The Making of a Historian: John Gurda Makes Milwaukee’s Past Come Alive. Here’s His Story

Meet the man who brings Milwaukee history to life in his books, speaking engagements and on television.

In the opening minutes of Milwaukee PBS’ “Around the Corner with John McGivern,” historian John Gurda bicycles up to McGivern and provides an overview of local history in 180 seconds to set the stage for the host’s tour of the community.

The episodes take place across the state: on the bluff at Klode Park in Whitefish Bay, along the canal in Portage, in front of the Delafield History Center.

After the shoot, he rides his bike around that area for the rest of the day,” McGivern laughs. “Nice gig.”

John Gurda, left, with John McGivern. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee PBS.

Gurda’s appearances on “Around the Corner” are just the latest in a remarkable career. Since 1972, he has worked as a writer and public historian, with an emphasis on the Milwaukee community. His projects have covered topics ranging from life insurance to Frank Lloyd Wright, and from heavy industries to historic cemeteries.

“It has been 47 years of 1099s [an IRS form that reports freelance income] – and no day job,” he says.

Probably the best-known of Gurda’s opuses is The Making of Milwaukee, which the Milwaukee County Historical Society published in 1999 – with new editions in 2000, 2006 and 2018. It also brought its author into thousands of area homes via a five-hour, Emmy-winning historical documentary series for Milwaukee Public Television, which debuted in 2006.

“John’s work is so complete and yet so interesting,” says Mame Croze McCully, executive director of the society. “His use of imagery, combined with spot-on content, make the stories of Milwaukee interesting to people of all levels of interest – even those who say, ‘I don’t like history.’”

John and siblings with their grandparents at the family’s home on South 34th Street, c. 1951. The Gurdas moved to Hales Corners when he was 8, but young John returned often.
Gurda and his wife, Sonja, live in a comfortable, two-story house in Bay View. Children’s toys are scattered around, ready for visits from their four grandchildren, one of whom lives across the street. Tall and loose-limbed at 71 years, Gurda sits at the kitchen table with a mug of herbal tea, modestly and thoughtfully describing how his career has unfolded.

Gurda as a senior at Marquette University High School, 1965

The tale is laced with humor. He went back to school for a master’s, he says, because “I didn’t know my ass from my elbow” about historical research. He refers to an early book he wrote on Waukesha County as “primitive” and “mercifully out of print.”

He says his interest in and appreciation of neighborhoods and their stories began early. When he was a youngster, his family lived on Milwaukee’s old South Side, ensconced in a variety of ethnic traditions. His Gurda grandfather immigrated from Poland and owned a hardware store near 32nd Street and Lincoln Avenue. His father, Art, was self-employed in sales and engineering, His Norwegian-American mother, Clare, was a stay-at-home mom and part-time interior decorator. Today, his license plate reflects his parentage: POLNOR.

Gurda is the oldest of three boys; his older sister, Susie, was killed in a car accident in 1968, a loss he wrote about in a poignant Milwaukee Journal Sentinel column last August.

The family moved to Hales Corners when Gurda was 8, but he continued to hang out on the South Side: at the hardware store and catching crayfish in the Jackson Park Lagoon. “The old neighborhood was an anchor for me,” he says.

After graduating from Marquette University High School, Gurda went to Boston College on scholarship, where he felt like a “fish out of water” among all the East Coast kids. But he had some great professors, and emerged with a bachelor’s in English and a love for literature. He came back to Milwaukee after graduation in 1969, painting houses at first.

“I was lost in the ’60s and had a half-assed notion I was going to be a poet,” he recalls. Finding poet jobs scarce, he joined the staff at Journey House, a South Side social service agency headed by his high school buddy Frank Miller. “Working with people in the community got me out of my head, into the real world,” he says.

There, he wrote the historical portion of a case statement about why corporations and foundations should fund their programs. Published in 1971 by the Council on Urban Life as The Near South Side: A Delicate Balance, it was Gurda’s first byline (though shared).

“Even back then, John wanted to be absolutely sure that what he’s saying is correct,” says Miller, who went on to a career in fundraising and marketing, “such as whether the West Side neighborhood is Pigsville or Piggsville.” (After extensive research, Gurda concluded that Pigsville is correct: There once were pigs.)

“In the 1960s, our generation was not just ahistorical, it was anti-historical,” Gurda says. “There was no interest in anything that came before us, because we could change the world. We threw out the baby with the bathwater. I’ve been recovering the baby for 47 years.”

Not only did A Delicate Balance launch Gurda’s writing career, it drew him to historical research. “I began to see the connections between my story and the neighborhood story, and where it fits in today,” he recalls.

One project led to another, resulting, ultimately, in 22 full-length nonfiction books, 25 shorter publications and just one published poem. “It has been something of an accidental career, not something I began with any design. I was following my nose.”

Then and Now

By John Gurda

Things I miss about yesterday’s Milwaukee:

  • Playing sheepshead at Big John’s Tap on South 12th Street, my old neighborhood’s communal living room (“Seating capacity 12,000, 12 at a time”)
  • Sitting on the railroad tracks near Greenfield Avenue with a six-pack of Pabst and watching soot-blackened workers pull red-hot coke from the furnaces at the Solvay Coke plant
  • Emerging from the gloom of the concrete concourses at County Stadium to the other-worldly glow of a Brewers (or Braves) night game
  • Friday night boiled shrimp at Anna’s, plates of pierogies at Federation Hall and roast duck at the Emerald Club, all on the Polish South Side
  • Dip-netting for smelt on the Jones Island seawall with my neighbor after the first softball game of the season

Things I love about today’s Milwaukee

  • Cross-country skiing under a full moon at the Grant Park Golf Course
  • Public libraries – all of them, but especially the Central Library on Ninth and Wisconsin
  • Witnessing my old South Side Polish neighborhood become a vibrant Latino community – same story, different chapter
  • Cheese burek at Three Brothers, red pozole at Guadalajara and pho at Phan’s Garden
  • Being stopped on the street by young people who want to share their love for Milwaukee and its history
Milwaukee Public Library exterior
Milwaukee Public Library; photo courtesy of Visit Milwaukee

In 1977, Gurda married Sonja Nelson, an Illinois native and daughter of a Norwegian-American Lutheran minister. They met when she was a St. Olaf College student doing an urban semester in Milwaukee. Even though John’s career was growing, the work wasn’t always steady. This could be especially stressful as their family began to grow: Nikolai in 1979, Kjerstin in 1982 and Anders in 1985. Nelson-Gurda, a retired paraprofessional in assistive technology with the Milwaukee Public Schools, kept encouraging her husband to have a fallback plan; he never developed one.

“My dad was a pastor, so I was raised with the mindset that you weren’t going to be motivated by money,” she says. “You really had to follow your passion. That made me more patient with John finding his path.”

That path became wider when, in 1981, Gurda received his first corporate commission, a modern history of Northwestern Mutual that was published in 1983. “It was a tough decision for him,” Sonja remembers. “His first reaction was that he was selling out. But being practical and reliable, he took it.”

That commission led Gurda to realize that he liked telling stories, and a corporate history is just another story. Over the years, other corporate work followed, including histories for Ladish, Wisconsin Electric Power Co. (We Energies), W.H. Brady and Charter Manufacturing, to name a few.

A family camping trip with children Kjerstin, Nikolai and Anders, 1990

Some 25 years later, Northwestern Mutual hired Gurda to write a comprehensive book for the company’s 150th anniversary.

“We chose John again because he is very good at three things,” says Mark Lucius, a company executive who was one of Gurda’s liaisons on the project. “He immerses himself in whatever subject he is writing about, he is good at synthesizing material and he can tell a good story.”

Such more remunerative commissions allowed Gurda to write less remunerative works for nonprofit and community organizations such as Immanuel Presbyterian Church. He also wrote copy for the City of Milwaukee’s popular Neighborhood Poster Series. Since 1994, his local history column has appeared in the Sunday Milwaukee Journal and Journal Sentinel.

Early on, Gurda realized he needed training in formal research methods – “I was flailing around, writing by the seat of my pants” – and in 1978 got a master’s from UW-Milwaukee in cultural geography. “I became much more rigorous about working on the archival side,” he says. He wrote his thesis on Jones Island in Milwaukee’s inner harbor, which remains a research interest.

Gurda’s growing reputation also allowed him to fundraise from the Bradley, Pettit and Greater Milwaukee foundations to write (over four years in the ’90s) his breakout book, The Making of Milwaukee.

One of Gurda’s fans is Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who has known him for decades. “I’d always admired his work, but that rose to a new level when I became mayor,” Barrett says. “He has such an ability to put the human touch into decisions that were made, literally, centuries ago, and bring things to life.”

Gurda was scriptwriter, host and co-producer of the “Making of Milwaukee” documentary series, giving him what he calls “a modest TV presence” that led to his role in “Around the Corner.” That series, now taping its ninth season and aired by both Wisconsin Public Television and Milwaukee PBS, has made Gurda a familiar face throughout the state.

The episodes on Milwaukee are a snap for Gurda, but he spends hours researching other communities throughout the state, burrowing into the collection in the Humanities Room on the second floor of the Milwaukee Public Library’s Central branch. “I’ve had a lot of fun with records of the fur trade, and the letters of Solomon Juneau and Increase Lapham,” he says. “You can just get lost in that kind of material. And it helps historic figures come alive.”

An interview with public radio journalist Sarah Gardner for “Marketplace,” 2015

McGivern says the fun, lighthearted banter at the opening of each “Around the Corner” episode, though scripted by Gurda, is the real deal. “It’s a great collaboration,” he says. “What you see on TV is genuine. He’s smart and really prepared, and we get along well.”

Gurda’s written work has garnered a plethora of awards. This year he won his sixth Gambrinus Prize for best book-length history from the Milwaukee County Historical Society.

He notes he’s also a two-time Rock-Skipping Champion (senior division) of the Labor Day festival in Ontonagon, Michigan. He and Sonja have a summer cottage on Lake Superior there, where he stays in touch with the world only by phone. No smartphone, no Facebook. “I spend enough time on screens,” he says. His favorite way to relax is to bicycle, and he often takes long, touristic bike rides, such as in Italy and Ireland, across Missouri and, this month, along the Erie Canal, 350 miles from Buffalo to Albany. “He’s got lots of energy for bike rides,” says longtime friend Tom Tolan, an editor at this magazine, “and you often find yourself riding farther with him than you intended to.”

Gurda is a big fan of personal traditions with his loved ones. A group of friends has been going to a family cottage in Door County in September for more than 40 years. Once the group is assembled, the sheepshead cards get broken out and the talk begins. “John and Sonja are both so good at asking questions, when I’m with them, the conversation just keeps going,” says Mike Brady, a longtime friend.

Gurda describes himself as “Lutheran by practice, Catholic by culture and Unitarian by instinct.” He attends the Village Lutheran Church Downtown, where he sings bass in the choir. He says the church is “about as liberal a congregation as you’ll find in Milwaukee.” And while Gurda sometimes had expressed his liberal political views in his Journal Sentinel column – he once called then-Gov. Scott Walker “Wisconsin’s ideologue-in-chief” – he says he now only may do so with a letter to the editor.

Gurda narrates a bus tour, 1990
Over the years, Gurda has expanded his role as a voice for Milwaukee history by using his actual voice, serving as a lecturer and tour guide. He has spoken to countless audiences, ranging from churches to businesses to community groups.

Cheri McGrath, a resident of St. John’s on the Lake, a retirement community on Milwaukee’s East Side, attended Gurda’s eight-part lecture series on Milwaukee’s neighborhoods this spring. “You don’t miss a talk by John Gurda,” she says. “Whether you’ve lived here your whole life, as I have, or whether you’re new to town, you’ll learn something new.” Adds McGrath, who is blind, “He shows a lot of slides, but I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. He is so articulate, he can explain something so that you have a picture in your mind.”

Gurda’s warm and welcoming public persona has created an avid following, many of them women, who flock to his presentations. “John definitely has a fan club,” says Stacy Swadish, executive director of Historic Milwaukee Inc., which published Milwaukee: City of Neighborhoods and sponsored book talks and signings in 2015 to promote it. “They’re star-struck.”

“I am firmly convinced that, as the velocity of change increases, it is increasingly important to rebuild our connections with the past, whether that past involves our families, our home communities or our entire society,” Gurda wrote in the foreword to The Making of Milwaukee.

The organization has a life-size, cardboard cutout of Gurda that they took to the signings. “I cannot tell you how many women have wanted to buy that cutout,” she laughs. She says when the historian is surrounded by fans, he just blushes. “Sonja rolls her eyes, too, as if to say, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

Although Gurda has no plans to retire, he is a devoted dziadzia (Polish for grandpa) and babysitter for his grandchildren. “Biking around recently, I realized how lucky I felt,” he says. “For a lot of people, local history is a hobby. I’ve gotten to do something for a living that I love, am pretty good at and does the world at least some good.”

John and Sonja with their first son, newborn Nikolai, 1979

For him, in the end, it’s all about the work, about trying to make a difference. It’s about – in an increasingly fractured world – using history as a way to encourage people’s sense of ownership and involvement in their communities.

“I am firmly convinced that, as the velocity of change increases, it is increasingly important to rebuild our connections with the past, whether that past involves our families, our home communities or our entire society,” Gurda wrote in the foreword to The Making of Milwaukee. “We do so not for comfort but for context, not to feed a misplaced sense of nostalgia but to broaden our understanding of the world around us.”

Timeline of Milwaukee Firsts

We asked John Gurda about the most important milestones in Milwaukee’s history. Here’s his list:

1835: The first public land sale here launches Milwaukee as an urban place.

1835: Joe Oliver, Milwaukee’s first African American, votes in Milwaukee’s first election.

1839: The first German immigrants arrive in what will become America’s most German city.

1841: The city’s first German lager brewery, Hermann Reuthlisberger, plants the seeds of a global reputation.

1866: St. Stanislaus Parish debuts as the first Polish congregation in any American city.

1867: E.P. Allis’ Reliance Works – the future Allis-Chalmers – stakes Milwaukee’s claim as “Machine Shop of the World.”

1869: St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church becomes the pioneer congregation in Milwaukee’s black community.

1874: Pabst (then operating as Best) becomes America’s largest brewer for the first time.

1886: Milwaukee is at the center of the action as America’s first significant national union, the Knights of Labor, campaigns for an eight-hour day.

1901: St. Josaphat’s Church (later Basilica) becomes Wisconsin’s first “green” building, built with materials salvaged from the Chicago post office.

1910: Milwaukee becomes the first American city to elect a Socialist administration and does so repeatedly over the next 50 years.

1916: Automobiles outnumber horses on the streets of Milwaukee for the first time.

1920: The city’s first Mexican immigrants arrive to take jobs in local tanneries.

1953: The Milwaukee Braves become the first major-league team to relocate in the modern era, moving from Boston.

1963: The Civil Rights Movement begins in Milwaukee with protests against segregated schools.

1970: Summerfest completes its first year on the lakefront, where it would grow to become the world’s largest music festival.

1975: The first Southeast Asian refugees arrive in the wake of America’s departure from Vietnam.

1987: Allis-Chalmers goes bankrupt – not the first but the largest casualty in a wave of deindustrialization that transforms the local economy.

2001: Miller Park and the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Calatrava addition are the first major buildings in a surge of development continuing today.

“The Making of a Historian” appears in the June 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning June 3, or buy a copy at

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