John Gurda — Milwaukee’s accidental historian

John Gurda became Milwaukee’s best-known historian somewhat accidentally.

UWM alum Gurda has written 22 books about Milwaukee institutions, neighborhoods and history, including the iconic “Making of Milwaukee,” which also became an Emmy-award-winning PBS series. Among other projects, he provides the historical perspective on Wisconsin neighborhoods and towns for Milwaukee Public Television’s “Around the Corner with John McGivern,” the highest-rated locally produced show in its time slot nationally, writes a local history column for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and lectures extensively.

“I can’t think if anyone who knows Milwaukee’s past better than John Gurda,” said David Haynes, opinion/Ideas Lab editor for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “For more than 20 years, he’s been telling the stories of the city’s history on our pages — and I learn something every time. He’s a gifted storyteller and an equally gifted scholar.”

‘Completely unpremeditated’

Gurda’s history writing career started 45 years ago when he was working at a then small south-side youth services agency, Journey House. Gurda was tapped to help write a pamphlet for potential funders – “what we’d call a case statement today.”

“It was completely unpremeditated. All of a sudden I was doing historical research about a neighborhood where my family on my dad’s side had arrived back in the 1880s.”

His grandparents owned a hardware store at 32ndand Lincoln for 50 years, and Gurda spent a huge part of his childhood there.

“As I did research, I began to realize that the neighborhood story and my story were intertwined,” Gurda said. “And both were intertwined with the Milwaukee story, and the Milwaukee story is part of the American story.”

One thing led to another, with Gurda taking on other jobs and other writing assignments, and the rest, as they say, is history. “I always say my autobiography should be titled ’45 Years of 1099s,’” he jokes, referring to the tax form contractors and freelancers receive in place of the more common W-2 that employees receive.

UWM provides the tools

After leaving Journey House, “I would write things, largely for free, and then they’d get published,” Gurda said. “I soon realized that I didn’t really know what I was doing and needed more tools, which led me to UWM. It was the obvious choice both in terms of affordability and the range of programs.”  He earned his master’s degree in cultural geography in 1978. He also received an honorary doctorate in 2013.

“I just had an excellent experience there and came out of the geography program with a lot more respect for evidence and with more tools for doing research.”

As he continued to write a series of books and stories about businesses and neighborhoods, he realized he had the raw material for a comprehensive history of Milwaukee.

“I had all this knowledge about insurance companies and churches and cemeteries and neighborhoods and corporations and industry, so I had this fairly interesting range of pieces of the puzzle. I felt both a desire and a responsibility to take these pieces and make the puzzle whole.”

Of course, it wasn’t easy.

“When I got into it, I found I’d barely scratched the surface,” Gurda said. “It’s a little like having babies – you wouldn’t do it if you knew how much was involved, how much work, hardship and pain you’d be feeling.”

Four years in the works

With funding from underwriters, he spent four years writing “The Making of Milwaukee,” which came out in 1999. He quickly realized it was a good fit for TV.  With help from local philanthropists, the book was made into a five-hour PBS series that came out in 2006. Gurda worked with UWM’s Linda TiezzI Waldera, then an instructor in the School of Education, to create a teachers guide for the book and the series.

Right now, he’s in the midst of updating that book for a reprint.

“Milwaukee: A City of Neighborhoods,” which Gurda describes as a geographic companion to the history, grew out of project he did years ago for the City of Milwaukee, writing brief histories for a series of posters featuring Milwaukee neighborhoods. The history segments were printed on the back of the posters – “No one knew they were there. It was kind of like writing on the back of a postage stamp.”

For that book, his largest to date – “it weighs about six and a half pounds” – Gurda did a lot of exploring around the city on foot and on his bike.

That bike become part of his persona when he started recording “Around the Corner with John McGivern,” a series of popular PBS shows about Wisconsin cities, villages, towns and neighborhoods.  “John is the personality of the show. I just came in to offer a bit of historical perspective,” says Gurda. Since the first segment was shot near his home, he rode his bike over, and the producer decided to incorporate it into the show. (In farther away places, he brings it along on a bike rack.)

A new book

Gurda’s latest book – “Milwaukee: A City Built on Water” – took an unusual route to publication. That one began as a talk and PowerPoint presentation, then got turned into a one-hour documentary, and then the Wisconsin Historical Society Press asked him to turn it into a book. “Usually the print is first and then you go to the movie, so this is backwards.”

Now 70, Gurda isn’t thinking about retiring, he says, as long as he has the capacity and the stamina and the public is still interested. Milwaukee has always been a town that has an intense interest in its own history and remembers its many ethnic neighborhoods, he says. “It’s a city where roots are important.”

So, he continues to follow his passion – exploring why things are the way they are. “The subject continues to fascinate me. If you have any interest in who you are and what the world around you is about, there is absolutely no substitute for history. You’ve got to have that sense of the past if you want to have any sense of the present, or, for that matter, the future.”

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