Bill Wohlford is passionate about being a Midwesterner. He left for the East Coast after college for a job in East Hartford, Connecticut, and felt out of place the entire time. The Midwest raised him to need a horizon, elbow room, and friendly faces. “You can’t go anyplace but you are in a crowd," he said.
He tells a story about moving back to Midwest and installing a TV antenna on his roof. His neighbor came over to help. “By the end of the day, I had his ladder. Typical Midwesterner. I didn’t get that in the East. I went to the same gas station all the time (in Connecticut), and one day I was getting gas after a trip to the beach and realized I forgot my wallet. I told the gas station owner, he knew me. He told me I had to get the gas out of the car.”
After two years in Connecticut, Wohlford knew he needed to get back to the Midwest. “I can’t come up with anything bad about living here,” he said.
He used the experience partly to inform his master’s thesis in engineering management. Someone’s attachment to where they grew up is a nuance for consideration in hiring engineers, he wrote in his thesis. “They’ll come for the money, but won’t stay. Training an engineer is expensive.”
Wohlford said he got his first job at 10. “My dad gave me a work ethic. He worked all the time. When I needed a bicycle, I mowed lawns, babysat and swept floors at the 7UP plant for 50 cents a week,” he said. He kept working at the 7UP plant through high school and into college, using his wages to pay for school. He graduated from college with a degree in mechanical engineering and $750 in debt, which he paid off by painting a professor’s house that summer.
His career took him to Springfield, Illinois, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and then to the Quad-Cities – to work first at the Rock Island Arsenal and then at Deere & Co., where he spent 23 years.
In retirement, Wohlford is best known for his work as an artist and co-owner of Rustic Ridge Golf Course, but he spent his working years as an engineer, problem solver and inventor.
I’d met Bill before, first at an art reception in Rock Island, and he has written letters to the editor. But it wasn’t until I called for volunteers to be interviewed for this “What You Don’t Know About Us” column series, that I found myself sitting at his kitchen counter listening to the story of a Midwestern boy from southern Minnesota who has 17 patents to his name, covering inventions used in farm fields and war zones.
He worked on the Deere team that developed the Gator and during the 1980s, when the farm crisis left factories idle, he found himself on a team developing robots for the military and remote controlled excavators for digging up unexploded bombs. “I was having so much fun,” he said. “We were doing leading edge stuff.” When the economy improved and Deere dissolved that division, Wohlford took a job at Deere developing polymers for the next decade, retiring in 2000.
Becoming an artist was a natural next chapter. When he talks about art, he thinks of it in terms of the role it plays in the Quad-Cities and the Midwest. He doesn’t think Midwestern art has been clearly defined and he’s afraid that attempts that have been made toward a definition and a tradition have been squashed by elitism and the outside voices.
Wohlford is moderate on social issues, an advocate for the environment and believes in government funding for the arts. “Government has its place in arts programs, but it’s been ruined for everyone by art business elites who support peeing on crosses. Can you recover from that? It takes a long time.”
But Wohlford is also a staunch fiscal conservative, frustrated by government waste thanks to willful inefficiencies he witnessed during years working on defense contracts. He didn’t caucus for anyone this past presidential election, but said he was impressed with Ted Cruz, who came across as a “real reformer,” he said.
These days, politics is on his mind “way too much,” he said. “I think about the country we’re leaving to our kids. Our generation and the next one, we’ve been complacent.” He worries about the illusions a younger generation has about the benefits of socialism without understanding how oppressive it has proven to be elsewhere. After a life as an engineer, he considers himself a problem solver and he sees the current political situation as a problem in need of a solution.
“I’m frustrated,” he said. “I can solve a lot of problems but not this one.”