ROCKFORD – Chuck Sweeny made you laugh with phrases coined to zing those with whom he disagreed.
Yet within a few words, he’d school you in the facts, and maybe teach you a little Rockford history, too. Those qualities won him a following across the Rock River Valley.
Case in point: “Every year I hear a few CAVE people grumbling that the city of Rockford can’t afford such frivolities as fireworks shows,” he wrote in his June 6, 2018, column, referring to Citizens Against Virtually Everything. “However, the taxpayers don’t buy the fireworks or put on the show. It’s a volunteer effort that raises money from the community.”
“He was the world’s biggest cynic and made puns about everything,” his younger sister, Mary Douglas of Carol Stream, said Monday, shortly after Sweeny died at age 70 after collapsing at home. “Everybody is going to lose so much – the history and why things are the way they are. He just knew everything.”
Sweeny, a 1966 Auburn High School graduate, had been a reporter and columnist for the Register Star since 1984, specializing in politics. He most recently was senior editor. He and his wife, Cherene, married in 1973, and have two children, James, 32, of Rockford, and Stephanie, 27, of Atlanta.
Sweeny suffered a stroke nearly a decade ago, and his wife was with him when he fell ill before his death. A visitation and life celebration are pending.
Cherene Sweeny said she will miss conversations with her husband – “all the political and national issues. He liked to read about everything. And Rockford was really important to him.”
Wally Haas, editor of the Opinion section and Sweeny’s boss, said Sweeny “used to harp on issues until they were fixed.” For example, Sweeny wrote a column in October 2017 that cast a spotlight on the factory carcass and the tons of debris on the property of the old Essex Wire factory on Main Street. “Stay tuned,” he told readers. The remains of the factory finally were leveled and the property cleaned up this spring.
Sweeny also was an advocate for all good things having to do with the Chicago Rockford International Airport. Over the years, he railed against any talk of building a Peotone airport nearer Chicago. “We all know the impact he had on the state and federal government when it came to the Rockford airport,” state Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, said in an email.
Sweeny wrote about the airport in his final column, which he filed hours before his death. It will publish in its normal position on the front page of Tuesday’s paper. In it, he wrote that last week’s news about the Rockford airport getting millions from the federal government to upgrade a cargo apron and about the 500 new logistics jobs there “should snuff out any talk of a south suburban airport for good.”
Paul Gaier, publisher of the Register Star, said Sweeny’s institutional knowledge about Rockford helped him “better understand various issues our city faced. It was common for him to explain a ‘today’ problem referencing events 20, 30, even 50 years ago.”
And Sweeny wrote with flair. Mark Baldwin, executive editor of the newspaper, said Sweeny was “an original as a writer and as a personality. I once told him that he could go from slapstick to Shakespeare in about 10 words. Not many writers can do that.”
Sweeny also was a musician and had played electric piano in several bands that performed around the region. Ron Holm, who played in an Americana rock ‘n’ roll band with Sweeny mostly in the 1970s and 1980s, said that if Sweeny heard a tune on the radio, he would “just play it. He was utterly remarkable; he performed by ear.”
Douglas recalled her brother’s fondness for trains. “He had a model train in the basement” when they were kids growing up in Rockford, she said. Sweeny often wrote about train projects in Rochelle. And he advocated for getting passenger train service for Rockford.
“It is especially sad Chuck has been lost to us before Amtrak service could be restored to his beloved Forest City,” Marc Magliari, Amtrak spokesman, said in an email. “He was looking forward to working with all of us in making much more progress in 2019 and beyond.”
Jay Graham, founding partner of GrahamSpencer, a marketing firm, said in a Facebook post that even though he didn’t always agree with his opinions, Sweeny was a “Real, Original Rockford classic.” He compared Sweeny’s death to what it would be like to lose Symbol, the towering reddish-orange metal sculpture displayed at Sinnissippi Park that is considered an emblem of the city’s manufacturing history.
Sweeny’s passing, Graham said, “is like saying Symbol painted itself black, dug its own grave and collapsed into the ground by the Bike Path.
“I loved reading his columns,” Graham said. “Now who will be our community’s institutional memory and conscience?”
Georgette Braun: 815-987-1331; email@example.com; @GeorgetteBraun
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