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History of Riverwest to be Published Next Year

by Vince Bushell

Tom Tolan is an affable man. He grew up on Milwaukee’s East Side and attended UWM Campus Elementary and Marquette High School. He came to Riverwest in 1979 to write a history of the neighborhood. What was supposed to be a six-month assignment turned into a three-year project. Originally the book was an initiative of a Milwaukee Humanities Program Grant from UWM. Tom became engrossed in his subject, and as the clock kept ticking the money soon ran out. “I was a cab driver while working on it,” Tom said. While in Riverwest, Tom lived above Harry Poshadlik on Center Street. Harry kept the house in good condition and Tom was required as part of his rent to shovel snow and cut the lawn besides paying the requisite $85 a month. Tom filled the roll of Harry’s “Big Boy,” a neighborhood reference to an adult son who lived at home and did chores and errands. In the winter Harry would worry that Tom, even though he was young, would have a heart attack while shoveling the snow. Harry would yell out the door, “Take it easy. Maka full day,” and invite Tom in for a shot of Brandy and a story. The story of Riverwest’s history soon became an albatross. Tom finished it in 1982, but there was no money left to publish it. Fred Olson, a history professor at UWM, decided to copy and place the manuscript in several local libraries. It can be found at the MLK Library on King Drive and Locust, and at the East Library on North Avenue. Tom went on with his life and a journalism career. He has worked for Milwaukee Magazine and for newspapers in Rome, Georgia, and El Paso, Texas, before returning to Milwaukee and the Journal Sentinel in 1992. But Tom felt that “this was something that was left undone.” So the albatross returned. Tom, who continues to work for the Journal Sentinel, wrote a story on Riverwest for the newspaper in 1998. While working on the story, Tom interviewed the former director of COA, Jay Blankenship, who in the process became aware of the manuscript from the original 1982 Riverwest history. Jay read it, liked it, and said, “let’s publish it.” A discussion with Milwaukee historian John Gurda and others led to a plan to raise money to revise, update, edit, design, and publish the book. Grants from Harry Franke, Greater Milwaukee Foundation, IDA Fund, Bradley Foundation, Inbush Foundation, and Outpost Foods have enabled Tom’s work to be published. John Gurda has been doing the editing, Riverwester Kate Hawley is developing the design, and Tom has been at work rewriting and updating the story. Watch next month’s Currents for updates on Tom’s book. Proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to COA. Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 11 – December 2002