Dean of Elgin historians moving out of Elgin

For the first time in 66 years, Elgin will have to go on without E.C. “Mike” Alft to document the city's history.

Alft said he and his wife, Fran, will move to southeastern Pennsylvania on April 9, closer to the home of their son Michael, while Fran convalesces from a stroke she suffered last year.

For the past eight years the Alfts have lived in The Greens senior condo complex on Elgin's west side, where the amateur historian, former mayor and Elgin High School teacher was presenting programs about local history for his neighbors as recently as last month.

“But I'm 90 and Fran's 87, and we can't do it alone anymore,” Alft said Thursday. “Our children are scattered from Arizona to Pennsylvania,” so they reluctantly agreed to leave.

About 100 people, including a who's-who of city VIPs, turned out last July for a party at the Elgin History Museum to celebrate Alft's 90th birthday.

Alft said all of his notes on local history - filling about three file boxes - have been taken to the Elgin History Museum. There, museum researcher David Siegenthaler already has been using some to write articles for The Cracker Barrel, the Elgin Area Historical Society's newsletter.

But Alft says “my legacy is on the shelves of the library” in the six hardcover, 11 softcover and several pamphlet-style books he has written. Those include “Elgin: An American History,” the 1984 volume that Siegenthaler describes as the “definitive” history of Elgin up to that year. His other works include “Elgin: A Pictorial History,” “Elgin: Days Gone By” and books about the village of South Elgin, Elgin National Watch Co., Elgin Mental Health Center, Sherman Hospital, the women of Elgin, and the blacks of Elgin.

Some of the books and pamphlets E.C. "Mike" Alft has written about Elgin's past. COURTESY OF DAVE GATHMAN

Alft moved to Elgin in 1950 to take a job teaching social studies at Dundee Community High School. From 1953 until 1994 he taught at Elgin High - not history, but economics and government.

Students there knew him for his slogan, “Be cheap but don't cheat” and for a near-photographic memory that allowed him to recall all the names - after just one day - of each year's 100 or so new students.

Alft was a city councilman from 1963 to 1967, mayor from 1967 to 1971, and a trustee for Gail Borden Public Library from 1995 to 2007.

For years he could be seen in the library almost every day, reading microfilms of old newspapers. Asked whether he has read every surviving edition of all newspapers ever published in Elgin, he answered, “At least twice.”

His own newspaper article about Elgin's role in the Civil War published on the war's 100th anniversary in 1961 led to Alft writing a weekly local history column called “Days Gone By” in The Courier-News. That eventually totaled 1,200 installments.

Alft Lane, a road that runs north of Advocate Sherman Hospital, was named for him. City officials originally proposed putting his name on the busy far-east side artery now called Shales Parkway.

“I said they should name that after (former mayor) Clyde Shales and name some two-block dead-end street after me,” he said. “So they did. But then a developer came in and extended Alft Lane to the west. I'm glad my name isn't on Shales Parkway, or we'd always be hearing about car accidents and traffic backups on Alft Parkway.”

  E.C. "Mike" Alft, a past Elgin mayor, is congratulated after winning the 2007 Elgin Image Awards' Lifetime Achievement honor. John Starks/

Daily Herald columnist Jerry Turnquist, the local historian sometimes referred to as “the next generation's Mike Alft,” said that besides those 17-plus books, Alft's legacy to Elgin history is the “ripple effect he has created.” By taking what otherwise would be only “bits and pieces” of the past and drawing a big picture, Turnquist said, Alft inspired many others to investigate the city's past.

Despite the breadth of his historic knowledge, Alft did not move to Elgin until age 25. He told partygoers at the July birthday bash that he craved for a hometown because his salesman father moved their family often during Mike's Great Depression-era childhood.

“I attended 10 different schools,” he said. “I was always the new student in class who didn't have any friends, which is why I became such a reader.”

Much of that childhood was spent in Milwaukee, though he was born in Chicago and attended Grinnell College in Iowa. It was there that Mike, whose real name is Elmer, met his future wife. His eye was caught by a student clerk at the college library. Her badge identified her as Frances Clarke.

E.C. "Mike" Alft and wife Fran on Election Night 1967, when he won his first term at Elgin's mayor. Courtesy of Elgin History Museum

So Mike filled out a book request form and handed it to Miss Clarke. For the name of the book he wanted to take out, he wrote, “Frances Clarke.” For its author, he wrote, “Your parents.”

Historical society President Bill Briska recalled that Fran Alft once told him, “I want to thank you (Elginites) for giving Mike a hometown.”

“But it's really the other way around,” Briska said to Fran's husband. “If it wasn't for your work, our history would be just an assortment of recollections and anecdotes.”

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