When Robert Nunamaker encounters a curious predicament in the present moment, he looks to his tried-and-true crystal ball: the past.
At 84, Nunamaker has served as president of Fox River Grove since 2009 and has spent the past six years at McHenry County College as a science and history lecturer.
Before Nunamaker spent much of his time taking students on journeys deep into subjects such as Chinese history, he became a steady character in McHenry County’s own history.
Nunamaker was born in Evanston and grew up on his family’s farm in Wauconda. For a time in his early years, he attended classes in a one-room schoolhouse. After his father died when he was 9, Nunamaker and his family moved to Chicago. He took the junior college route and eventually graduated from the University of Illinois with an engineering degree.
The husband of Marylou Nunamaker, a father and grandfather, Nunamaker brought with him to politics a strong business background.
He worked as a vice president at Motorola, served on the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management board for 11 years and did stints on the Planning and Economic Development Commission and Fox River Grove School District 3 Board.
Nunamaker sat down with the Northwest Herald to talk about his love of history, politics and advice he’d give to his younger self.
On why property taxes are so high in Illinois:
Until you fix the school funding problem, it’s always going to be [more] property taxes. If you look at most of the states in the U.S., they pay 50 percent or more of the education cost. Illinois doesn’t. Our local schools pay between 6 percent and
8 percent, so everything else is by the property owner. The property owner’s getting killed. To the state, you say, “Why don’t you do more?” And they tell you, “Well, let me tell you about the unpaid bills and the pension problem – we just don’t have any cash, we’re basically broke.”
On why residents might choose to stay in McHenry County:
The only thing that keeps you here is the quality of life.
On how governments can cut down costs:
We’ve outsourced finance, we’ve outsourced some of our public works stuff, we’ve outsourced many things to cut down the cost of government. You can only go so far with that. Then you have to get more income, which we’re trying to do on that side of the equation.
On the importance of knowing history:
If you understand history, you won’t make the same mistakes again.
On where we are in history now:
The world grows. You go back in history, and you understand about the Chinese and their monumental governments, and the Romans and their monumental governments, and you get the Silk Road, which was commerce between the two of them, and you understand that that was the beginning of globalism, where neither party was in control. We’re still going into globalism. We’re trying to figure out what it all means. We have the Obama [philosophy], which is: ‘OK, we have to get in global trade because rising waters raise all boats, and if we have commerce there’s going to be jobs for everybody. And that means also a lot of jobs leaving the U.S. because there are lower cost to do those things.’ So the pendulum’s way over here, and then you have the Trump people who are saying: ‘Wait a minute, it’s crazy to export all our jobs, we don’t even know if we like globalism. Let’s pull back on this thing quite a bit here and see, because the steelworkers are my buddies.’ So the pendulum’s back here.
On where the country is heading politically:
I think in the next election people will say, ‘We’re way too far over here, we’ve got to come back some.’ I believe, in the U.S., for the most part, it’s the middle way. We tend to go down the middle. Social media is the province of people on the far right and far left. I think the people who are marching down the middle will be successful politicians. You have to try the shoe on, see if it fits. If it starts to pinch you, you don’t like it. [There’s] the socialism of the Obamas – the pulling back from military engagement overseas, coming to realisms about what the U.S. is, and we have to take care of our people and we have to pay for everything. And the other people say: ‘I don’t like that. I want you to bring all the jobs back to the U.S. Put up the borders, forget about giving everybody money, because the human thing is if you don’t have to work, you won’t, so we’re going to change.’ And you just go back and forth. We’re still trying to find our way through this. We have the highest standard of living in the world, because we tend to pay the highest wages in the world, but now with globalism and the fact with capital flows and things like that, you can do it much better in Vietnam or Africa, and so, as a human being, you say, ‘Those people need to get all the good things and need to be able to build cars and things, and we buy them,’ except that means that our level of comfort goes down, because we aren’t making all our cars, we’re not making all our steel. Where does that go? So when somebody says, ‘I’m going to fix this,’ we’re all for them. And then we find out what his fix is, and we say, ‘Well, that’s too far.’ So you come back to the center.
On what he’s learned from studying the history of Buddhism:
The Buddhists have an important story. Their story is you’re the architect of your own life and don’t look for someone else to make it happy and wonderful. Look to yourself and be content with what you have. The message is good. I don’t care whether it was the Buddhists or Roman Catholics.
On how he navigates the intersection of politics and government:
When you meet people – whether it’s Gov. [Bruce] Rauner or Jack Franks – 20 percent of the time they’re reacting to what people are doing and perhaps badly, harshly. But the other 80 percent of the time, they have a vision they’re trying to make happen and in a good-hearted way. I always try to stay on the 80 percent side rather than the 20 percent side. You get into these big meetings and somebody says, ‘I don’t think I like you,’ and people react. In the political scene now, the ads on TV. They say they work, but they’re terrible. It’s unbelievable what people will say about each other. It’s not helpful. How do you govern when somebody’s ruined your reputation?
On his advice for people who are trying to find their way:
You have to work hard and love hard. You have to go with people. I believe most people are leading the best life they can. You can’t go up to somebody and judge them. ‘He should or shouldn’t have, he could or couldn’t have.’ They’re probably doing the best they can at this time. Work with those people. Help those people. You have to work hard yourself, because if you have some God-given talents that help you succeed where some others are not, you have some obligation to do that. If it’s helping the school board or helping the village, I think there’s an obligation to do that. For younger people, start figuring out how you want your life to happen, work hard and relate on an intimate level with people and their problems. Empathy’s the word.
Note to readers: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.