Photo: Max Thomsen


John Gurda '69

Milwaukee's chief historian discusses his work that inspired an Emmy-winning documentary series. 

John Gurda is the preeminent historian of his native Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the author of more than twenty books. His The Making of Milwaukee was turned into an Emmy-winning documentary series. 

When I was at BC, I had this shaggy-haired notion of what a person does for a living—I wanted to be a poet. I graduated, and it turned out all the poet jobs were taken. My friend back home had started a painting company, so I worked painting houses with him for a few years. 

I volunteered at a social work organization on the South Side of Milwaukee. To convince corporations to fund our programs, I wrote this very primitive—I won’t say embarrassing—short history of the neighborhood. Researching that, I found the kind of stuff that’s interested me ever since: ethnicity, a strong sense of community, urban villages, the story of the city, and, really, the American story. To my surprise, it was published, and people seemed to think it was interesting. I’ve had a two-track career ever since—freelance research and writing for corporations and nonprofits, and then books of Milwaukee history. The first to pay for the second. I haven’t filed a W2 since 1972.

I began The Making of Milwaukee in 1995. By that time, I’d done a lot of books and it felt like I had assembled the pieces of the puzzle. I felt this responsibility and this passion to put those pieces together and tell Milwaukee’s story. That book took me five years and it sold remarkably well. I talked to Milwaukee PBS about a documentary series, and we ended up making a five-hour companion show that won an Emmy in 2006. We’re on the fourth edition of the book now.

When I stumbled into my career, I felt like I rediscovered this connection with the past that we all have, a connection that I now believe is essential. But I’m not nostalgic about my work. I don’t believe there ever have been any “good ol’ days.” History is the human condition, the good and the bad—it’s all part of being alive. 

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