‘What he wanted was a better life for everyone’
At age 9 he toiled in a blacksmith shop. At 12, he worked at Streator factory and limped home so tired his lunch bucket would scrape the ground. Reuben Soderstrom somehow found time to read at the Streator library.
And read and read and read.
Soderstrom would become a lawmaker and labor leader who, after 40 years as president of the AFL-CIO, could rattle off a litany of labor reforms he helped enact including child labor laws, worker’s compensation, unemployment insurance and the prevailing wage.
Sunday, third- and fourth-generation members of Soderstrom’s family cut the ribbon on a refurbish room at the Streator Public Library. The multipurpose room with kitchenette and fireplace, above which hands the labor titan’s portrait, will serve the public much as it served R.G. Soderstrom in becoming a self-educated champion for the worker.
“What grandpa wanted was a better life for everyone,” Dr. Carl Soderstrom said at the room’s dedication.
Library Director Cynthia Maxwell had called the second-floor space “the ugly room,” and wondered if the deteriorated chambers could be salvaged. Dr. Carl Soderstrom had spent untold hours in the library researching his grandfather’s life and proposed using funds from the Reuben G. Soderstrom Foundation to rehabilitate that corner of the library.
It was a larger undertaking the collaborators feared. Carl Soderstrom said it took the better part of seven years – “I’m glad I lived long enough to see it finished” – and the costs ballooned from a projected $50,000 to $250,000.
But the dedication ceremony drew dozens of supporters who admired the throwback décor – architect Natalie Clemens designed the interior to approximate what it’d have looked like in R.G.’s youth – and the homage paid to a leader who fought for workers until he died in 1970 at age 82.
R.G. Soderstrom is visible in the room dedicated to his memory. His portrait is perched above the fireplace surrounded with 40 gavels, one for each year he presided over the AFL-CIO. The raised gavels were fabricated by Mike Trumbo of Carpenters Local 174 and David Raikes, retired business manager for Laborers Local 393.
“He was my idol,” Raikes said. “The laws that he enacted weren’t just here in our state, they were adopted adopted all across the country. The federal labor standards and all that were all derived from his thoughts and what he wanted to see change for working families.”
Tim Drea, president of the AFL-CIO, said R.G. Soderstrom’s legacy was so sweeping that millions of Americans today enjoy worker protections that might not have seen the light of day had he not pressed to curb some of the abuses he witnessed as a child laborer.
“In the history of the labor movement, he would absolutely rank in the top 10,” Drea said. “He was that person always out in front pushing good social change.”
Dr. Carl Soderstrom himself was, until recently, unaware of the scope of his grandfather’s legacy until he co-wrote “Forty Gavels,” the three-volume biography of R.G. Soderstrom. Prior to that, Carl Soderstrom remembered his grandfather as a loving but humble man who liked to cool off on warm summer nights with a slice of watermelon.
Asked how R.G. have reacted to having a room at Streator Public Library dedicated in his honor, Carl Soderstrom speculated his grandfather would have been outwardly gracious but probably squirming a bit inside at all the praised heaped on him.
“He would be extremely honored he’d probably shake everybody’s hand, stand there and giggle, because he’d just feel like it was more than he deserved,” Dr. Carl Soderstrom said. “But we’ve all seen the impact he had.”
Tom Collins covers criminal justice in La Salle County.
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September 7, 2021 at 10:48PM