Every city is made up of innumerable stories, some overlapping, most not.  And, thus, every city needs many storytellers to provide a full account of its life, because—humans being finite—no one is likely to be able to encompass all of those stories in his work.  Few cities, however, are so lucky.  The best most cities of any size can hope for is an Anthony Bukoski, who knows the East End of Superior, Wisconsin, as intimately as he knows himself—knows the people, the places, the history, even the way that both the physical and the human landscape of the East End change with every change of the seasons.  For a city to have a second Bukoski would be a gift beyond imagining, and it would require an extraordinary people to be worthy of such a blessing.

These thoughts ran through my mind on the night of February 6, when, at the generous invitation of Alberto Altamore, more than 100 people from across Rockford gathered at Altamore Ristorante to mourn the passing of radio talk-show host Chris Bowman and to celebrate the life of a man who, over the past decade, was perhaps less of a storyteller himself than an editor and publisher of other people’s stories—the people in that room, and many more besides.  Rockford has not yet been blessed with even one Tony Bukoski, but, in the hands of Chris Bowman, the stories of these people had burst the bounds of their private lives and been woven together in a tapestry—incomplete, yes, and even a bit ragged, but that’s a pretty good description of Rockford itself.

Many of us gathered there that night first came to knew Chris during the 12-year-long struggle against federal-court control of the Rockford school district—Mary Hitchcock, the founder of Rockford Educating All Children (R.E.A.CH.) and Barb Dent, her successor as R.E.A.CH. chairman; Ted Biondo, Stephanie Caltagerone, Dave Strommer, and Patti Delu-gas, all school-board members during the height of the battle over court-ordered taxation (ultimately declared unconstitutional) to pay for the elaborate social-engineering scheme that resulted from the lawsuit filed by a group perversely known as People Who Care; activists Bill Megan, Sr., and Bill Megan, Jr., Mark and CeCe Dahlgren, and Dick Kuberka, the unofficial historian of the desegregation suit; and many others who spent countless nights at school-board meetings and days collecting tax protests and, of course, calling Chris’s show to discuss the latest developments.

Chris played a pivotal role in Chronicles’ involvement in the battle over judicial taxation.  Twenty-one years after John Howard founded The Rockford Institute, the Institute remained better known in London than in its hometown.  Tom Fleming put the Institute and Chronicles on the local map with his February 1997 Perspective “Here Come the Judge,” but it was Chris who distributed the updated map all over town when he read Tom’s words on the air.  Over the next seven years, Tom would become one of Chris’s most-frequent (and most-favorite) guests, commenting on everything from local politics and national culture to foreign policy and international affairs.  And Chris hosted both of The Rockford Institute’s local forums on judicial taxation, in February of 1997 and 1998.

When the local Gannett paper, the Rockford Register Star, which officially supported the school-desegregation lawsuit, grew alarmed over the incipient tax rebellion and decided to kill the messenger, running an unprecedented two-day front-page series accusing the Institute of racism, Chris turned the airwaves over to Tom for days on end to defend our position.  A moderately conservative Republican himself (in the 1980’s, he had been chief of staff to Illinois Congresswoman Lynn Martin, deputy executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, and political director of the Republican National Committee), Chris did not agree with all of our positions (he was, for instance, never pro-life, though, in recent years, he had begun to have his doubts about the pro-abortion position), but he realized that the Institute and Chronicles—unlike the “local” daily—shared his devotion to his hometown, and that was enough to command his loyalty.

Chris’s devotion to Rockford was evident in his decision, after a decade in Washington, D.C., to return to his hometown and begin a career in radio.  Over the years, he was repeatedly condemned as a “naysayer,” even by some (such as Register Star political editor Chuck Sweeny) who now find that label attached to themselves.  If Chris’s daily program often came across as negative, however, it was because, through his criticisms of local politicians, developers, and businessmen, he was calling on all Rockfordians to make his hometown—suffering from the identity crisis that has afflicted working-class cities across the Midwestern Rust Belt—the kind of city he remembered from his childhood.  If anything, Chris was too much of an idealist, often allowing himself to be talked into supporting ballot proposals and programs—such as the open-ended one-cent sales-tax increase in 2002 to build a new jail for Winnebago County—that he later realized worked against his vision for Rockford.  He always tried to make good on his mistakes, however.  His devotion to the fight last fall to protect St. Mary’s Oratory from the grasping hands of county-board members and officials, for instance, was fueled by his sense of betrayal over the way the jail tax was being used.

When we first introduced this column in Chronicles (as a “Letter From Rockford” written by Chris’s friend and sometime competitor Frank Schier, the editor and publisher of the weekly Rock River Times), we asked Chris to write for us.  A busy man, he never did, but, when the column fell to me, I often turned to his show for inspiration.  In our last chat, just two days before he fell ill and another three before he passed away, he urged me to devote my March column to the Rockford Area Chamber of Commerce’s “One Region, Four Rivers” initiative.  “Go get ’em,” he said, before he abruptly signed off, without saying goodbye.