At about the same time that I won the position of Promotions and Creative Services Manager for the Kane County Chronicle in 1990, my activity in the city of Batavia led to a rise in responsibilities in the local Chamber of Commerce. I’d served as an advertising salesperson for three years, calling on all sorts of businesses, including retail stores, banks, furniture stores, hair and beauty salons, fitness centers, travel agencies, education centers, and restaurants. I also managed Real Estate and automotive accounts. Calling on these businesses led me to get involved as a Board Member on the Chamber of Commerce.
Building relationships in the community was an important part of the job in ad sales. But when I moved to Promotions I was no longer serving only Batavia, but the cities of St. Charles, Geneva, and the Village of Elburn too. Still, when the invitation to become Chamber President came along, I accepted.
I thought that decision would be welcomed at the Chronicle because other company leadership was involved in the Tri-Cities. But the head advertising manager offered not encouragement, but a warning. “Don’t let it interfere with your job here.”
He was the same guy that told me “Anything that you earn in salary will come out of your overall marketing budget.” So he wasn’t the most visionary manager. In fact, he was a bit of a self-centered prick that ultimately divorced his wife and left her with his special needs son. Sometimes you have to believe people when they tell try to you who they really are, and how they think.
So my work in the Chamber was something that I kept to myself back at work. That led to something of a dual life trying to balance increasing obligations on both ends. And yet, the kickoff to my position in promotions was a huge one. I conceived an Open House for our new building, inviting the public to tour the building and learn more about the business of putting a newspaper together. To increase the allure, I also recruited third-party vendors to provide additional interest in the event. One of those vendors was an A&E movie producer and historical re-enactor named Gary Foreman. We took a liking to each other during the event planning. His work in film was fascinating, and his knowledge would help illuminate the 120-year history of the Chronicle newspaper business that reached back in the 1800s.
We pulled 100-year-old issues from the basement archives to frame and display. Gary would appear in full pioneer costume to talk about the settlement of the Midwest. The more we talked, the more we had in common, so Gary accompanied me to Batavia because he’d learned that the inventor of Flag Day, Bernard Cigrand, had roots in Batavia. Gary was keen on Big Ideas, and he talked up the idea of developing a National Flag Museum in Batavia. “It would be a fantastic tourism draw,” he enthused. “Batavia’s right off I-88. They could put it right downtown and create an entire cottage industry and a retail community focused on history. They’ve got the windmills too…” He was right. Batavia was once known as the Windmill Capitol of the World.
But when Gary and I pitched the idea around town, people were less than enthused. “We don’t want tour buses blocking our business,” one leader of a dental practice and a council member told us.
“Talk about small thinking,” Gary sputtered. We were both a bit disgusted by the treatment we were receiving. No one seemed to understand the potential of the idea, and how it could raise Batavia’s profile on a local, regional, national, and even international level. “They basically own Flag Day,” he mused. “Why not use that?”
The final straw came during a meeting with the Chamber of Commerce leadership. One woman, in particular, showed a small-minded disdain for the Big Idea of a Flag Museum. “She should go back to organizing bowling leagues where she belongs,” Gary spat.
So we gave up on the Flag Museum idea and focused on the Open House. Thirty-two years later, Batavia will be building a flag monument next to its City Hall. That’s proof the idea had merit from the beginning. It just took three decades to realize it.
Back then, I turned my attention away from that effort and focused on the Chronicle Open House. I ordered food through a local restaurant and 800 sugar cookies glazed with Chronicle Blue and a big circle C on them. More than a thousand people attended the event, and as the night wrapped up, I walked over to the cookie table and saw the final one picked up by one of the last visitors leaving the event. “That rocks,” I smiled at the Circulation Manager. He was happy because he’d sold or extended a number of subscriptions that night.
Not long after the Open House I sat in a Batavia Chamber meeting with nineteen other people parked in a large ring of chairs around the City Council room. I thought to myself, “This is absurd, there are far too many people on this board.” I vowed to shrink it down if ever the opportunity presented itself.
By 1991 I was the father of two children and busy as heck doing work for both the Chronicle and Chamber. Yet when I was nominated to be the President-Elect, the Executive Director branded me a “carpetbagger” because I didn’t own a business or live in the community. The claim was that I only cared about getting ad revenue for the newspaper. No credit was given for four years of service on various Chamber committees. I’d also pushed to change the name of the annual retail festival from the archaic “Boo Boo Days,” a term describing retail purchasing mistakes… to a more positive Windmill City Festival that featured both retail sales and community events. Truth be told, Batavia had a terminal reputation for backward thinking. I thought a more modern take on its annual festival would be beneficial, so I designed a new logo for the event and the name was changed.
Ignoring the snarky comments about “carpetbagging,” I started a term as President-Elect behind John Clark, whose family owned a Chevy dealership in town. I liked John because he was a straightforward guy, as opposed to some other Chamber members that insisted on talking through back channels and engaging in community gossip. When I slapped back at some of the comments, I was told, “If you think you are so smart, why don’t you run the Chamber?”
“Okay,” I told them. “I will.” And that’s how it all transpired. I put my name in for nomination and it took hold. But halfway through the year as President-Elect, President John Clark had a bad stroke. He was disabled for the short term, and I assumed full leadership. When the half-term ended, I began preparing for the full term in office. On the night of my installation, the Executive Director met my wife in the restroom at the Lincoln Inn where the annual dinner to change officers was held. “Well, you’re not going to see your husband much this year,” the director told her.
My wife offered an instant retort, “Then you don’t know my husband.”
And sure enough, I cut the Board from twenty people to nine Board Members, also recruiting representatives from the City, Park District, and School District to increase communication between the three government bodies and the Chamber. I planned meetings for one hour and kept the promise. It was also required that all Chamber committees have an advance budget and provide a report on profit and loss. I was no financial wizard, but I could look at a spreadsheet and see whether it had a – or + in front of the final number. Up to that point, people too often conducted events and left the Chamber to mop up the difference. Under my direction (as I recall…) the Chamber finished in black for the first time in years. Yet someone complained, “We’re a non-profit. We’re not supposed to have money left over.”
It was that kind of thinking that drove me crazy. I can’t say that I was the most popular Chamber President as a result. I didn’t mince words, and that pissed some people off. Admittedly, I also sometimes failed in the organization department due to the multiple obligations I was juggling. That said, I still pushed to have all new collateral produced, and Board Members took that on and produced all-new brochures that looked great. To them goes all the credit.
At year’s end, I gladly handed over the reins to the next President, who was a community favorite on many fronts. From my perspective, I’d done the job of bringing the Chamber into some degree of compliance in keeping with its charter. Membership grew a bit thanks to a guarantee of services that we put together.
During those years of tight involvement with Batavia, I’d sometimes go for a run during the noon hour to clear my mind and assess, to the best of my ability and emotional intelligence, what was really going on in life and business. I’d run those few miles on the Fox River trail out of sight from anyone but the other people trying to reclaim some sanity from a hectic world. Sometimes I’d change clothes downstairs at Foltos Tonsorial Parlor, where my friend Craig seemed to understand my need to work off the frustrations caused by trying to exercise emotional intelligence in the face of Corporate and Community Politics. He also had a hot tub down there, and I’d park my carcass in the warm water for ten minutes and try to figure out who the hell I really was. I was a young father with a one-year-old girl and a four-year-old son just trying to get ahead somehow. But was the formula?
I’d start to learn about that from another Batavia organization of which I was a member. The Rotary Club.