Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.
Long-time readers of Chronicles may recall that this column bore a different rubric when it first appeared in the January 2001 issue. The initial mission of the Letter From Rockford was to examine political, economic, and cultural issues of national importance through the lens of Rockford, Illinois, at that time one of the most average cities in ethnic makeup and socioeconomic status in the United States. While it was never entirely correct to suggest that “As goes Rockford, so goes the nation,” the demographic profile of Rockford made it a microcosm of America. But starting about the very time that I began this column, and significantly completed a decade later, Rockford has deviated sufficiently from the United States as a whole that the premise is no longer valid. There are still lessons that readers from outside of Rockford can learn from our experience here, but there is a reason why my column is less about Rockford itself these days.
Fewer readers are likely to remember that my byline was not the first to appear under the old rubric. Initially, Tom Fleming and I conceived of the Letter From Rockford as a series of articles, each by a different local writer, covering a topic with which he or she was intimately familiar. There were so many lively controversies here in Rockford back in the day that we were certain we would have no trouble finding material; indeed, we assumed that we would have to turn potential authors away.
In the end, we published exactly one piece under that rubric, three years to the month before I began my column. Titled “How the Little Guys Won” (Correspondence, January 1998), the article detailed a successful battle by small manufacturers in southeast Rockford to scuttle an attempt by the city to create a special property-tax district in that area to pay for the cleanup of an EPA-designated Superfund site. While the EPA had named several large manufacturers in that area as the actual polluters, the taxing district would have placed most of the burden on businesses that were not responsible for the pollution. (It was merely a coincidence that the perps had all donated heavily to city and state politicians of both parties.)
The author of that article was Frank Schier, the longtime editor, publisher, and owner of the Rock River Times, a weekly newspaper here in Rockford. Frank passed away on January 17 at the far too young age of 62, following a brief but—like all of the campaigns Frank ever fought—fierce battle with lung and brain cancer.
Frank was that rare creature: a legend in his own mind who really was a local legend as well. A cofounder of the Rockford Area Music Industry Awards and the River District Association, he was a Rockford patriot who truly earned The Rockford Institute’s Good and Faithful Servant Award. An ornery cuss, Frank was also generous to a fault, and he routinely went into debt to throw a lavish Christmas party every year for his staff, writers, friends, and any acquaintances he happened to bump into in the days leading up to the event. A fallen-away Catholic who nonetheless seemed conscious of the footfalls of the Hound of Heaven, Frank loved the natural world and knew every mile of the Rock River by heart, from its origin north of Horicon Marsh to its destination in the Mississippi. A cofounder of the Rock River National Water Trail and self-appointed poet laureate of the river, Frank lived on the Rock from spring through fall in his houseboat. He was preparing for the day when he would sell the Rock River Times and take the houseboat down to the Mississippi, never to return.
While Frank considered himself a lifelong liberal, he counted as his chief mentor Peter Stanlis, the preeminent scholar of Edmund Burke and a longtime professor of English and humanities at Rockford College. As a student of Stanlis (he earned a degree in English from Rockford College in 1988), Frank developed a deep love for the poetry of Robert Frost (Stanlis’s own mentor), and he ended “How the Little Guys Won” with a brief meditation on a line from “Two Tramps in Mud Time”:
As Robert Frost wrote: “My object in living is to unite / My avocation and my vocation / As my two eyes make one in sight.” We here in Rockford work hard at our vocations every day. Our avocation—the avocation of everyone in America—will have to be the resolution to resist, to fight those battles in which the mighty seem destined to win.
Frank was a David willing to take on every Goliath who crossed his path. He didn’t always win, but sometimes he did, and you can’t expect more of a man than that. May God grant Frank Schier blessed repose and eternal memory.