Smile Politely

Honoring Political Activist “Grandpa” Robert Wahlfeldt (1925–2008)

On a Sunday afternoon in June, nearly 50 people gathered at Urbana’s Independent Media Center to commemorate “Grandpa.” Robert Wahlfeldt died in March at the age of 83. In his working life he was a labor leader and political radical. In retirement, he was a mentor and unofficial grandfather for the close-knit community of political activists in Champaign-Urbana. Almost everyone called him “Grandpa.”

I profiled Mr. Wahlfeldt one month before he died as part of a series on political activists in the area. At the IMC event, his friends and family dedicated a basement meeting room as “The Grandpa Wahlfeldt Family Room”.

Mr. Wahlfeldt’s friends decorated the IMC’s walls with photos of him in action—distributing leaflets outside Memorial Stadium, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with black friends at a “Unity March”. Home movies featuring Mr. Wahlfeldt in his younger days were projected silently against a wall. The group gathered their chairs in a circle and took turns sharing memories of their friend. They passed Mr. Wahlfeldt’s wooden walking stick, an emblem of his love for Native American culture, to each speaker.

Dan Lewart recalled how Mr. Wahlfeldt’s presence at anti-war protests lifted his spirits. “He just gave you some hope,” Lewart said.

Barbara Kessel was a close friend of Mr. Wahlfeldt’s. She told the group that Mr. Wahlfeldt sought the best traits in everyone he knew. When someone’s name was mentioned in Mr. Wahlfeldt’s presence he would invariably call him or her a “special person.” Kessel also told the group that Mr. Wahlfeldt took his role as a mentor seriously. “He was very conscious that he was leaving a legacy and having an impact,” she said.

When I met Mr. Wahlfeldt he was wrestling with poor health, and his spirits were sometimes low. But his sharp, square jaw and passionate ruminations on politics hinted at the life-long confidence that many people I interviewed ascribed to him. “I never felt insecure in my life,” Mr. Wahlfeldt told me. “I just pushed on.”

Mr. Wahlfeldt spent most of his life in Danville, Ill. In 2004, he followed his daughter and son-in-law, Jan and Durl Kruse, to Champaign-Urbana. The family had become familiar with the local activist community through the Kruse’s daughter Meridith, who attended the University of Illinois and later served as executive director of the Illinois Disciples Foundation in Champaign. Mr. Wahlfeldt dove into several local political causes. He joined two local activist groups, C-U Citizens for Peace and Justice and AWARE, the Anti-War Anti-Racism Effort.

During Mr. Wahlfeldt’s short time in Champaign-Urbana, he protested the Iraq war and the presence of military recruiters on campus, helped scrutinize the conduct of local police and the Champaign County state’s attorney’s office, and aided the effort to retire the Chief Illiniwek mascot, among other initiatives. He also made friends with a cross-section of the Champaign-Urbana community.

“He’s able to cross over that boundary,” Mr. Wahlfeldt’s daughter, Jan, told me in February. “He says, ‘Boy, I’m surprised they’re willing to talk to me,’ but there’s a twinkle in his eye.”

Mr. Wahlfeldt’s fellow activists cited his friendship and his life story as sources of inspiration. James Treat, a professor in the U of I’s Department of Religion, met Mr. Wahlfeldt through the activist community. He spoke with me about Mr. Wahlfeldt at his office in February. Treat is an expert on Native American religion and Mr. Wahlfeldt bonded with him over the subject.

“He’s an all-around nice person,” Treat told me. “A lot of activists, in my experience, become so political that they’re not nice people.”

But he explained that Mr. Wahlfeldt was different. “I admire the way he lived his life and he deserves to have people pay attention.”

I interviewed Mr. Wahlfeldt twice in February at his apartment in Prairie Winds, an assisted-living facility in Urbana. He had suffered two strokes since the new year and to his dismay could no longer attend meetings and protests. Friends from the activist community visited him almost daily.

Illness has not dulled Mr. Wahlfeldt’s principles. Outside his front door a small shelf held a postcard bearing Martin Luther King’s picture. Mr. Wahlfeldt was upset that Prairie Winds had not observed Black History Month in February. A sign on his living room wall read “Be yourself” in bright, fat letters.

“He’d say that all the time,” Mr. Wahlfeldt’s granddaughter, Meridith, told me.

The strokes had diminished Mr. Wahlfeldt’s eyesight to the point that he saw only blobs of color. He fixed his eyes up toward the wall behind me while we talked.

Details about Mr. Wahlfeldt’s life escaped his memory, but his recollections of friends and family were precise. He sat motionless for most of our interviews, with his long left leg draped over his right knee and a blanket covering his lap. Mr. Wahlfeldt sat forward only once, when talking about his children. “Let anyone say anything against them,” he said, waving his index finger, “and they’ll have to contend with me.”

Mr. Wahlfeldt also told me about his friend Bob Illyes. He met Illyes in the summer of 2004 at the Market at the Square in Urbana, where AWARE had set up an information table. Illyes and Mr. Wahlfeldt struck up a conversation, and Mr. Wahlfeldt invited him to an AWARE meeting.

“I had no interest in going to an AWARE meeting,” Illyes recalled, “but I wanted to talk to the old guy.” Illyes, who works for the Natural History Survey on campus, became a member of AWARE and is now an editor for the Public I, an alternative newspaper in Urbana.

“Bob was just a guy passing through,” Mr. Wahlfeldt told me. “I was happy I had an influence on him.”

Mr. Wahlfeldt also influenced younger people. Shara Esbenshade is an 18-year-old from Urbana and recent University Laboratory High School graduate. She volunteered with Mr. Wahlfeldt at AWARE’s table during the farmer’s market.

“Grandpa’s really good at the farmer’s market because he makes people talk,” Esbenshade told me during a phone interview in February. She had visited Mr. Wahlfeldt at Prairie Winds after his second stroke. Esbenshade said he had been discouraged about his condition but was “very optimistic about me.” Mr. Wahlfeldt asked Esbenshade about her college search and gave her one of his standard pep talks.

“He told me I need to know what I believe in,” Esbenshade said, “because then I’ll know what to say and be ready for opposition.”

Family and friends said that Mr. Wahlfeldt always knew what he believed—and was always ready for opposition. Mr. Wahlfeldt was born in 1925. His father was a labor organizer for the welder’s union in Danville. Mr. Wahlfeldt was still a teenager when he began working as an electrician and machinist for the Chicago and Eastern Illinois Railroad. He joined the International Association of Machinists, and he took pride in his work.

“Back in those days engines were on time,” Mr. Wahlfeldt said. “There weren’t any 15 or 20 minute delays.”

In 1943, Mr. Wahlfeldt joined the Navy and served in the South Pacific during World War II. He returned to his job at the railroad in 1946 and became president of the local machinists union. Labor unions were not always popular and Mr. Wahlfeldt heard his share of criticism.

“People would even see you walking down the street and make remarks about, ‘There goes that Commie,’” Mr. Wahlfeldt recalled.

He addressed Red-baiting head-on when trying to recruit new members. “Where did you get that idea? What’s a Commie?” he would ask workers who hesitated to join the union because of its perceived Communist links. Mr. Wahlfeldt told me he appealed to his personal character to win new members. “I’d say, ‘Take a look at my life. Do I portray something that’s not useful, that’s not helpful?’”

At the same time, Mr. Wahlfeldt had a growing family. He and his wife Alice married in 1946 and soon had three children. The family attended Danville’s Trinity Lutheran Church. At various times, Mr. Wahlfeldt served as Dean of Elders and Sunday school superintendent. He said he was particularly proud of placing women in leadership roles at the church. His daughter Jan recalled that her father caused a stir by inviting Danville’s black families to Sunday school.

“The church said they wanted to expand and he took it seriously,” Kruse said.

Mr. Wahlfeldt stepped deeper into Danville’s racial issues in the late 1970s when he served on the city’s Human Relations Commission. The commission heard grievances from Danville residents on a range of legal and law enforcement issues.

Philip Smith, a black political organizer from Chicago, came to Danville as executive director of the commission in 1976. Mr. Wahlfeldt and Smith began a close personal and professional relationship. Smith, now 80, lives in Stone Mountain, Ga. He and his wife Elaine explained in a joint phone interview that the family received a series of threats after the commission began to investigate police procedures.

“One night Philip had gone up to Chicago and me and the children heard breaking glass,” Elaine recalled. Someone had thrown stones through the windows of the Smith’s back porch. Neighbors later told the Smiths that Mr. Wahlfeldt kept watch outside their house from his car following the incident.

“We had no idea he was doing it,” said Philip Smith. “You don’t always run into people who are concerned for other people like that.”

In the 1970s, Mr. Wahlfeldt left the railroad for a job at the Veteran’s Administration hospital in Danville. He worked there as a maintenance scheduler and labor organizer until he retired in 1985. For several years before and after the death of his wife in 1994, Mr. Wahlfeldt’s activism slowed down, according to his granddaughter Meridith.

But he quickly established himself as a leader on community issues after moving to Champaign-Urbana. Several activists told me that Mr. Wahlfeldt remained quiet at meetings. “If things got really critical that’s when he’d step in,” Randall Cotton, an AWARE member, said in February during a phone interview.

Aaron Ammons, a leader of C-U Citizens for Peace and Justice, suggested to me that Mr. Wahlfeldt’s style of activism relied on his personal example as much as his action. “His impact is different,” Ammons said during a phone interview in February. “He’s not the guy out there making fliers. It’s his presence.”

Ammons also recalled a time several years ago when Mr. Wahlfeldt intervened in a personal conflict between him and another activist. “He told me I must take the high road, the forgiving position,” Ammons said. “It seemed very fatherly, like I was being put back on track.”

C-U Citizens for Peace and Justice presented Mr. Wahlfeldt with an award for lifetime activism during last October’s “Unity March.” Mr. Wahlfeldt walked with the crowd from the Champaign County Courthouse in Urbana to Douglass Park in Champaign. Another group marched in the opposite direction from Champaign’s Westside Park toward Douglass Park.

Ammons said the group offered to drive Mr. Wahlfeldt part of the way but he refused. “You don’t have to slow down for me,” Ammons recalled Mr. Wahlfeldt saying.

Mr. Wahlfeldt told me he never considered cutting short the march. “If one person backed down you’d be a bad example to the rest.”

Mr. Wahlfeldt died at a nursing home in Danville on March 26. Several dozen friends and activists from Champaign-Urbana drove to Danville for the funeral. The crowd laughed and cried as they recalled Mr. Wahlfeldt as a father, grandfather, coworker and fellow activist. One old friend read from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Hiawatha”. A trumpeter played “When the Saints Go Marching In” as the mourners filed out of the service.

At the IMC three months later, the memories of Mr. Wahlfeldt were bittersweet but joyful. AWARE member Karen Medina talked about Mr. Wahlfeldt’s influence on the assembled group. “He knew how to make lemonade out of the likes of us,” she said.

Deacon James Clayborn of C-U Citizens for Peace and Justice offered a forceful meditation on Mr. Wahlfeldt’s legacy. In the rising and falling cadence of a sermon, he challenged the activists to emulate the personal and political values that Wahlfeldt had personified. “We can say good things about Grandpa,” Clayborn said, “but can we walk the walk?”

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