By BETH ALTENA
Many of Rockford’s most prominent citizens were in attendance at a ceremony to honor those who had profound influence on shaping the City of Rockford Friday, May 5. Members of the community and the Rockford Area Community Endowment enjoyed dinner and presentations for the non profit organization, made up of the City of Rockford and the townships of Algoma, Cannon, Courtland and Plainfield.
Every other year board members of RACE and others induct into a permanent place at Recognition Plaza, by the dam, in honor of profound and lasting contributions to the City or their communities. The inductees for 2017 were the late Pete Kruer, owner of Rockford Ace Hardware, Michael Farmer, Michael Young, the late Rockford City Manager and Bernie Young.
Tim Lewis, President of RACE, introduced the evening’s program. “Two of tonight’s inductees I knew personally, two I didn’t. Tonight you’ll hear their stories.”
Lewis described the RACE as an organization with ten volunteer board members. A recent donation of $150,000 gives the organization funds of over a half million dollars. The money is used for grants to member community interests, for example, a recent land purchase by Algoma Township on the Rogue River, the West Michigan Archery Center.
Past large grants include funding of the West Michigan Healing Fields at Cannonsburg honoring those killed on 911 with a display of 3,000 flags, each bearing the name of a victim of that day and with a spotlight on those who serve and protect. Donations have helped the Kent County Sheriff Department Mounted Unit, Rockford’s dog park, local fire and police units, bike helmets, and much more.
Lewis introduced the evening’s keynote speaker, Neil Blakeslee, member of RACE. Neil mentioned the four recipients of the honors and said he has so many good memories of Michael Young, who was also on the RACE board. He also mentioned Pete Kruer. “Pete. What do you say about Pete He loved this community.”
“I didn’t tell Mary (his wife) I was going to be the keynote speaker or she wouldn’t be here. That’s probably true of a lot of you.”
Blakeslee’s speech was about why we all proud of Rockford. “I was a member of the focus group in the process of hiring a new city manager,” he said. He said the group is nineteen people from the community, including some who oppose the Tamarack Run condominium development. He said the process, which will take about four months, is to narrow down a set of people to consider for the job.
“I consider myself a most blessed and contented human being. I love to talk about Rockford. It’s inherited, most of you knew my dad.” He said his parents at one time had moved away from Rockford, but his mom said “You know we are going back.” He said he and his lovely wife raised their family here.
“This community is so quick to volunteer to do things. It’s the whole community, it’s so full of people like that.” He said it’s the shopowners, too, people like Floyd (Havemeijer of Herman’s Boy), people like Pete Kruer. “Rockford is a very dedicated, heartfelt community.
“When you leave Grand Rapids coming north, it starts to change. He referenced a newspaper article about how Rockford feels like home. “It’s coming home when you come down that hill, down toward the river you feel like coming home. That peaceful river serves almost every community here. The pioneers wanted good farmland, they had such a hard life 150 years ago, but to us it’s a peaceful serenity. Those folks came and stayed and we stay, too. Why do we stay.”
In the 1800s the river flooded miserably. He said we haven’t seen that flood, we see the beautiful hills, focus on the natural resources, we don’t have flat, cookie cutter developments. He noted Rockford is halfway between Chicago and half way to the Straights of Macinac. “One way is a world class city, the other is the gateway to the great north. We have great summer outdoor sports, a water wonderland, our ballfields out there, that’s all very attractive.
Rockford is very committed spiritually, Blakeslee said. “It’s not very diverse, we don’t have a mosque yet, maybe soon.” He spoke of the start of the North Kent Community Services, all different Christian faiths. Others would be welcome.
He said the city is governed by a very stable elected board, rarely in the news for screaming and yelling. He gave the example of the recent controversy of the Tamarac Run development and how that was handled. “Our city council has been wonderful, treats people with respect. If there are concerns they are dealt with fairly.
Rockford enjoys a wonderful sense of community, and likes to party with festivals. The people who organize them like being there and don’t mind volunteering. Relay for Life is the biggest one in the country, even in the first year. Now it is at $4.5 million raised for the American Cancer Society.
“I’m not sure you all appreciate what a generous community it is. People think we are affluent. We’re comfortable, not affluent. Just over a year ago Judge Servaas and Michael Young came up with the idea of the John Sjogren statue, now at the RAM museum.” He said the statue was going to cost $45,000 they better plan a little extra, so hoped for $50,000. Other expenses, like the base, brought the total up to $70,000.
“Before word got out in The Squire we’d raised $80,000.” He said the story of Sjogren is inside the museum, and everyone should read about Sjogren’s amazing heroic efforts. He said when Sjogren came back from service to his hometown, he was just a citizen like everyone else. “You wouldn’t ever have guessed at the level of heroism of what he did. My dad knew and made sure I knew that John Sjogren was someone who got something done.”
He described the very large white home on Fremont south of Ten Mile. Back in the day it was the home of Victor and Mary Krause. They thought the town needed a swimming pool, and wanted to donate $100,000 toward one. But there was no organization set up to accept that donation. The Rockford Area Community Foundation was formed for that purpose and was dormant for many years. In 2003 Michael Young came to me and asked what would we have to do to set up a foundation.
“I said we’ve got one.” He said the foundation had been inactive for thirty years, but just needed some bylaw amendments. He said there was $30,000 in it. The fund has been building up since, for example, selling Healing Field flags raised $150,000. If all the flags had sold it would have been $300,000.
He said twenty percent of all funds raised go out to grants right away. “The value isn’t just the money you give, it’s also family and heart. That may sound arrogant, but facts are facts, if you can’t take the truth. Thank you for inviting me to be here tonight and thank you for being part of this community.”
Neil was also the speaker to talk about the late Mike Farmer being inducted into the Recognition Plaza for his contributions to Rockford. “I’ll take a trip down memory lane. As a youngster there was McBride’s Gift Shop downtown, and the Rockford Mill. He said the mill had piles of feed and seed sitting out where the Old Mill was. In 1960s that burned down.
Where Ramona’s Table is was Jr. Buckly Heating and Plumbing. Where Custard and Dam Dogs was a big lumber storage building to the west. To the east was Finch’s barn. On Main Street was the meat market. He said there was a slaughterhouse downtown for the meat market and he and his brother Rodd used to pet the animals there, not knowing what their fate was. The slaughterhouse burned completely and Mike Farmer, like Michael Young, Bernie Young and Pete Kruer, all saw possibilities in situations.
Where other people saw a burned and gutted building, Mike Farmer saw the possibility of a mall. “Mike hired an engineer who proved to the City it could be rebuilt. “Shortly thereafter Squires Street started attracting entrepreneurs. It became an attraction, tour busses came in, we had a glass blower, there was a lot going on. It was all from one man’s vision of what a burned out old barn could be.”
Neil said Farmer made a cider press where the apple juice went through a trough into a wooden barrel. Turns out the barrel was suceptibel to mold, and people loved the cider until the Health Department caught on and made him replace it.
“It wasn’t like this was his full time job, he worked at a foundry and had a gas station and was on the Rockford School Board.” Blakeslee said Farmer would find jobs for kids in the community. He said Mike and his wife Lois lived where Herman’s Boy is now. He said they were also involved in their church.
“They had an element of kindness. I can’t believe I wasn’t the sports star athlete,” Neil noted. He said Mike was a star athlete, but made sure all the kids were able to play. He also said the friendship between his family and the Farmers was a long one. He said in 1948 his mom and the Farmers got in a station wagon and drove to Arizona and back. “I was six months old and I understand I wasn’t the best traveler.” He said as someone who knew Mike Farmer well, he could attest, “He deserves to be recognized.”
Mary Ann Anderson of Courtland Township spoke about Bernie Young, who came from Florida with his wife Betty for this ceremony inducting him into Recognition Plaza. Anderson said she learned a lot about Young from a video interview of him. He graduated from Rockford High School in 1949. She said his roots go back much farther.
Bernie’s family homesteaded on Silver Lake in 1844 and on Grass Lake (now Lake Bella Vista) also in 1844. Family members all attended Rockford schools and Bernie’s first job was to sell busses for Burch Body Works. He also performed magic before clubs and high school audiences.
After high school Bernie went to Michigan State University. His college career was interrupted by two years in the Navy. Betty met him after he returned to Rockford in 1964 and bought his father’s insurance business. In 1965 there was a city celebration and the publication of Homer Burch’s book. He was the president of the Rockford Chamber of Commerce, he worked on Start of Summer celebrations, the Arts Commission and the fundraising for the Rockford Valley Towers downtown.
He believed strongly in the Towers as a place where people who could no longer keep their homes and have a safe, comfortable place to live. That project came about through the RACE organization. The NRMS (back then the high school) was also funded through RACE.
In addition to the insurance business, Bernie and a friend built affordable housing which brought young people here. “One thing that Bernie and Betty both stressed that Rockford not become a bedroom community to Grand Rapids, but succeed on its own.” For proof that this is came to pass, try to find a parking place in downtown Rockford on a Saturday.
Bernie stood to respond to the presentation and noted that his nephew has bought his house on Silver Lake, so there has always been a Young on Silver Lake since 1844.
Chief Dave Jones stood to talk about his friend and former city manager the late Michael Young. Jones said Michael was passionate about the City of Rockford. He was dedicated, respected, resovled and a loyal visionary who led Rockford to become the shining civic center it has come to be. He called Michael Rockford’s greatest cheerleader in creating a feeling of community.
Michael was involved in countless Rockford amenities, from the streetscape projects, to the PARCC water treatment plant. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Relay for Life, Mitchell’s Run Thru Rockford, he collaborated for D.A.R.E. funding, passionately supported the RACE foundation, was a dedicated wrestling fan. “He left a legacy, that, as you travel through the Rockford area, you can’t help but notice abundant growth. That didn’t happen by accident.”
Mark Bivins and Dave Powers spoke on behalf of their dear friend, the late Pete Kruer. So passionate about community, Pete’s middle name could have been community. He saw Rockford as family.
Pete was a great businessman who ran ACE Hardware. He was a huge supporter of the Rockford Chamber, of Boy Scouts, OLC, little leagues, Rockford Public Schools.
Powers said he was Pete’s best friend. He told a story about Pete’s legendary generosity for good causes. “Petey was a great man and we think of him every day,”said Powers.
The evening wrapped up with closing remarks by RACE board member Gordon Pickerd. “I was so pleased to be asked to serve on RACE, it’s such an honor. We set a goal to grow and we’ve made great advancements. That’s what it is all about.”