Ask a thousand people and they’ll give you a thousand reasons why this corner of the Old Northwest Territory is the best place in the world to live, work and play. Paul Anthony Arco asks local leaders why they love their region.
Last year, Northwest Quarterly Magazine unveiled a new annual feature called “Living the Good Life.” Our story profiled 24 area residents – golfer, teacher, farmer, physician, to name a few – who embrace living and working in the Old Northwest Territory. Rolling hills, breathtaking landscapes and miles of lush green space were just a few of the things they said they enjoy about our region.
After receiving an overwhelming response from readers, we couldn’t wait to begin work on this year’s story. The only question in our minds was how we were going to tackle it from a different perspective. That’s when we decided to profile seven of our community leaders.
We interviewed people whose job it is to make the tough decisions in our local governments.
Despite their demanding positions, these leaders are really no different than other people we’ve interviewed in the past. It was quite fascinating to get to know them on a more personal level. We found that some of our subjects have fond memories of growing up in this area. Some moved here from other parts and have settled in nicely. Others moved away, only to return home for the comfort of familiar turf and the love of family and good friends.
Regardless of their professions, one thing is certain: They’re all living the good life.
Larry Arft: Here to stay
Larry Arft has worked in public service for the past 40 years. He started in Berkeley, Mo., before moving on to the Chicago suburbs, working as village administrator in Bolingbrook and Morton Grove. But he’s finally found a place he can call home, in Beloit, Wis.
“We’ve lived in five communities in three different states, but we like Beloit the most,” says Arft, who was hired as city manager nearly 10 years ago. “The people are friendly. It’s fun to go to an event and see the tremendous turnout of support. Beloit also has done an incredible job of reinventing itself as a modern, high-quality urban place.”
Arft grew up in the St. Louis area. As a child he enjoyed nature; as a teenager, he worked on a farm. He played baseball and football throughout school, even playing college football at Northeastern (now Truman State University), in Kirksville, Mo. He left school in the 1960s to join the U.S. Army, where he served for three years, including a tour of duty in Vietnam. “I saw a lot of the world,” he says.
“It broadened my experiences and helped me to mature.” Arft returned to college, graduating magna cum laude from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, before going to graduate school. He developed an interest in government when he accepted an internship with a St. Louis municipality in the early 1970s.
Appointed by the city council, the city manager is equivalent to a mayoral position. In this capacity, Arft oversees all city departments, prepares an annual budget, coordinates the city’s strategic plan and administers contracts. “I enjoy the pace and the variety of issues and challenges we face every day,” he says.
During Arft’s tenure, Beloit has seen strong revitalization in its downtown, riverfront and treelined neighborhoods. Arft points to other accomplishments, such as the construction of the Ken Hendricks Memorial Bridge, and attractions like the city’s award-winning farmers market. “The key to our success has been a collaborative effort,” he says. “There’ve been plenty of folks who’ve invested in Beloit.”
As for his own success, Arft credits many teachers, coaches and colleagues who’ve helped to shape his career. In turn, he mentors younger people who share an interest in pursuing a career in public service. Arft remains energized by his work. “I’m always excited to come to work and give 110 percent,” he says. “I’ve never burned out. I enjoy watching communities grow.”
Sound Judgement: Judge Rosemary Collins
Honorable 17th Circuit District Judge Rosemary Collins was in high school when she found the career path she wanted to take.
“From the moment I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer,” she says. “There were no lawyers in my family, and I knew nothing about the profession. I was thinking about a career in psychiatry, but when I read that book, it helped shift my focus to a career in law.”
The St. Louis native, who graduated from John Marshall Law School in Chicago, came to Rockford in 1980, when she was hired as assistant state’s attorney by then-Winnebago County State’s Attorney Dan Doyle. “I loved Rockford right away,” Collins says. “I loved my job and the people I worked with. I always thought I’d move back home, and I had a job offer, but I made a commitment here and I’m happy with my choice.”
Collins, who started serving on the bench in 1989, says judges must be impartial and able to interpret the meaning and implications of the law. Judges must also show compassion and understanding for people on both sides of a case. “What I like is that I have a chance to do justice on an individual scale, and on a bigger scale, change systems that affect thousands of people,” she says. “We’re always trying to come up with ways to improve the system.”
It’s a tough job, but the rewards can be great, like the time Collins was approached at a gas station by a woman she had sentenced to prison. “You saved my life,” she told the judge. “That’s very gratifying,” Collins says. “The hardest thing for a judge to do is send someone to prison. I’m not going to be able to help everyone, but my priority is to make the community safe.”
To achieve balance in her life, Collins makes time for her community. She serves as board president of Children’s Safe Harbor, an organization that offers safety and manages potential conflict when separated parents are exchanging their children for regular parenting time. Last year, she helped Winnebago County to secure a $400,000 federal grant from the Office on Violence Against Women. She’s a board member for Keith Country Day School and has volunteered for the Girl Scouts.
Collins and her husband, attorney Paul Gaziano, a federal public defender, and their young son, enjoy spending precious time together. “There are incredible opportunities here for families,” she says. “Rockford is a nice town with nice people.”
County Pride: Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen
Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen makes no bones about it: He’s proud of northern Illinois and wants others to share his passion.
“We have to carry our own banner,” he says. “Clearly, we have our challenges. But now we’re starting to see tremendous changes. The Rockford Public Schools are aligning with the business community. Our airport is a fantastic asset. We have beautiful parks and the Rock River. Our quality of life is good. Everything we need is all right here.”
Christiansen remembers days when there wasn’t so much. He grew up on Newburg Road, next to his grandparents, long before there was Perryville Road or CherryVale Mall. “There were very few people living east of Alpine Road, much less east of Mulford,” he says. “You were lucky to see two or three cars a night. So much has changed.”
The Christiansens had plenty of space for backyard football and baseball. There was even room for a three-hole golf course in summer and a frozen rink for ice skating and hockey during long winters.
Christiansen, who graduated from Guilford High School, played hockey and participated on the debate team. He took classes at Rock Valley College, but concentrated mostly on working. His first job was baling hay and picking sweet corn on a farm. When Henrici’s, now the Clock Tower Resort, opened, he went to work as a bus boy and cook.
Christiansen got his political start by volunteering for presidential and local campaigns. He was elected to the county board in 1984 and served as chairman of the forest preserve executive committee and the legislative committee, and was a member of the zoning and labor relations committees. He accepted a leadership role with the Republican Caucus, serving as majority leader for two terms. Christiansen, who owned a roofing company that closed last year, became board chair in 2004.
Christiansen and Kathy, his wife of 30 years, have spent the vast majority of their lives in Winnebago County. They currently make their home on nine acres in southwest Rockford, where they tend to three horses. They have a daughter, Megan, and two grandsons, Merrick, 5, and Cooper, 3.
“I appreciate the Midwest for its values which, I believe, hold this entire country together,” Christiansen says. “I am proud to be born and raised in Winnebago County.”
Family Matters: Boone County State’s Attorney Michelle Courier
Michelle Courier never planned on coming home to Boone County after college, but ultimately the idea of returning to familiar territory was too good to pass up. “There’s great spirit all around me,” she says. “I’m surrounded by a loving family and friends. I live next door to my parents, and my aunts and uncles live across the street. It’s a fun place to be.”
Courier credits her strong family foundation with keeping her grounded. She’s extremely close to her parents, Jim and Mitzie Carey. And she fondly remembers her grandfather, Harold Minter, who passed away when she was just six years old. “I wish he were here today, but I’ve carried his spirit with me throughout my life,” she says. “He taught me that I can do whatever I set my mind to.”
In 2008, Courier became the first woman to serve as state’s attorney in Boone County, a daunting task for any person. Her election victory was met with mixed reaction within the community.
“The campaign was tough,” she says. “Some people said they wouldn’t vote for me because this job wasn’t meant for a woman,” she says. “But I think, over time, people have accepted me. In this job, it’s not about physical toughness. It’s your moral convictions that matter.”
Courier started her legal career as an assistant state’s attorney for Boone County, before moving into private practice in Boone, Winnebago and McHenry counties. In 2004, she was appointed McHenry County assistant state’s attorney and was later promoted to the chief of the civil division. She’s thrilled to be working back in her hometown these days. Last year, Courier began her second term in office. The state’s attorney represents the people of the state and is responsible for prosecuting those who violate criminal statutes. “I enjoy making a difference and leaving a print on my community,” she says. “It can be trying at times, but it’s rewarding.”
Courier is a member of the Boone County Historical Society, Rotary International, St. James Church, Belvidere Area Chamber of Commerce, Boone County Veterans Club, and the Republican Club of Boone County. Her free time is spent at home with husband Chris and their two children, Colin, 6, and Makenzie, 2 ½. “I love Boone County,” she says. “There’s a great sense of community here. We need to continue to invest in our children and give them opportunities to grow and learn.” Courier says she’s grateful that she found those opportunities right here in our region.
Making An Impact: Freeport Mayor George Gaulrapp
Freeport Mayor George Gaulrapp didn’t grow up wanting to be a police officer or a professional athlete. He wanted to be a salesman. “I always enjoyed meeting people,” he says. It’s been that way throughout his entire career.
One of six children, Gaulrapp has spent his life trying to make Freeport a better place to work and live. He graduated from Freeport Aquin Catholic High School in 1977, and four years later, earned a business administration degree from Monmouth College in Monmouth, Ill. He met wife Karrie on a blind date, and the couple has been married for 29 years. They have four children: Rachael, Alicia, Courtney and Jack.
For two decades, Gaulrapp held sales positions in the dental laboratory and supply industry. He later moved on to an e-trade solutions group, selling software to Fortune 500 companies. When the stock market crashed, he returned to dental sales. “They were great experiences,” he says. “I met new people, traveled around the country and learned new technology. Those experiences made me a well-rounded person, and helped to shape the next phase of my career.”
Gaulrapp served as a Freeport alderman for eight years, before he was elected mayor in 2005. He credits his late father, Edward, who grew up as an orphan and survived the Pearl Harbor attack, and friend Jack Myers, a local business consultant, with helping him to keep life in perspective. “They taught me to work hard, save your money and focus on the job at hand,” he says.
In order to be effective as mayor, Gaulrapp stays in close touch with his constituents. He often meets with school groups, and he pens a weekly column for the local newspaper about the positive aspects of Freeport. Most mornings, he can be found at a McDonald’s restaurant, where residents are welcome to grab a seat at his table and discuss local challenges and possible solutions. “The community always comes together,” he says. “That’s what Freeport is all about.”
Gaulrapp is gearing up to run for a third term this spring. One day, when his political career has ended, he hopes to pursue an educational career, teaching high school business and marketing classes. “I would enjoy teaching students,” he says. “I want to teach young people that it’s OK to go out and explore the world, but that you can come back to cities like Freeport and make an impact on your community.”
A Fighting Spirit: Dixon Mayor Jim Burke
Dixon Mayor Jim Burke has always been scrappy. Whether it was tangling with his older brothers or mixing it up with high school classmates, Burke never backed down. “I’m short, so I had a complex,” he says, laughing.
That feisty quality has proven helpful in his professional life. It’s also a quality he recognizes in many of his neighbors.
Burke has called Dixon home since he was three months old, when his parents and five siblings moved from Rockford. Burke, his siblings and friends played “cowboys and Indians” in a nearby park, walked a few blocks to a movie theater and played pickup football. “It was never a problem getting games organized with other kids,” he says. “Everything was close by.”
Following high school, Burke went to work for his father, who owned two automotive stores in Dixon. He eventually took accounting courses in college, and in 1975 started his own company, Burke Realty, which specializes in residential and commercial sales. “I enjoy the commercial side of the business because there’s no emotional involvement,” says Burke, who is married to Lucy, and has four children and four grandchildren.
In 1967, Burke began his political career when he was elected to the Dixon city council for the first of three consecutive terms. When he left office, Burke never thought he’d run again, but in 1999, he became mayor. “I felt the city needed stronger leadership,” he says. Over the years, Burke has had a hand in reshaping Dixon’s downtown and riverfront, adding a welcome center and improving the I-88 business district. “Someone once said a mayor is the architect of a community,” he says. “You can be a hands-on mayor or a laid-back mayor. So many things can happen for the better or for the worse.”
Burke knows that better than most. Last year, Dixon was rocked by the news that its treasurer, Rita Crundwell, was charged with embezzling $53 million over 22 years. The scandal put Dixon, best known as the hometown of President Ronald Reagan, back in the spotlight for all of the wrong reasons. Burke has maintained his fighting spirit, despite a crush of negative publicity.
“We may not be able to identify it at this point, but something positive will come from this,” he says. “The majority of our residents have the community’s best interest at heart. They’re moving forward. That’s what makes me most proud about being the mayor of Dixon.”
A Personal Commitment: Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey
Larry Morrissey smiles when he thinks back on the years he spent growing up in Rockford, a city he now serves as mayor. “I was a creek rat,” he says. “My mother would always find me carrying around a bucket full of frogs, bluegills or crayfish.” And when he wasn’t wading through muddy waters, Morrissey spent long, hot summer days playing golf with friends at the Rockford Park District golf courses. “I was pretty serious about both passions.”
Morrissey is the youngest of Joseph and Josephine Morrissey’s three children. He graduated from Boylan Catholic High School in 1987, where he finished in the top 10 of his class and served as senior class vice president; peers voted him “most likely to become U.S. president.” Morrissey graduated magna cum laude from the University of Notre Dame in 1991, and received his law degree cum laude from the University of Illinois four years later. “I enjoyed my studies the older I got,” he says.
When Morrissey left for college, he knew one day he’d return to his hometown. “I remember when former Rockford mayor John McNamara came to school and gave a speech about making a difference in your hometown,” he says. “I took that message to heart.”
He began his legal career in Chicago, where he practiced civil litigation. In 1997, he returned to Rockford to practice at the family firm, Morrissey Law Offices, when his father became ill. He also became involved in a number of community activities.
After an unsuccessful bid to become mayor in 2001, Morrissey won in 2005 and is seeking his third term in office this spring.
Without question, the demands of running the city are difficult. There are education, public safety and economic development issues to contend with, among others. But Morrissey sees his public service as a personal commitment, not only to his community, but to his family: wife Stacy and children Seanna, Sophia, Dillon and Alden. In 2008, son Michael passed away 40 days after being born with a heart defect.
“I can’t be a good mayor if I’m not a good father and husband first,” he says. “I don’t know if I’ll ever have a better job than this one. My work is incredibly diverse, fulfilling and never boring.
“I enjoy working on fundamental issues that are important both to me personally and to the community. I’m honored to have a vocation that I’m so passionate about.”