Recalling Bob the Builder, Bob the Busy
By Dave Gathman firstname.lastname@example.org June 15, 2012 5:20PM
Former Elgin City Manger Robert "Bob" Brunton.
Updated: July 18, 2012 6:12AM
In one of his Elgin history books, unofficial city historian Mike Alft described ex-City Manager Robert L. Brunton as “Bob the Builder.”
But looking at Brunton close up as a teenager in the 1960s, I would have called him “Bob the Busy,” “Bob the Christian” And “Bob the Never Off-Duty.”
Brunton died June 2 in a nursing home in Tempe, Ariz. A memorial service will be held at Friendship Village in Tempe on July 1. Not a native of Illinois, he had answered an ad to become Elgin’s city manager in 1962 and stayed in the job for 10 years. And what a decade that was for what we then called “the Watch City.”
Elgin had adopted the council-manager form of government just eight years before, and it was still controversial.
Instead of having our mayor and councilmen run the city themselves in a hands-on fashion — the way giant Chicago and most little villages still do — Elginites had decided to have those elected people hire a trained professional who could sit outside of politics and run this ever-more-complicated city. By 1962, we had about 50,000 people, half the size of today’s Elgin, and we were facing challenges ranging from declining watch factory sales to rising Meadowdale Shopping Center sales in Carpentersville to a black minority who actually wanted the right to live somewhere besides the Fremont Street “Settlement.”
Brunton’s preparation for such a job? He had studied civil engineering, then psychology and sociology. What a perfect left brain/right brain amalgam for somebody running a city. He could both decide what kind of asphalt should be laid down on a deteriorating street, then tactfully apologize to the people who came to him angry about how that asphalt was covering up all those beautiful old paving bricks.
What did the city councils of 1962-72 accomplish through him?
With him keeping all the plates spinning, they physically created a different downtown Elgin than the one I saw when I used to walk down to the library in 1962 to watch the Union Pacific’s yellow domeliners roll through the city. They bought up maybe a third of the old downtown, tore down 50 buildings that had held 76 businesses, and turned the whole spread into what we still know today as the Elgin Civic Center.
Where there used to be rundown brick structures from the mid-1800s, there arose a succession of modern glass and steel wonders — a new city hall, Hemmens Cultural Center, a new post office, the appellate courthouse and the second Gail Borden Public Library building.
Beyond the downtown, meanwhile, Brunton earned that “builder’ sobriquet by also opening Lords Park Pool, Spartan Meadows golf course, the Wing Park Bandshell, the west-side water treatment plant, a new fire station and a new public works garage.
Finally, perhaps because he had no new dirt to shovel, Bob the Builder left Elgin in 1972 to become city manager in Fort Collins, Colo., and then assistant manager in Phoenix.
But as a child, I saw him as a fellow member attending First Evangelical United Brethren Church every Sunday. And the lesson I gained from watching him there was that like a minister, or an M.D. — or, heck a newspaper reporter — a city manager is never really “off duty.”
A procession of fellow churchgoers would approach him with complaints about the pothole in front of their home, or the street light that didn’t light down by the corner, or the way that no-parking zone in front of their store never seemed to be enforced. And always Bob the Never Off-Duty would listen patiently and jot down a few notes and proceed on Monday morning to fix that petitioner’s problem.
In 1971, he even fixed one problem for this teenaged kid. I would be coming home from college for the summer and needed a summer job. My dad asked Mr. Brunton if there was anything suitable down at the city. Before you knew it, I was earning $1.50 or so an hour mowing lawns at the Slade Avenue Water Treatment Plant, where the riverbanks were so steep that we had to tie a rope around a running rotary mower and lower it down toward the water, then pull it back up.
This wasn’t really the perfect job for yours truly because 1.) I was allergic to dandelions, 2.) I liked to stay awake until approximately the same crack-of-dawn hour when this crew started their day’s labors and 3.) I was almost literally a 97-pound weakling. One blazing-hot afternoon about three weeks into this new career, my lawn mower had stalled. After pulling and pulling the starter cord 116 times, I finally gave the machine a kick, shouted a few non-church-friendly words and threw my body down on an unmown patch of grass, exhausted and mad and literally at the end of my rope.
Just then, of course, a car drove right past me. Glaring without comment from behind the steering wheel was Mr. Jepsen, the water department’s boss.
I figured a pink slip would be in my hands by 4 o’clock. But God and Bob Brunton had different plans. Brunton button-holed me after the worship service that weekend and said that starting Monday morning, I should report not to the water plant but to the city planning department. The people there wanted to have me and three other college students walk around the city and record the use and condition of every lot in what they called a “land use survey.”
I loved that job, worked for the planning department again the next summer, and learned things about city government that would help when I started attending countless village board meetings as a reporter a few years later.
That work would put me in contact with a lot of other capable, friendly and trained city managers, the most notable including Joe Cavallaro from West Dundee, Larry Jones from South Elgin and Eric Palm from Hampshire.
But if you ask whom I would assign the nickname “the Abraham Lincoln of city managers,” I would have to say “Bob Brunton.”