Those who lived in this area in the 1970s or ’80s will recall the name John B. Anderson, a Rockford Republican congressman from our district. He died at age 95 this week.
My acquaintance with him began in 1963 when my boss, Jerry Piper, introduced me to Anderson. The congressman was campaigning for re-election and visited our newspaper office in Byron. Two years later, after Kay and I had bought the Genoa Republican, Anderson paid us a visit there as well.
Then fast-forward 15 years and Anderson ran in the GOP presidential primary, was defeated by Ronald Reagan, then decided to form the Unity Party and run as an independent. He was too liberal for most Republicans, but attracted young people and many Americans disenchanted with the mainstream politicians.
After he announced, a former fellow staffer from Northern Illinois University’s Northern Star, Tom Wartowski, now a Chicago attorney, contacted me in California, and I agreed to be the (volunteer) media coordinator for the Northern California campaign.
I helped operate the office, which was mainly staffed by University of California, Berkeley, students. It was my first contact up close with the Berkeley political activists and a real eye-opener.
The grass-roots campaign was so underfunded they took away our leased copy machine before the November election, since we had no money to cover the bills and couldn’t even pay the last month’s rent on the house where the campaign headquarters was based.
Anderson came out twice for events, and we hosted a breakfast for him where we chatted and both recalled our meeting twice back in Illinois years earlier. We arranged some wine and cheese tastings in the East Bay at the homes of upper-class liberals and raised a modest amount to help keep the office operating for a while. But most of the money went into the national campaign coffers.
Meanwhile, back in DeKalb, Anderson came to NIU, where he delivered a major policy speech and attracted 1,400 people to the Holmes Student Center in March 1980. He was a big hit among college students and The Northern Star later endorsed him for president.
Wartowski accompanied him on that visit, serving as personal aide to Anderson in the early days of the campaign. In a phone conversation this week, Wartowski reminisced with me and shared these observations: “John was a gifted speaker who, even after a long and tiring day, was energized when he approached the podium.
“He was a nerd by today’s standards, but he loved discussing his platform policies with anyone who would engage him. Young and old. Blue collar and college professor. Rich and poor.
“Aside from his policies, a great part of John’s appeal was the man himself. He looked presidential. He sounded presidential. He acted presidential. And, more importantly, he cast aside all of the trappings of political no-speak, and came across like the honest and sincere person that he was. He was a candidate 40 years too early. He would have an even greater following in 2020.”
Of course third-party candidates never win, but Anderson did capture about 7 percent of the vote nationwide, almost as good as Ross Perot’s attempt years later.
Earlier in my life I had campaigned for Chuck Percy in the Illinois gubernatorial race, and Paul Simon, also for governor, but never had as much fun or exposure to a diverse group (Berkeley activists) as I did with the Anderson campaign.
• Barry Schrader can be reached via email at email@example.com or through P.O. Box 851, DeKalb, IL 60115. Past columns can be found on his website at www.dekalbcountylife.com.