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Barry Schrader
Columnist

 

I write this column for the following newspaper:

  • Daily Chronicle : DeKalb County Life

The Articles started December 2007.

 

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A new career in history for John Weck

By Barry Schrader.................................May 12, 2009

John Weck, who just completed his two-year presidency of the Illinois State Historical Society in April, stopped in Sycamore recently to talk about his lifelong interest in history and his decision to leave banking and make history his new career.

Weck is no stranger to the Sycamore area, having served with the late Tom Woodstrup and Dan Gustafson on the board of the local historical society during its formative years. But he now resides in Springfield and has his small farm near the Kane-DeKalb county line up for sale.
Some two years ago Weck made a life-changing move, deciding to take the top job at the state historical society, an unpaid position, and leaving a 30-year career in banking.

He has no regrets and now that his term has ended, he plans to use his two master’s degrees, one in American History from Northern Illinois University and a second in Historical Administration from Eastern Illinois University to teach. He earned his bachelor’s degree in American History from St. Olaf College in Minnesota. While he is pursuing a teaching position at the community college or university level, his wife fortunately has a good job in a Springfield hospital where she is a registered nurse. And their two daughters are on their own – one in Vienna, Austria, and the other in Fargo, N.D.

John Weck stops to see the largest Lincoln statue in DeKalb County, located at the Sycamore Midddle School, but originally housed at the old Sycamore High School.


Weck said he has been enthralled with history since age 7 when he was sick at home and his mother brought him a copy of American Heritage magazine that featured the American Civil War. He became fascinated with 19th century America and never gave up his avocation of immersing himself in the study of history and historical projects. He is currently working on a project to accumulate as much as he can on German immigration to Illinois, an area he feels needs a lot more study.

Becoming president of the state society was not something that happened overnight. He volunteered to serve on its advisory board more than 10 years ago, moved up to a directorship and headed several committees, then was asked to take the presidency in 2007. He realizes now that this was one of the busiest and most significant periods in the society’s history, being both the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. He has crisscrossed the state many times for significant historic events and re-enactments. He remembers one week in the Springfield area alone when there were 50 events involving the Lincoln Bicentennial. He and his staff could only make it to a fraction of them.

He sees the role of the state historical group as complementary to the local historical societies and museum associations. They take a broader perspective on Illinois’ rich heritage and historical resources, while the local groups preserve and promote their specific areas. The state society is involved in many landmark and historic site dedications, having placed some 440 markers around Illinois. They partner with local groups to assure the historical accuracy of the marker and then ask the locals to fund the costly plaques (around $3,000 each) and they then conduct a joint ceremony. Another of the group’s major thrusts is publications – a scholarly Journal four times a year and the society magazine six times annually. Weck is particularly proud of the recent Journal issue which covers the Lincoln Bicentennial and runs 424 pages.

The society also interacts with school districts and teachers around the state and offers paid scholarships to teachers at the elementary, middle and high school levels as well as some student grants and internships.

Since the group is a nonprofit, not a state agency, funding is from memberships and donations. Weck plans to devote some time following his presidency as a fundraiser, seeking to enhance its planned giving program and finding additional sources of income. He also is excited about the upcoming sesquicentennial of the Civil War and a statewide committee has already been formed to plan that observance.

His parting comments: “History is always in danger of being eroded, especially in difficult economic times. People seem to feel the urgency of everyday living and too often our past is devalued ... Historic sites seem too expensive to preserve, repair and maintain. You saw that happen most recently at the state level ... We really rob future generations of knowledge about themselves, who they are and where they need to go, if we take away their (ties to the) past. We get too caught up in the present to really appreciate the fact that we need to know what happened before…how choices were made and how they affect the future.”

He added though, “the encouraging part of all this is that there is still interest (in history) among young people.” He explained that when teaching at Harper College he gave the usual academic history lessons, but told them the current history they and their families will see 15 and 25 years hence also is important – the historic homes, monuments, battlefields and other sites they visit will keep history alive for them as they go through life.

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Barry Schrader
PO Box 851
DeKalb, Ill 60115