revolutionary, something that kids all across the state, even the country would dream of doing! To be honored with this award is awesome. We’re so grateful to have an award like this. It truly captures how special this moment was.
To have not only the whole school know about it, but to have the entire county know about it, to have the Board Members at the Rock County Historical Society reach out and notice the hard work we put into it and recognize us … that’s really special.