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Historian John Gurda Opens Up About His Personal History

Historian John Gurda is the go-to source for all things Milwaukee history. He has authored several books on the city’s history, including Milwaukee: A City of Neighborhoods, Cream City Chronicles, and The Making of Milwaukee, which became a Milwaukee PBS series of the same name. Gurda is also a regular feature on the public television series, Around the Corner with John McGivern, where he explores parts of the state beyond Milwaukee.

It may seem that Gurda was tailor-made for this work, but his journey has been much more fitful than one might imagine, as he explains in a profile of him in this month's Milwaukee Magazine. Growing up as a baby boomer, Gurda says his peers weren’t just ahistorical — they were anti-historical.

"There was a sense that we needed to remake, you know, all of the institutions that we had inherited. And what that meant was we threw the baby out with the bathwater."

"There was a culture and the counterculture was established, obviously in opposition to it. So there was a sense that we needed to remake all of the institutions that we had inherited. And what that meant was we threw the baby out with the bathwater. There was just no interest whatsoever in history," says Gurda. 

Like many in his generation, Gurda had aspirations of becoming a poet when he graduated from Boston College. But, he jokes, "all the poet jobs were taken" when he returned to Milwaukee. Instead, he found himself stumbling into a career first working with people, and then talking about their shared histories. 

"I began to see all these connections between my story, the city's story, the world's story, and that story is history. That story is the past. And where we are in the present, where we'll be in the future — there's only one place it can come out of and that's the past," Gurda explains. 

Joy Powers is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.