Interview by Teresa Nguyen
Story sponsored by the Carrie Jacobs Bond Questers
US Army Veteran
Retired Educator - School District of Milton
Former President of Milton Education Association
Former Grievance Committee Chair - Milton Education Association
Former Fourth Ward Committee Chair
2012 Law Enforcement Service Award
2016 Hall of Honor Recognition - UW Rock County Foundation and Rock County Board of Supervisors
The Early Years
My parents, Elmer and Ruby Erickson, were from Viroqua, Wisconsin. I was born in 1938 on a tobacco and dairy farm and had one older sister, Burnelle and one younger sister, Vicki. We worked all the time, before and after school. As a child, I attended a one room schoolhouse. This was before television so, at night, my parents were always working at the table and doing something.
My dad and I hunted nearly every weekend. And I loved the animals on the farm. But there was something my dad knew about me that I didn’t.
One day we were going to set the tobacco. It’s a great time to just talk. My two sisters had been talking about what they wanted to do when they were adults. My dad spoke up and said to me, “You are never going to be a farmer. I’m going to send you to college.”
He knew I couldn’t fix anything mechanical. Usually, the oldest son inherited the farm. That’s just the way it was done.
At that time, I was in eighth grade. I was scared to death, because nobody went to college in our family or in the rural farm areas at that time. I was afraid I’d fail. I never got used to the idea of going to college!
As a kid, I had a couple of nicknames. People called me Topper, the name of a movie actor who played a detective. It was my aunt who first called me Topper and that seemed to catch on. Then in high school, I was called Lew, after a major baseball player, Lew Burdette.
A Health Scare
I was attending Viroqua High School when disaster hit. At the end of my first semester as a junior, I developed rheumatic fever and I spent the next year in bed. I wasn’t even allowed to stand up. Every bone in my body hurt. Eventually, I had to learn to walk all over again! Of course, I fell behind in school. Back then, there wasn’t homeschooling like there is today.
My dad was always on the school board. He found a way to get me enrolled in the University of Wisconsin High School Extension Program. It was slow, done by mail, but that helped me pick up some credits that year.
Finally, at semester time my senior year of high school, I got to return to school again. I stayed with my grandmother in town and a taxi would take me to school in the morning. I could only go half a day and during one of the classes, I had to go to the nurse’s room to lie down on a cot.
Thankfully, I made a full recovery. At the time, I didn’t realize how much it must’ve worried my parents to be so ill. My dad was an unemotional man, like a lot of dads were back then, and never showed his feelings. But I had a wonderful relationship with him. I realized later in life how disappointed he was that I couldn’t play sports. He never said anything about it at the time, though.
When my class graduated, I didn’t have enough credits. They let me go through the graduation ceremony, but I only had the jacket of the diploma and not the document. During summer I took more classes to earn my diploma. In late summer, on a Friday, I was waiting for my final test result. College was to start on Monday morning. It finally arrived!
I ran to the cornfield to tell my dad. He was on the tractor, cultivating down the rows. When he saw me, he knew. He said, “Get on the tractor, we’re going to town to get your diploma!” I’d never seen my dad so excited! He didn’t even finish the row and plowed right through the cornfield to get on the road!
When we picked up the diploma, he took me in his arms and hugged me for the first time I could remember. And he said to me, “You now are on the same level as everyone else. Show them what you can do. Now I’m going to drive you across town and enroll you in college.” I entered college on Monday morning. I had just made it!
I was afraid I wasn’t college material. When we got our report card the first semester, I went down to the bathroom and into a stall to open the envelope. I had all A’s and B’s and one C. What meant the most to me was that I hadn’t disappointed my dad.
In grade school, I had a teacher that I thought walked on water, Mrs. Bertha Fauske. I thought I wanted to be like her. I got described in my teaching career as an “old mom teacher”, strong in discipline, but fair. I thought to myself, “That sounds like Bertha Fauske.” She gave me a Christmas gift when I graduated from 8th grade in 1952. I still have it! She truly inspired me to become an educator.
I graduated from the Normal School, which was later called the Teacher’s College. There were only two men enrolled at the time. Later, there were enough to form a basketball team.
All of my Viroqua memorabilia that I’d collected is now in that same college building, which became the historical society.
I became a rural school teacher in 1958, at age 20. You were allowed to teach while finishing your bachelor’s or master’s degree, which I received from the University of Wisconsin - Whitewater. I was teaching first and second graders and my biggest fear was that I wouldn’t successfully teach them how to read. I had grown up in a one room rural school, so I knew how to do it. But I didn’t want to fail them, because that’s where you start.
The school was in Vernon County and I taught there for two years. Then I went to Seneca, near the bluffs by Prairie du Chien. It was there I coached basketball and taught 7th and 8th grade. I’d always been a sports fan; my family was sports crazy. Every Wednesday night and Sunday night we would go watch baseball games. The Milwaukee Braves had arrived and we would go there for weekends to watch baseball. My mother became a rabid college basketball fan, as well.
Around that time, I’d wanted to be where I could watch sports, go to a game and get home without having to miss work days the next morning. I happened to get a call about an opening in Milton Junction for an 8th grade teacher and a basketball coach. At the time, they were building Interstate 90. What an obstacle it was to get across the state at that time! That was around 1962.
I was drafted and served in the U.S. Army for two years during 1963 and ’64. My training was at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. Then, I was sent to a missile training base in Aberdeen, Maryland. After that, I was sent to a missile base in Germany. That was quite an experience to see what a Hawk Missile could do.
Being in Germany was so rewarding. We weren’t at war. We were just there in case the Russians came across the border, which they never did. So, we lived like civilians. Our base was nestled up in the woods, camouflaged near a town called Fischbach. Our barracks were in Muschweiler and we were bussed every morning up there.
Hundreds of American families were there, they even had an American grade school and high school. I voluntarily took a course in German at the University of Munich while I was stationed in Germany.
It was such a learning experience to see how the Germans lived. My buddy and I liked going to German events.
Once, we went to a Christmas program wearing our civilian clothes. Everyone got quiet and stared at us when we walked in.
During WWII, the Nazis would send their people to events like that, and they remembered that fear. But when we walked in, we were escorted to the front row. The show was wonderful. At the end, the lead singers came out to bow and some children went up and gave them each a bouquet of roses. The leads then went to the end of the stage and came down around to the front row to give us their flowers. All they said was, “Danke schön, America.” We couldn’t get out of there, everybody wanted to hug us.
We took the roses back to the base and our first sergeant took our bouquets and put one rose in each vase on the tables in the mess hall.
You can’t buy that experience. I got to see how much people appreciated the freedom we were giving them. People often don’t realize what freedom means.
I’d come from rural Viroqua, Wisconsin, where there were no Black people. In the service, I worked alongside Black servicemen and got to know them.
The bus would take us up to work and back, though many guys had cars. One night I wanted to get back early, so I asked for a ride. He picked me up, there was a guy in the front seat and a guy in the back. I got in and, before long, he picked up another guy, so I was in the middle back seat. Just before we arrived at our barracks, I realized that here I was, a white boy, sitting with four black men. The color of their skin meant nothing. It was a learning experience. They were my buddies and that taught me a lot.
In the service, I started a newspaper for our unit. I rounded up enough guys. Each guy had a job. One had to write a story about an enlisted man, another guy had to write a story about an officer. My buddy Stan drew illustrations for the front page. The guys who had stories written up about them, would send them home to their moms and sweethearts.
I remained editor and was also a sports writer, so I traveled around with the teams. We had a baseball team and our big rival was the MP Company. The team threw a farewell party for me down at the local tavern and even the MP Company, our opposition, was there. Their number one fan, who would swear at me for what I put in the paper, was also present. She came up to hug me and said, “Well, it’s all over now, but didn’t we have fun!”
The rule was that the job would be waiting for you when you returned from the service and I returned to teach at Milton Junction. Milton and Milton Junction merged along with Consolidated and Harmony. Then they built a new high school and formed the junior high. Today it’s a middle school. That’s where I ended up. It was a neat experience and so many of the people who started there stayed until they retired. We have remained friends.
I taught for 37 years. That’s a lot of students. When Anna Marie Lux interviewed me here for the Gazette, she asked me, “Why do you have that picture of Teddy Roosevelt in your dining room?” I answered, “Well, I taught history.” She said, “I know that. I was one of your students! You gave me an A+. I was determined to get that and you gave it to me.” I told her, “I didn’t give it to you. You earned it.”
I started a student council convention in 1965, which was patterned after the national conventions to elect a student council president. The principal at the time was afraid of turning all those kids loose in the gymnasium for a convention. He told me, “If you succeed, you take the credit. If you fail, you take the blame.” And I said, “Fine.”
When the convention was over, he walked up to me and said, “This will become a tradition in Milton.”
We had the bands and the banners; they dressed up and so forth. That went on for 50 years. Well then, the new principal discontinued it! Even the student council was disbanded. I called her to talk to her personally. But I knew I couldn’t change her mind. With the state of our government today, I think we need more education in government, not less of it. Everyone in Milton remembers those conventions and their delegations and the excitement.
Politics and the Teacher’s Union
I love politics. Every day, in grade school, we would start the day off with a current event story. That got me interested in world affairs. As a kid, I remember listening to Harry Truman on the radio running for president in 1948, during the Democratic National Convention. It was fascinating! I was just obsessed with politics at that age. It was a dream fulfilled when I finally created that convention for the students. And when I left, new people took it over. I would return to watch it every year.
I’ve never considered running for office. The only office I ran for was in college. I told my dad I was thinking about running for student president my freshman year. But after having rheumatic fever, that takes away your confidence, the idea that you’re good enough. I told him how some of the kids running were popular kids from our high school. My dad told me that I was on a different level with them now. He said that those popular kids were only popular with their friends when they were younger, because they grew up together in grade school. He encouraged me to go for it. And I won! Then, I was reelected my sophomore year.
When I became a teacher, I was President of the Teacher’s Union. Later, I felt that I could do more for the teachers if I was Chairman of the Grievance Committee. This was back when the unions had power. Today they have none. There were teachers who lost their jobs because they should. And there were those who lost their jobs because some principal had a friend who wanted that position.
I was so young and dumb…I just believed in doing things right! My first big case was when I represented three teachers who were being let go at the end of the year. I gathered all the facts and went to the school board meeting in front of about 200 people in a cafeteria and fought the case. The board reinstated the teachers and, before the year was up, they fired the principal!
There were teachers reprimanded for something wrong that they did. I’d say, “I will represent you, but I will not defend what you did.” We didn’t do those things in Milton. I would tell them, "The best route is to admit the wrongdoing, you’ll get written up and that letter will be put in your files. And if you’re on good behavior, after two years that letter will be gone." And they all listened.
My greatest experience was when, five days before I retired, I won my last case. I was nicknamed Perry Mason (a popular, fictional American trial lawyer and detective in a series of novels by Erle Stanley Gardner, later made into a TV series). I never lost a case!
In 1995, I retired from teaching. I have fun pictures from my retirement parties.
A Second Career in Collecting
When I retired, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to teach anymore. I never called it work, as I loved it.
I had collected probably all my life. But I had been into antiques for around a decade already, and I knew I could make money in it. I would be free to do shows in other states like Iowa or Michigan and not have to worry about being up early on Monday morning.
I did antique malls and shows for 32 years. When I did my 100th show in Bloomington, Illinois, they had a party for me. There were about 600 dealers there and they had refreshments for everyone!
I had a Viroqua collection that I donated to the local historical society up there. The Viroqua paper wrote a story on my collection. It hit the papers and my phone started to ring off the hook! Hundreds of people came out to see it! It is still a rotating exhibit today. I dedicated that in memory of my mother.
Aside from antique collecting, I’m big into scrapbooks. And I have a photographer who helps me out when I need certain photos.
Prior to moving here, I had a huge house on Milton Avenue, where the new fire station is now. Then I lived on Barham Avenue for a while, and I moved here to this house in 1985.
The house is historical, built in 1908, which was the year the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. Its first owner was Albert Henry Bennison and family. They owned and operated the Bennison & Lane Bakery, which is the large, brick building on the corner of High Street and West Center Way in downtown Janesville. All the people who had owned this house took very good care of it and it was never rented out.
Prior to my purchase, it had been owned by the Eldridge family. At the time, there had already been 592 people who had toured through the house, and I was one of them. They left the book with all the names in it.
When I toured the home, I got to know the people who owned it. They were antique dealers, too. I said to them that, in the future, I’d like to own a Victorian home. One day, she called me up and asked me if I was still interested. They had decided to move to California. I came down that next night and bought it from them.
Over the years I’ve given many free tours to people, friends, those who were interested. I allow people to view all the rooms, the parlors and dining room on the first floor, the second and the third (attic) floors, plus the basement. I even allow people to sit on the furniture. Everything on display in the house is labeled.
One of my rooms I call “The Presidents Room”. I am admittedly a political junkie, but I don’t like to get into political arguments with people. I just listen.
I used to have student tours with my history classes. They had to dress up as a historical figure. I’d bring two classes by bus with chaperones. One class would have their lunch (brown bagged) under a candelabra, while the other class would tour. Then we’d flip and the other group would eat.
During one of those tour days, I told the principal that we were done. He said, “Oh no, the bus won’t be here for another half hour! What are we going to do?” I told him not to worry and informed the kids, telling them that they could go wherever they wanted to see something again in the house. They all scattered. After the tours, I always had them write about what they liked most. It might have been a painting or something in the house. That year, 90% of them wrote that they loved sitting in the antique furniture and that they didn’t have to take their shoes off!
I had done the Historic Home tours two times and then, in 2012, mine was one of six homes open to the public in the Historic Home Holiday Tour fundraiser for the Beloit Janesville Symphony Orchestra.
My large aerial view map of the Fourth Ward I found in Beloit in a junk yard and had it delivered to my home. It fits one of the walls in my upstairs office.
The ceiling in one of the bedrooms was moved over from the old Cronin Hotel on North Main Street. It was saved by previous owners; they washed it and then painted it to match the décor in this house. I also have mannequins and things from various places and a “First Ladies” doll collection which was hand made by a Milton woman, Alta Nitz, and then taken over by Nancy Rotar.
The attic is filled with political posters and souvenirs. I had switched from national posters to mostly local campaigns. I started on local politicians with Tom McDonald, who asked me if I would put his sign on my third floor if he autographed it. I said, “Sure.” And that started a trend. I now have over 50 political posters.
I used to have the parties up there in the attic, too. And the wood stove in the attic still works.
The basement is filled with photos of friends and local “celebrities” and politicians. Paul Ryan asked my permission to include me in his book because he was writing about the Fourth Ward. So, I am in it.
Bill Truman was on the City Council and he had been one of the walkers in high heels for the “Walk A Mile” event fundraiser for the YWCA Rock County They auctioned Bill’s shoes off, so I bought his sparkly shoes! I also have Larry Barton’s colorful shoes.
Former Janesville City Council member, Sam Leibert, used to come down to the neighborhood and walk the streets with me in the Fourth Ward and talk to people.
I had a 100th birthday party for the house in 2008. I invited 100 people to celebrate! After the party, I was bombed with phone calls. So, I had to have a second party because they had all wanted to be invited!
We had a welcoming party for Mark Freitag when he first arrived in Janesville. Everyone showed up because they wanted to greet the new city manager. It was wall to wall people here!
Over the years, I hosted dress up parties, and not necessarily at Halloween. I’d issue an invitation an entire year in advance, and would register their outfits. That way, there wouldn’t be two Napoleons. They didn’t have to be historical characters and there were no themes. One of the guests went and made her own dress because she had a years’ notice.
During one of the years, a guest said they called a costume store in Madison and they were told, “We’re sold out because someone in Janesville is having a big party!”
I’d also have dinner for all the guests. It was great fun!
Helping the Fourth Ward
I moved to the fourth ward because I wanted the house. People ask me “Why did you move there?” My answer is always, “Because I wanted the house.”
Life has really changed down here. I joined the Fourth Ward Committee shortly after moving here. It consisted of nine people. You had to be invited to join because of confidentiality. Every three months, we would have a meeting and we worked together with the Janesville Police Department. We had good people who could be trusted to help keep watch over the neighborhood.
We had to deal with secrecy and classified documents. The City of Janesville and the city council trusted us with the work.
The Neighborhood Action Team, a newer group that works on unifying the neighborhood, holds family friendly events, fun things and such. It is wonderful!
At one time there were 71 drug houses in the Fourth Ward. People lived in fear and would keep their shades closed so they wouldn’t witness a crime. People couldn’t sleep sometimes.
We were like an abused woman, where we lived with it, put up with it, but didn’t tell people about it. The Gazette started doing stories. And the Janesville City Council saw what was going on. With our action, and the help of the Gazette, we finally got the attention of the city.
Marcia Nelesen, former Gazette reporter, did a story on the Fourth Ward with me. But I only agreed to the interview if she’d agree to write something good. She came down and walked the neighborhood with me and, in her article, she pointed out the good things.
Little by little, the changes have come. Today, there is only one drug house that I am aware of. Although, there are more that operate and are less obvious. It’s finally a neighborhood people want to live in.
We have houses selling for over $200,000 down here. Some of the blighted, old drug houses have been removed and new ones built. Some of the mansions are now single-family homes, instead of split into five apartments.
Our neighborhood was saved!
Giving Back to Students and Community
I never married and never had children that I had to buy shoes for and school supplies. But when I became financially stable, I helped finance seven kids’ college education. But I didn’t let them know I had planned to do that until I handed them the check.
I didn’t want to invest the money in someone who didn’t have an interest in getting a college degree. I knew the families and the parents. With all seven of them, I made sure they wanted to get a college degree and I knew they wanted it and how much it would mean to them. That is what I am most proud of, because all seven graduated and they are citizens who are productive and provide to our society today.
One of them was a former student. He was a handful as a youngster with many challenges. But then I heard he was doing okay. So, I reached out and gave him the money to help him get through college.
When the old theater in Viroqua closed, they turned it into an entertainment center. I joined as a member. They started putting murals up all along the side walls. The murals were sponsored. They wanted to do one, very large mural above the doors, but it would cost too much money. So, I had wanted to do something to honor my dad and I sponsored that mural above the doors. It took the artist three years to finish it! He sat out on the Mississippi River to paint the view. My dad used to fish there, so it was a perfect thing to do in his memory. They put a plaque in the theater, as well.
When the Janesville Police Department needed a new canine dog, the city was going to have to pay for that. The fundraiser wasn’t going anywhere. It was in the paper that they weren’t getting contributions. So, I went down with a check for Chief Dave Moore. I hadn’t been home more than an hour when the phone rang and it was Dave. He was in disbelief. He said, “When I opened your letter and saw the check, I jumped out of my chair and screamed, ‘We’re gonna’ get the dog!’”
One day, two officers came to the house wanting to talk to me. I invited them in. Officer Sukus, who was in charge of the canine program, asked me, “Why did you decide to do this?” I told him that I did it in memory of my mother. He asked, “Why is that?” I was hoping he wouldn’t ask.
I told him that he was a city boy and I’m a farm boy. When you grow up on the farm, the farmer’s wife had to raise the chickens. The fox liked to eat our chickens, but we always had a dog and that meant the chickens could run free. So, I compared this to how my mother’s dog protected the chickens, and the police dog protects the lives of our officers.
Officer Sukus took out a pad of paper to write down her name, Ruby Erickson. They decided to put a plaque at the station, dedicated to my mother.
Now I have a plaque for my mother in Janesville, where I’ve lived so long, and one in Viroqua for my dad.
My dad was my role model. He spent so much time with me - hunting, fishing, going to ball games. I was deathly afraid of embarrassing him. My sisters and I never saw my parents argue, they took care of that somewhere else. I looked up to him.
The other one I patterned my career after is my grade school teacher, Mrs. Fauske, whom I spoke about earlier.
Thoughts on Janesville
I think that Janesville is an incredible place to live. We have some wonderful changes happening here. The progress being made is amazing and our Fourth Ward has been turned around. Our government is in extremely good hands. If you compare Janesville to other cities our size, we have it so good!
I still love collecting, and putting together scrapbooks. I also have a 7,500-piece puzzle from Germany so maybe, one of these days, I’ll tackle that. I’m still a sports fan, love the Packers, Brewers and the Badgers and enjoy going to the games.
I have so many friends…my phone rings all the time. Even though I’m 84, some of my friends are in their 40s and 50s. Sometimes, if you only have a circle of friends your own age, you can end up being very lonely.
I have friends from teaching, from here in the Fourth Ward and friends from Viroqua – it’s so fun to reminisce and just talk.
Davy Crocket used to say, “Be always sure you are right, and then go ahead.” And I’ve always lived by that and let the chips fall where they may.
I’m 84 years old and I just enjoy each day.