Champaign mayoral candidate Don Gerard is a rarity among members of my generation. He’s actually embraced maturity, seemingly sidestepped the midlife crisis, established himself in the community that he loves, and now has set his sights on becoming mayor of this Illinois city.
To the uninitiated, it surely must sound like a pipedream. For those of us that know and love Gerard, it all makes sense. Don Gerard is one of those driven individuals who makes things happen. He’s always been that way, and it’s a safe wager that if there was something bubbling in the Champaign music scene in the 80s, the 90s and into the new millennium, Don was involved.
Gerard’s family moved to Champaign in 1968. By his own account, he had a great childhood.
“I attended Champaign’s public schools, worked for the Champaign Park District, played baseball in the Kiwanis Little League and earned the rank of Eagle Scout in BSA Troop 7,” he said.
In a stream of consciousness familiar enough to make anyone homesick for a simpler time, Gerard waxed poetic with, “Gosh, it was the 70’s…the Poison Apple Disco had ‘Teen Night’, but I never went. We rode our bikes everywhere, and I lived a couple of miles from Memorial Stadium and the Assembly Hall. I remember going to Illini basketball games and being so small I would sit in the aisle rather than get folded up in the seat…and listening to Illini football games on the console stereo. Chief Illiniwek came to our Cub Scout pack meeting. Dialing for Dollars on Channel 3 after school…usually King Kong, Godzilla or Elvis, it seemed.”
A music fan early on, in addition to “seeing REO Speedwagon in 1979 or ’80,” Gerard has great memories of seeing the English Beat with the Bangles opening (and later with R.E.M. as the support act) his senior year. Such early exposure helped shape his own personal experiences for many years to come, and in the mid 1980s, he found himself at ground zero of a “college rock radio” explosion.
“Often a community built on Midwestern conservatism – or humility of whatever you want to call it – is a good place for rock and roll to emerge…and that definitely happened,” Gerard said. “It (Champaign) is a big college town, so kids in high school were a bit ahead of the curve. Jon Ginoli (The Outnumbered, Pansy Division) had a cool ‘new wave’ music show on Sunday nights on WPGU called ‘Going Underground,’ and he played the dB’s and the first Violent Femmes record and The Jam and The Ramones and The Smiths and stuff…the Vertebrats were a college band with a kid from Central High School on guitar.”
As the music scene garnered more and more attention from inside and outside of Champaign, Gerard jumped in with both feet. He first made a name for himself as the drummer in The Farmboys.
“I didn’t know how to play, but people liked to have me in their bands,” a soft-spoken Gerard said. “I got lucky…there were a lot of very talented people – Jay Bennett, Henry Frayne, Steve Shields, Ken Hartz, Lynn Canfield, Rick (Valentin) and Rose (Marshack), Brendan Gamble, Adam Schmitt, Charlie Dold, Lars Gustafsson, Rick Sims, Doug Evans, Bob Kimbell, Nick Rudd and on and on and on…I was lucky to play with some of them.”
Many of the names Gerard listed formed bands that signed to major or prominent indie record labels or released acclaimed and respected music on their own … bands such as Titanic Love Affair, the Poster Children, Wilco, Blown, Area, The Didjits.
After The Farmboys, Gerard went on to found and drum in The Bowery Boys before switching to bass guitar and playing in the pre-eminent alt-country band Steve Pride and His Blood Kin and eventually The Moon Seven Times – a band that released three albums on Roadrunner Records. Along the way, he became affiliated with bands such as McWilson, Ward, The Great Crusades and the venerable June & the Exit Wounds.
When asked about his band experiences, Gerard simply says, “Somebody oughta make a movie” before continuing with, “I think back in the day Rick Sims (The Didjits and one-time housemate) would tell you your band stunk, and it made you work harder to try to get better.”
And when asked if the bands of that era felt any pressure from Champaign being the apple of the industry’s eye, albeit temporarily, Gerard honestly admitted, “Nah. We just wanted to put out a record on Homestead or Twin/Tone or something so we could get better gigs and play out of town more.”
That thought seemingly got him going, “One thing I will say is playing in bands you really get a lot of great life lessons,” Gerard said. “During that era I worked in retail, construction, was a cook, booked a nightclub, bar-tended, worked the door, did some clerical stuff and a little free-lance journalism…I really learned a lot about local businesses and how they succeed and met a whole lot of folks in the community from many different walks of life.”
So now, with the bands behind him, Gerard has finally reached adulthood … though he believes that only happened in the last 14 years or so … and, in doing so, is the proud father of twins, a homeowner and a contributing member of society. For quite some time, he’s been employed by the University of Illinois and currently oversees the Facilities & Operations unit serving the teaching and research facilities for the Schools of Molecular and Cellular Biology and Integrative Biology. And he’s still able to draw parallels from the city of his youth and his beloved present day Champaign, recognizing it as “a growing, forward-thinking community rooted in small-town values.”
When asked how his opinions may have changed as he’s “grown up,” Gerard responded, “I certainly think more about how much I pay in taxes and how the money is used…and what we can do to improve our public schools and Park District programs and the like.”
And now, he wants to be mayor. You know what? This guy has a pretty good shot.
Gerard has a firm grasp of the issues currently facing Champaign.
“We need to focus on economic development and efficiency in local government,” he said. “It makes no sense to be cutting services – especially our first-responders such as fire and police – to make the budget. We need shared responsibility and creative finance options.”
On Jan. 25, Gerard presented his own budget plan for fiscal 2010/2011 to the Champaign City Council. By all reports and my own review, the plan was creative and founded in common sense.
Titled “Maintaining Services in the Face of Declining Revenues,” the plan effectively demonstrated how more than $2 million could be cut from the current spending plan.
The ever-modest Gerard believes that “anyone who is reasonably intelligent and pragmatic – and can communicate and work with others – is qualified for public service.”
He continued using a very real-world example. “Much of what I deal with at my day job is like running a small city. We deal with infrastructural issues, helping to promote a good working/living environment, playing a role in establishing a ‘brand’ name for the schools, helping all types of people with all kinds of problems…I like to say, ‘People’s problems are my business and business is good.’”
In response to my final question as how someone makes the transition from “rock guy” to professional to mayoral candidate, the fast-on-his-feet Gerard didn’t miss a beat, “Get a haircut…actually, it is funny, but looking back, I don’t know that I ever felt totally comfortable being in bands. I always felt like I was ‘faking’ it because I was such a mediocre musician. But, I would get in bands because I was a good “band guy” – great promo person. That is a lot of what being the mayor entails – promoting the city and the community…instead of a 45rpm record or LP or CD.”