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  • Writer's pictureTeresa Nguyen

Ilah Hartung

Story Sponsored by Burdette Erickson

Interview by Teresa Nguyen

January 2023

“When Ilah talks, people listen.” ~ Burdette Erickson
Ilah Hartung wearing a fish necklace, a gift from her husband, Rick

Retired Rock County Employee

Co-Founder of HealthNet

Former County Board Member

YWCA Woman of Distinction Recipient

Founder of the Fourth Ward Committee

Former Member of Rock Prairie Arts Council

Former League of Women Voters State Board Member

Community Activist

The Early Years

I was born, in Chicago. My maiden name is Bjorklund, which means birch grove in Swedish. There are so many birch groves in Sweden, it’s beautiful. My dad, Carl Egon Bjorklund was born in 1900. He was an immigrant from Sweden and my maternal grandmother was also a Swede. They all immigrated to Chicago.

When my father was about 26 years old, he was sponsored to Chicago by a family, a single lady, who wanted to make sure he and others could come to America. There was a group of Swedish friends between them all. My mother, Anna Mae, likely met my father through the “appropriate” church connections. After my dad and his Swedish friends retired, they all ended up down in Florida in St. Pete’s. They were friends for life!

Ilah's parents on their wedding day

My dad was a jack of all trades. He was a builder, loved woodworking and such. He had an interesting life from the start, as the oldest of a large family. Starting in his teens, he worked at a water tower. He would hammer out lime that accumulated in the tower and he would also cover for the guys who were drinking on the job.

My father had been in the military in Sweden, but too young for WWI. He got interested in politics and was what you might call an early socialist. He had a big political family, very in touch with what was happening in Europe. He saw the Germans coming to his country with barrels full of small money because of inflation. He witnessed what the war had done to people.

At a young age, I had developed a hearing loss, but we were all unaware of it at the time. Somehow, I compensated for that. It wasn’t until I was older that I found out about it.

Ilah, on the left, with her friend

By the time I was graduating high school, my mom became a working woman to help cover the cost of college for me and my brother Richard, who was seven years older.


I attended elementary and senior high school in Chicago. We went straight from 8th grade into high school, without intermediate school. There weren’t a lot of extracurricular activities back then. I was never an athletic person, so didn’t get involved that way, other than attending a football game here and there.

So, I was involved in the Art Club and my brother had been involved in the school newspaper. In those days, you didn’t have to have all of the leadership roles in clubs, like students do today. Kids are so involved; you wonder where they find the time!

Ilah as a teen with her dad, Carl

I was an artist and also attended the Art Institute of Chicago on Saturday mornings during the school years, for about six years. It was filled with art majors and we had lessons in an auditorium, where a professional demonstrated a particular technique. We’d get an assignment to work on until the next week’s class. The mediums were chalk and paints, or pen and ink. It gave us a chance to mingle with each other and go through the galleries and just hang out as friends.

I had been planning to attend the University of Chicago, but was persuaded to attend Shimer College, which was like the baby university to U of C.

I met Rick at the Shimer College. We were table servers for the students and realized we could do things a lot more efficiently if we worked together. My husband’s parents lived nearby, and he transferred to the University of Chicago Laboratory School, Shimer College. He had also studied at Yale University School of Architecture.

I was only at Shimer a few months, deciding that I wasn’t cut out to be in a small college in a small town. But it brought me and Rick together.

Then, I started being a commuting student to the University of Chicago, which took me from western Illinois on a bus to a train, to another, etc. I decided that was too heavy and I was wasting my study time with the commute. The next year, I applied and got into the dorms, a graduate dorm. There were more studious people there.

I studied Humanities at the University of Chicago and was interested in languages, particularly ancient languages like Latin and Greek. I also loved history, so that fit in naturally. Some of the time, I also studied at the Oriental Institute. There are exhibits of all sorts of ancient history there, similar to the Museum of Natural History.

I received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Chicago.

Rick Hartung

Life with Rick

His name was Richard and that was funny, because I had a brother named Richard. At the university We somehow rediscovered each other. We had long walks through the library system to where we would study. Sometimes we’d run into each other and he’d say, “Oh my God, you’re here! Do you want to go for tea tomorrow?”

I’d say, “Sure, why not?”

While we were dating, he specialized in 19th century architecture. He was also passionate about Frank Lloyd Wright and his contemporaries. While in Chicago, he worked for an architect as sort of a gopher. Rick was in Chicago, but the architect was designing a community in Palm Springs. Rick would go purchase things on the list for the projects.

After getting my degree, we married at the University of Chicago, in one of the chapels. It was a small wedding with a couple of bridesmaids.

Ilah, center, her parents and little Dan

Then Rick did some summers in Galena, Illinois, to work on the history of that area. Meanwhile, when I was around age 25, we had our first son, Dan. The young woman in the bed next to me thought I was “so old!” A few years later, I had Gregor, who is named after my cousin in Sweden.

In 1964, when Dan was just a baby, Rick was looking for more steady work, when he saw an ad for an Executive Director at the Rock County Historical Society. He took the job. While there, he supervised the relocation and restoration of the historic Stone House. He also developed the archival holdings of RCHS and opened its first museum at the Armory. He expanded community awareness in historic preservation, resulting in grants for preservation and surveys of historic buildings.

He secured certification by the American Association of Museums for the historical society’s professional curatorial and interpretive efforts.

Rick was also a presenter of slide shows and did bus tours of history and architecture. He was named to the Rock County Hall of Fame in 2006, for his outstanding achievements in preservation. Rick worked at RCHS for 25 years! He was well respected in the community.

Rick’s memory was terrific and he could remember historical dates and names and he was interested in the historical buildings and knew their importance in the community. He was always giving lectures, bus trips to historical places and was a very active director. I helped edit the historical books they put together, a behind the scenes kind of volunteering.

Rick then went to work in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago on the lake, at the Evanston Historical Society. That was in the 1980s. He worked there during the week, staying at their coach house, then would come home on the weekends.

Rick and Ilah Hartung

After his retirement, Rick ran a small business consulting on private National Register nominations. His community service in Mt. Carroll, Illinois and in Wisconsin continued on.

The Diagnosis

When I was working for the county, Rick had already retired. He began to show signs that something wasn’t right. One time, he said he was having trouble with his tooth. I gave him some dental tape and told him to clean his teeth with that. He replied, “Oh…”, then he threw the package away. I saw he wasn’t understanding things.

He was in charge of the computer and kept the calendar updated and our schedules, and he’d get really upset if something wasn’t reported for entering it on the calendar. He would get frustrated with things.

Rick was also using three different charge cards and when I asked him about it, reminding him we needed the money for food, he asked, “We need food?” Sometimes, he would get up in the night and leave, or he would get disoriented. He had been spending money and would go to the bars, then he would get rowdy. Once, a cop brought him home and the officer said, “Mrs. Hartung, I’m so sad to say this, but I had to bring him home, because he wasn’t behaving outside.”

Early on I had taken him to the doctor and he was told he had diabetes, but he didn’t reveal that to me. Later we learned of the connection between diabetes and dementia, and Rick was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia dementia (FTD) around Christmas time that year. The doctor was very clear about it. By then, Rick was too far gone to really realize what it all meant.

The changes kept coming. The dog would come up to him, begging him to go out, but Rick would just pet him and say, “Nice dog.”

Once we passed a Tallman House direction sign on a road. Rick said, “Tallman House? Dan, wasn’t your mother involved in that?” Dan said, “You were, Dad. You directed there.” It was awful to see that happening. I’d get terribly frustrated and sad dealing with it all. Plus, we had the grandchildren, who had special needs.

He got cancer on top of this. He’d had surgery and he had prescription pain pills, but I had to monitor them, just to keep him safe.

One day he woke up and got into the car to run an errand at night, trying to fill the prescription. The weather was bad and somehow, he turned the wrong way on Milton Avenue, driving all the way to Edgerton! He crashed into a telephone poll there. He was okay, but it was in the middle of the night. So, our van was totaled and we couldn’t use it! He had pills in his pocket, so had to go to court because of it.

Eventually, he was taken care of at a place in Jefferson. Then, we couldn’t keep up with the cost of all the care. I retired from work to help with Rick. We brought him home and Dan and I became his caregivers. Dan did daytime shift and I did nights. We had to recreate the kitchen to keep him safe and healthy, as he would get into things.

I had always thought it would be me, not Rick. He was so smart and had that memory and knew so much. It broke my heart. In general, the public and friends didn’t know how to handle it, so they quit visiting and such.

We finally got hospice care and hadn’t even completed the application process before he died. I was sitting with him, not really knowing, but just feeling that it was coming. He died a gentle death. That was October 30th, 2013.

Ilah with her son at the zoo in a shawl that she knitted

Work and Career Life

My parents did not demand that I worked or anything. For my first job, when I was a teen, I started out working two Saturdays at an old Woolworth’s, behind the scenes doing food prep. But they discovered how young I was and immediately fired me. I was under age.

During college, I worked at a gift shop, selling modern things, contemporary designs and I liked the job.

Later, I worked a job on computers in a central office building. They were such a new thing back then. There was someone who did data processing. Then I had to go through piles of papers to double check her work, using a pencil and marking things off. That’s where I quit biting my nails, because I was too busy!

After college, and we were married, Rick and I had an apartment there in Chicago. Then I got a job with the City of Chicago in the Civil Service Department. I did interviews with people about their jobs and grade-levels.

I met my very good friend, Barbara, while at that job. Even after we were both married and had children, we shared the crib, back and forth when we each had a little one. We tried staying in touch after I moved to Janesville and wrote letters and such.

Coming to Janesville

When we moved to Janesville, I stayed at home with my boys for a while. We finally got our first apartment, which was hard to find, because they weren’t as available back then. And everyone was so suspicious of us because we were from Chicago…there was quite a bias toward us “big city” people. We thought that was amusing.

We didn’t have a commuter train to Chicago by then. We had a friend who came up from Chicago twice. He would get gifts for our boys from Marshall field and have them delivered to us.

When my sons were old enough, I had a friend in Janesville who got a job at Fannie May in the mall and, she got me a job there, as well.

After Fannie May, I worked for the Janesville Public Library for a while, working on Books by Mail. People would order books and I took care of filling the orders. It was a decent job. Eventually, we moved to computers, and I was one of the employees who entered information into the computers as a Technical Services Assistant.

A friend talked me into working for the county in Human Services, dealing with the kids who committed vandalism and petty crimes, working with the Restitution Program. We were part of a state network called WARP. I’ve enjoyed keeping a bag with those initials, because I always feel I’m a bit of a warped personality (laughs).

We were also part of the Probation Program. One of my best friends, Rebecca, had been a probation officer and was in charge of a unit. I started working with Rebecca and worked with families and their needs for housing or other programs. We also worked with the school district. We had to make sure they were in compliance with federal requirements and programs.

I ended up working in Adult Services, helping people who were dealing with Alzheimer’s and caregiving, providing in-home care. That coincided with me dealing with Rick and his own diagnosis.

Political involvement

I had to quit that position to run for the Rock County Board of Supervisors. That was an enjoyable position, as well. At some point, I considered running for City Council, but didn’t.

Way back, when I was younger, I started getting involved in politics. I sold pins for Adlai Stevenson II and we had a convention in Chicago. He’d had a long run as governor and was anti war. But he didn’t win.

I had the distinction of walking up to his opponent, one of the other candidates – a tall, New England smarty pants – and I asked him, " Would you like to buy a Stevenson shoe button?"

Today with all that’s going on, Ukraine is near to my heart. If I were younger, I might be over there trying to do something to help.

My son, Dan, seems to be following in my footsteps as a community activist, as he is now working to organize a tenant’s union. The tenants have a right to propose improvements and such. He’s helping them so that they’ll be able to take their issues to the Janesville City Council.

Starting the Fourth Ward Committee

I never pretended I was a historian, like Rick, but I was always interested in historical homes and my husband and I had purchased the Chase House on South Academy in the Fourth Ward, built in 1857. It had both Greek Revival and Italianate styles of architecture.

At the time, I was involved with the League of Women Voters and we were sad about people losing their homes and saw homes needing proper maintenance. We were brainstorming about how we could help. We’d heard from people in the Look West and Fourth Ward area that needed maintenance. I had people who were interested in forming a Fourth Ward Committee.

Many of the people on the southern end of the Fourth Ward were not having the same issues as on the north end, where we were dealing with the drug dealings and such. Cars were backed up in the neighborhood sometimes due to the dealing. We were also working with the City of Janesville, sort of serving as a liaison and helping to report the issues around the neighborhood.

It got so bad down there, to a point where both my son and I were physically assaulted, at separate times, and had to call the police. Dan had his wallet stolen a couple of times. Sometimes I annoyed the authorities, calling too much attention to the problems there. I aggravated the locals, too, because I wouldn’t put up with the trouble. I had the three grandchildren with us, and didn’t want this going on across the street or on the corners.

The traffic was another issue, as it was coming through there like crazy, especially with GM truck traffic on Racine Street, right past the park where children played! It was unsafe. I worked specifically with the City of Janesville on the traffic patterns in that area.

We got that accomplished with the construction of the Highway 11 bypass, which reduced the major GM traffic from Hwy 51 and Racine Street.

In time, we turned the neighborhood around with the Fourth Ward Committee and the work we did. It felt good to see that.

Co-Founding HealthNet of Rock County

The idea of a free clinic began with my friend Jan Leach and I, who both attended First Congregational Church. We were also on the League of Women Voters. We had a conversation about things that should be happening, but weren’t. We knew there were people falling through the cracks, when it came to healthcare, and that other communities had free clinics, so we worked to get one started in Janesville. We tried getting medical personnel involved. At the beginning, they didn’t see that there was a problem and there was a lack of enthusiasm. They didn’t believe there was a real need.

Alice Dorothy Lafrance, who was a nurse, came on board first. She was married to a physician and Alice constantly and strongly advocated for health care access for all residents of our area. John Anderson then stepped up. Today, one might call him an “influencer”. He was a very kind and fair person and had a natural way of gathering people to get on the board.

In December 1993, HealthNet was established. By then, our board consisted of me, Janet Leach, Carol Hatch, John Anderson, Nancy Anderson, Gregory Darrow, Edna Brooks-Pitman and David Smith, the first volunteer doctor. As he and his partner were near retirement, they both committed their clinic to this cause, which was located above Dube’s Jewelry.

The early medical personnel were not affiliated with Dean or Mercy, but rather on the outside of those organizations.

Ilah and Rick with their grandchildren

My role was as Board Secretary, keeping minutes, doing work behind the scenes with communication, etc. However, that was around the time that I had to start taking care of our grandchildren, so I had to step off the board.

There were complications with my youngest son’s marriage, with his ex, so eventually, my husband and I took in our three grandchildren, Gregor, Jr., Marie and Kayla, and cared for them. We never officially adopted them, but they stayed with us. They also have various disabilities and were able to get some help in the Birth to Three program through the county.

HealthNet has come a long way since then. It’s got so much strength in direction and in its mission, and in the wonderful volunteers. I don’t see it ever going away, because there is still a great need out there.

Ilah, center, cuts the ribbon with Executive Director, Ian Hedges at HealthNet's Grand Opening of their new facility

I was glad to be invited to the grand opening at their new building in December. So many people came up to me and thanked me for what I helped to start. It’s grown into something big with so many involved in keeping it going. The Grand Opening was incredible!


We took a trip to India, before we took in the three grandchildren. In India, I came across a poor girl, who had very little to her name. It was an arid, desert-like area of the country and she was making things out of clay, as that’s all she could do. She made this little figure in her hands and gave it to me. I was able to keep that as a little treasure for many decades.

We stayed in Goa, which happens to be a Christian community, and a beautiful place right on the ocean. It was absolutely incredible.

We took a trip to Sweden when the boys were young adults, after my father passed and we had some money available. My dad had never wanted to go back. My aunt did, though, his sister. In Sweden, I visited with my cousin, Greger, who my son is named after.

The Fires

In my retirement, I wasn’t out volunteering much, as I was caring for Rick and the grandchildren.

About six years after my husband’s death, in 2019, Dan and I experienced a house fire. We were in the house at the time, but got out quickly, as soon as the burning was discovered. My dogs came out with me, but my son lost his cat in that fire.

Then, just six months later, we were in the process of restoring the living room, where the damage had happened. A neighborhood boy was playing with matches and caught our house on fire again! It was a Sunday morning and no one was home. Finally, the boy confessed. But he didn’t have any idea of the consequences or the impact of what he did.

The Hartung home, twice destroyed by fire in 2019

That all happened with the pandemic approaching, so these were awful circumstances. I couldn’t get to our belongings, because things were so frozen in from the water, and we couldn’t walk on it. Around this time, we also were robbed. They stole my mother’s fine china dairy gold dinnerware, which was etched with an ‘S’ for Smith. I also lost a very special ring with diamonds from my ancestors and other things. We salvaged some things, but had to get rid of most of our other items. Eventually, we had to demolish the house.

This whole thing devastated me. I’d never had anything that hit me like that! There were people in church, people I was close to, who were trying to help me. But there was so much happening, between the loss from the fire and the needs of the grandchildren. I was pretty depressed through that time and it was difficult for people to help me.

So, a neighbor let us use his house for a while. Then we moved into the apartment building that we still owned.

My friend, Heather Miller, has been an inspiration. She’s a marvel with what she’s gone through and with her skills. She is on the City Council, now. Heather came to me to help me get those apartments fixed up and offered to help me with things.

Ilah and her great grandson

Looking Up

I’m currently in an apartment on the northeast side, and I can’t have a pet where I live. I’m not a smoker or a drinker, so there’s little to amuse myself with! (laughs)

But, I keep up with the local news and want to stay active in what’s going on with the city and its development. We really need to keep our focus on helping the needy.

Now I am 85 and have three sweet great grandchildren, Isaac, Autumn and Brayden. Thank God I’m healthy. My grandmother had breast cancer, but had surgery back in those days and survived it. My mother died of cancer, though, when my first-born son was just a toddler. They let it go on too long and couldn’t save her.

The Hartung extended family

For me, things have been caught early. I had a polyp, and that was removed but it didn’t turn cancerous. When the grandchildren were young, I had neck and spinal surgery and feared I’d be wheelchair bound, but I came out of that!

A magnet on Ilah's fridge - a perfect representation

Later, I had a kidney stone and, in the process of looking into that, they discovered that I had uterine cancer and had a hysterectomy. That saved me, because they caught it early. If I hadn’t had that damn kidney stone, they wouldn’t have found it!

Both my sons have diabetes. Dan was in poor shape for a while. But lately, he’s become quite healthy, has lost weight and has impressed the doctors!

I try to keep a positive outlook. I took a class called “Mind over Matter”, a three-session course, through the county. Their classes are terrific! I once took a class on improving moving, just working on being more physical. I took another one that helps people learn how to avoid falls. Most of them are geared toward senior citizens.

I have exercise steps listed on a paper on the refrigerator, and I know I should do better with that. I’m improving my diet and my attitude is optimistic. I look forward to continuing some volunteering with the community and returning to my early interests.

I guess we kind of come full circle!


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