Rivers of Thought

Life, Leadership, Business & Technology

I couldn’t tell you my earliest memory of hearing church bells. I can only tell you, as the son of a preacher, my guess is I’ve heard church bells most of my life. Growing up in a small town in the Midwest, I remember hearing the bells tolling every hour on the hour…and at noon, they would play a short song, er uh, hymn. There is something about playing outside on a warm summer day with bright blue skies and hearing the bells reverberate through town. It’s kind of like baseball and apple pie.  

I do remember our annual visits to the Green Lake Conference Center (or just Green Lake as we called it) and the carillon chiming high atop Judson Tower. The peals could be heard across the grounds and from the lake. Trekking the 121 steps to the top of Judson Tower rewarded you with an experience you could feel from the top of your head to the tips of your toes! 

When I was in high school, I joined the handbell choir at church. We made some beautiful music if I do say so myself! Our choir became fairly well known in town and we were able to play some high-profile concerts. We made some incredible music…even this old rock and roller has to admit that!

Today, our house reverberates with chimes (bells) from a cuckoo clock, outdoor windchimes, and my grandmother clock (my mother’s clock and she insisted it was NOT a grandfather clock, it was a grandMOTHER clock!

All of this is to tell you why I had to make an extra stop on my most recent trip to Chicago. I had to see the bell. What bell, you ask? Well, let me tell you the story…

Great-Great-Grandfather and The Bell

In 1849, a group of families immigrated from The Netherlands to the south side of Chicago and settled in what is now called Roseland. They called the area High Prairie. These Dutch were devoted members of the Dutch Reformed Church. Soon after their arrival, they founded the First Reformed Church of Roseland. 

By 1867, the church had outgrown the house they had been using for services and decided to build their first church building. The frame church at 107th and Michigan Avenue included a wonderful steeple and belfry. Wonderful…but empty.

First Reformed Church of Roseland

According to my great-great-aunt Neeltje (Ton) Jansen, daughter of Jan and Aagje Ton (my paternal great-great-grandparents), this bothered her father to no end. As one of the church’s founders, he took it upon himself to raise money for the bell.  He donated the first $100 and, in a short time, had the $300 they would need to buy a bell (that’s about $6,500 in today’s dollars). As he collected the money, he gave the money to Aagje, who hid it in an old beaded bag and put it in a drawer for safekeeping. 

One night, long after dark, two men knocked on the door asking for directions. When Jan stepped out to point the way, they hit him in the forehead with a slingshot. The two attackers held him down and demanded the money. Bleeding profusely from the wound, he led them to a closet and gave them the money from his trousers. The men knew he had been raising money for the bell and knew there had to be more. They beat him, threw him in the closet, and locked the door. They then proceed to ransack the house. Pour Aagje was confined to her bed, just having given birth two or three days prior, she hid the other children with her and waited. Finally, the men gave up and left. Though they rummaged through the drawer containing the money, they failed to realize the beaded bag contained what they sought. 

The very next day, Jan sent the money to Troy, New York, to pay for the newly founded bell. 

Our story does not end there.

The Bell Arrives

About a month later, Jan received notice that the bell had arrived in Chicago, he tied his team of oxen to the wagon and rode the 20 miles to the small town along the lake. Possibly to the same port he and his family had arrived at 18 years before. 

Three days later, Aagje had not heard from Jan. Distraught, she asked two neighbors to search for him. They found his wagon bogged down in the mud and the bell lying half-buried in the muck near The Eleven Mile House Tavern (92nd and State Street). When they found Jan, he recounted the ordeal of getting stuck in the mud with the heavy bell. His efforts to free the wagon tipped the bell into the mire. Since he was alone, he could not lift the bell back onto the wagon, so he just decided to wait, thinking, “Someone will come looking sooner or later.”

The men rescued the bell and a week later, it was hung in the belfry and called its first worshippers to services. 

Visit to The Bell

That was my extra stop…to see the bell. Although a distant cousin had sent me pictures of the bell, I had to see it myself! The bell rang in the belfry the First Reformed Church of Roseland at 107th and Michigan Road until the church built a much larger facility in 1887 just south of the intersections at 107th Street. The bell was later moved to the First Reformed Church of Lansing (Illinois). Today it is on display at Thorn Creek Reformed Church in South Holland, IL…or is it? 

The Bell?

It is now a few weeks after my visit. I knew I wanted to tell the story of the bell. As I wrote, I kept referring back to the pictures I had taken that day, the book about Roseland Down an Indian Trail in 1849 by Marie K. Rowlands, and the story my great-great-aunt had written in 1932. Something was off, but I wasn’t sure what. Then I saw it. The bell at Thorn Creek certainly was forged in Troy, New York as Ms. Rowlands wrote in her book…but the date…the date forged in the bell was 1887…- 1887, not 1867.

The Date?

So, I began pulling on threads. Those threads led me to research five churches, two foundries, and the history of the Dutch Reformed Church and its various successions and splits. 

The First Reformed Church of Roseland did, in fact, build a new larger building in 1887. It seems they must have ordered a new bell for the new facility. The original bell, no longer needed, made its way to the First Reformed Church of Lansing (Illinois). A brother-in-law of Jan’s helped to found the Lansing church. Perhaps that is why the bell was gifted to them?

The Fire

The Lansing church built its first building in 1897. That building burned to the ground in a huge fire in 1945. Newspaper articles from the time describe the steeple (and the belfry) crashing down into the street. An eyewitness, who was ten at the time of the fire, remembers the sound the bell made as it slammed into the roadway. 

THE Bell
Photo: Daniel Bovino

The congregation raised money and built a new building on the same spot. Two area historians believe the bell hanging in the belfry of the new building (completed in 1947) is the “Ton Bell.” If it is, it creates another question. Cast into the bell is the name of the bell founder, “A. Fulton.” I cannot find any reference to a bellmaker in Troy, New York, by that name. I can, however, find a renowned bellmaker who had a foundry in Pittsburgh, PA, in the 1800’s. Could the author of the “Indian Trail” book have made a mistake when she wrote, “Ton dispatched the money to Troy, New York with an order for the bell”? That now seems likely.

As for the 1887 bell that is on display in front of the Thorn Creek Reformed Church, how did that bell find its way there? It is clearly cast for the First Reformed Church of Roseland. The answer is less of a mystery than I thought. You see, the Thorn Creek church IS the Roseland church. The church moved to South Holland in the early 1970s. I assume, since there already was a First Reformed Church of South Holland, they named themselves Thorn Creek. 

Sometimes when you pull on threads, you confirm the past, sometimes, you reach a dead-end, other times, you gain new insights that rewrite the story. I will keep pulling on threads…

The First Reformed Church of Roseland, IL

  • established 1849,
  • Original building built 1867
  • “Ton” Bell Purchased circa 1868
  • New building built 1887
  • Second bell (now at Thorn Creek) cast 1887 
  • moved to South Holland, IL circa 1971

The First Reformed Church of Lansing, IL, established 1861, today called Lansing First Church PCA

  • original building built 1897
  • “Ton” bell hung in belfry
  • Building destroyed by fire 1945
  • New building built 1947
  • “Ton” bell hung in new belfry

The First Reformed Church of South Holland, IL

  • established 1865
  • Reorganized 1886
  • Site of the Jan and Aagje Ton Memorial Garden 2013

Thorn Creek Reformed Church, South Holland, IL

  • First Reformed Church of Roseland relocated to South Holland circa 1971
  • Home of the “second” bell from 1887

Lilydale Progressive M.B. Church, Roseland, IL

  • Bought the building built in 1887 from the First Reformed Church of Roseland when they moved to South Holland and became Thorn Creek circa 1971

Watching the River - Terry Webster & Jeff Ton playing guitars - 17-year-old self

A few weeks ago, my wife Carmen and I went to see Jim Messina, you know, half of the Loggins & Messina duo from the early 70s. He and his band were playing at a small intimate theater. Our seats were in the second row. I was pumped! Messina of Poco, Buffalo Springfield, and yes, Loggins & Messina was country rock bordering on country. There was a time in my high school days when Loggins & Messina was about all I listened to. I had all their albums (that would be vinyl boys and girls). You could call this my “acoustic phase,” with Loggins & Messina, James Taylor, Bread, and more.

Jim opened with, “Thinking of You”

Something inside of me
is taking it hard each day
Something inside of me
is making me feel this way
Whenever you’re near me, you’ve got me thinking of you*

As we sang along, something started to happen. The cares of 2023 seemed to float away. With barely a pause, he flowed right into “Watching the River Run”

And it goes on and on, watching the river run
Further and further from things that we’ve done
Leaving them one by one
And we have just begun, watching the river run
Listening and learning and yearning to run, river, run**

Run, river, run…the song…1973…years before I fell in love with being on a river in a canoe…years before Carmen and I met and began to canoe together…years before my executive coach, Dan Miller, taught me the river metaphor…

The opening chords of the next song, “House at Pooh Corner,” interrupted the stunned connection I had made…rivers…rivers of life

So help me if you can, I’ve got to get
Back to the house at Pooh Corner by one
You’d be surprised, there’s so much to be done
Count all the bees in the hive
Chase all the clouds from the sky
Back to the days of Christopher Robin and Pooh***

Suddenly, I was no longer in the theater. I was in a place quite familiar yet, long forgotten. In front of me on stage were two teenagers playing guitars…acoustic guitars. The song they were playing was beautiful. The guitars weave the melody together almost as one. “Loggins & Messina Suite #9″…of course! I wrote that song, rather, Terry Webster and I wrote that song in the summer of ‘75. We were 17. We were both into Loggins & Messina, so, of course, when we wrote an instrumental using our acoustic guitars, we had to name it in there honor!

Wait! How did those two kids know that song…I looked closer…the one on the left looked a lot like Terry…maybe his kid? Who am I kidding, could be his grandson. But, the kid on the right…the kid on the right…that was ME! As the final notes faded into the air, he looked right at me. My palms began to sweat. My heart was racing. I gulped as he walked toward me. Holy shit! What would I say? What would I tell my 17-year-old self?

He put down his guitar. He put down MY guitar. He nodded, and I picked it up. Soon, I was playing the bridge to “Loggins & Messina Suite #9”. Then it came to me. This is the little tune I play for my grandson Jordan! How could I have forgotten? I turned to me…well, the 17-year-old who would be me.

“You would love Jordan. He’s such a great kid! Actually, you’d love all your grandkids!”

“Grandkids, what are you talking about out, old man, I’m 17.”

“Jeff, I’m you. We have six grandkids, with another on the way.”

“What? You can’t be me. Grandkids?!!? At least I know what happened to your hair,” he laughed.

“Man, we have a lot to talk about! Let’s go for a walk.”

Son put down that guitar

If I really had the chance to talk to my 17-year-old self, I would have a lot to say.

When I was 17, the only thing I could think about was being a rock star. It consumed almost every waking moment, it had since I was 10 or 11. There I was, a junior in high school, and I had no plan other than playing guitar and writing music. I had no idea where to go to college (not going was not a choice). I opted to go to Indiana State to major in music theory and composition because I had three other friends going there, including Terry.

What I would SCREAM at my younger version is to put down the guitar…you have no talent (I didn’t), you have no drive (I rarely did anything other than jam), and the lyrics you are writing are simplistic. I doubt I would have listened. I certainly didn’t listen to those around me at the time…but, hey, maybe I would listen to my old man-self.

I would tell him to pick up a keyboard. In 1975 computers filled rooms. We had a couple of weeks of Fortran programming in Miss Hobson’s math class. We had to write the programs out longhand, then take turns at the one keypunch machine. Our punch cards were then sent downtown, and maybe, just maybe, they would run.

Sometime during my Junior or Senior year, our school was fortunate enough to be on the rotation for a mid-range computer that was sent to various schools in the area. It was for the “computer club.” I think I got to see it one time because I was not in the club. Only nerds were in the computer club, and I. was. not. a. nerd! (Well, I was, I just didn’t know it yet.). The only thing I ever remember them doing on the computer was running horse race simulations. At any rate, I didn’t touch it.

If I had the chance, I would tell the much-younger-version of me that one day, in the not-so-distant future, he would fall hopelessly and madly in love…with writing software. He would study day and night. He would read countless textbooks. He would learn from those around him. And he would become a rock star…in software development. If only I had the chance to tell him…

Don’t be in such a hurry

At 17, I was in a hurry. In a hurry to finish high school. In a hurry to grow up. I wanted that big break that would allow me to become a star. What the 17-year-old-me could not have known was what I would miss.

I opted to take part in the work-study program during my senior year. You see, despite not really studying, I was a good student. I could have graduated early, but my parents would not allow it. What they did agree to was the work-study program. While other kids were having an incredible senior year, I got out of school at 11 o’clock and went to my job. You see, I wanted things. I wanted a car of my own. I wanted to visit my girlfriend, who lived several hours away. I wanted to impress her, she was two years older than I was and already in college.

So while others were doing all the things seniors did, I went to work. I rarely hung out with my peers. I became a bit of a loner because, well, my girlfriend didn’t live in Evansville. Today, when I look back, I only remember a handful of kids from high school. I lost touch with them in my haste to grow up.

My 17-year-old self would laugh at the thought of getting married at the end of my first semester of college, yet, that is what I did. Married, at 18. I was in love. We were going to make it work. I dropped out of school after one semester and got a job at a sporting goods store, and dreamed of opening a record store (hey, if I couldn’t make records, I would sell them). I would move my wife to Elgin, Illinois, so that I could attend a small liberal arts college and major in creative writing. I would drop out of school again, promising to return when my wife graduated.

And, in 1978, at the age of 20, we would have a son. A beautiful baby boy. A boy, with a boy.

Growing up too fast. I got a full-time job at a bank, working collections on bad credit card debt. I still wrote music, but the life of a rock star seemed so very far away. The marriage would last twenty-three years and give me two incredible sons before it ended in a very painful divorce.

I would tell that version of me to slow down. To enjoy being 17, 18, 19. To stay in school. To study computer science. If it were right, she would still be there. I probably wouldn’t have listened, lord knows my parents had tried to tell me.

Stop following and start to lead

Following was easy. Heck, I chose what college to attend because three kids next to me in the circle, when asked where they were going to college and what their major would be, answered Indiana State and music. It was the first time I ever declared it. I answered because it was the easy choice…to follow.

Growing up, my mom used to joke that, unlike the old cigarette ad, I would rather switch than fight. What she saw as a peacemaker, I saw as following. It was easier.

Even after growing up and becoming a computer programmer (a “dev” as we call them today), I would rather code. I was gifted. I could listen to someone describe a problem they were having, and I could solve the problem with code. The computer keyboard became my instrument, and I could make it ROCK! Be a manager, no! Be a leader, hell NO!

There is a debate about leaders…are they born or made. As I look back, I was always a leader. The other kids always followed me (good or bad). When I was 10 or 11, a minister asked a group of kids to name a great leader; one of the younger kids piped up and said, “Jeff Ton,” much to the laughter of the congregation. In high school, despite becoming a loner in my Junior and Senior years, prior to that, I led at church, in my neighborhood, in Scouts, and at school. Rarely in a position of leadership but naturally leading those around me.

Still, it was easy to follow. Leading was hard. Following meant I could blame the leader. Leading meant “playing politics.” 17-year-old Jeff would be stunned to see 65-year-old Jeff. After getting dragged, kicking, and screaming into leadership, I became quite good at it. I led teams across the globe. I led departments. I led companies. I have led a community of my peers for over a decade. I now teach leadership to executives and emerging leaders alike.

Step up! Find your voice! For god’s sake, lead!

The River

The river runs. Always changing.

If I had the chance, I would say all these things and more to the younger me.

“Talk to your parents and grandparents. You will have questions for them when they are gone.”

“Don’t do it!” (boy, THAT covers a LOT of ground)

“Oh, and go back to history class and study Lewis & Clark. You won’t believe how THAT turns out!”

But, honestly, I hope me wouldn’t listen. I hope me would travel the river exactly the way we traveled it. I would not want to miss all the joy and laughter. I would not want to miss all the pain and tears. I would not want to change anything because, looking back on 65 years, that river made me who I am today. It gave me a wonderful wife and partner, two incredible sons, six (soon to be seven) grandkids, several dear, dear friends, and a community of hundreds of peers.

And it goes on and on, watching the river run
Further and further from things that we’ve done
Leaving them one by one
And we have just begun, watching the river run
Listening and learning and yearning to run, river, run**

*Songwriters: Jim Messina - Thinking of You lyrics © Concord Music Publishing LLC
** Songwriters: Jim Messina / Kenny Loggins - 
Watching the River Run lyrics © Concord Music Publishing LLC, 
Gnossos Music / Milk Money Music, Universal Music Publishing Group
*** Songwriters: Kenneth Clark Loggins - 
House at Pooh Corner lyrics © American Broadcasting Music, Inc.

Jim Messina

Creating Time

Creating TimeTime. Time has been on my mind recently. If we, as humans, have one thing in common, it is time. Time is precious. Time is limited. Our time is unknown. With all our ingenuity, we have yet to be able to create time. But what if I told you, you could create time? The answer has been with us for two thousand years.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Steve Johns on the podcast I host. Our conversation centered around his soon-to-be-published book, Fearless – Leadership Lessons at the Crossroads. In the book, Steve quotes Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius Antoninus was the Roman emperor from 161 to 180 AD. He was also a Stoic philosopher.

If you seek tranquillity, do less.
Or (more accurately) do what’s essential—what the logos of a social being requires,
and in the requisite way.
Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better.

Because most of what we say and do is not essential.
If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquillity.*

The Secret to Creating Time

“You will have more time.” The words haunted me. The secret to creating more time is to do less…better. Being in business for the last 40 years, productivity experts have been saying the same thing. Heck, I even preached to my teams to “slow down to do more.” For some reason, reading the words of an ancient brought it to front and center in my mind, heart, and soul.

Later, as I listened to the podcast recording, I realized I had the answer…the answer to the question, “why did you move from Whitetail Meadow?” It is a question we have been asked a hundred times in the last three months. “You loved your property; I thought you would never leave. Why did you move?”

I had been struggling with my “why” for almost a year. Why did I want to move? What made us think it was time to move?

Why did we move?

When we first moved to Whitetail Meadow, I took to each task and project with energy and passion. I could easily spend eight or nine hours on Saturday and Sunday freeing a logjam in the creek, removing invasive shrubs, cutting trails through the property, and helping Carmen in the garden. Did I get tired? Of course! Did I get sore? Certainly! As the years passed, the eight or nine hours turned four or five, then three or four. The soreness would last for days instead of overnight. But was that my why?

Was it the walnuts?

Was it the 10’s of thousands of black walnuts we picked up each year between August and October? Picking those up out of the yard so that one could walk through the yard without breaking an ankle certainly was a pain in the ass…actually, a pain in the back, arms, wrists…we would both cuss and moan each year, all the while, praying for a “light season.” We certainly had the resources to do something about it. Harvesting 28 sixty-foot black walnut trees was something we couldn’t bring ourselves to do.

Was it the ignorate litterers?

Was it the constant need to walk the property to pick up the trash that idiots threw out of their cars? Can you believe in this day and age, people still litter? My goal for twelve years was to see someone throw their trash into my yard and follow them home to “return” the trash. Beer cans, whiskey bottles, cigarette cartons, and bags and bags of fast food containers were tossed with no thought to the people who lived there (us), the people that had to pick it up (again, us), or the people who were breaking their backs to create a beautiful sanctuary (yes, us). Ok, I may be just a little bitter about this one!

Was it the bad drivers?

Was it the steady parade of bad drivers who could not keep their cars on the road and out of our yard for one reason or another? Driver after driver would fail to navigate the steep hill coming down 75th Street. They would either end up taking out the guardrail and destroying the wildflower meadow behind it, or they would miss the guardrail and end up in the front yard of our rental home, taking out trees and creating deep ruts in the lawn, or they would make it past the rental and still not have control of their car and do a similar “lawn-job” in our yard. The dump truck driver who missed the guardrail but turned over on the steep incline and spilled 10 tons of gravel into the meadow, not to mention the diesel fuel, really created a mess!

They were just weeds, anyway!

My “favorite” was the Lawrence North High School student who lost control on the ice and ended up in the meadow. When his grandfather showed up to help, he got his car stuck because he pulled over on top of the culvert that runs under the road…and then blamed us. The kid then asked the cop if he could “drive his car out instead of calling a tow truck because it was just a bunch of weeds anyway.”

Creating time

No! Our “why” was none of those things. Like many life lessons, the answer is something we already knew. We just need a teacher to remind us. Time is precious. We are creating time by focusing on what is important and essential…our family, our friends, each other, and ourselves. THAT is why we left our beautiful Whitetail Meadow…to create time!

I will leave you another quote from our friend Marcus Aurelius:

Keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone—
those that are now, and those to come.
Existence flows past us like a river:
the “what” is in constant flux, the “why” has a thousand variations.
Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here.
The infinity of past and future gapes before us—
a chasm whose depths we cannot see.*

*Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations (Modern Library)
Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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INSIGHTS

Insights is the weekly, thought-provoking newsletter from Jeffrey S. Ton.
Every Tuesday – Delivered to your inbox.

A different focus each week:

Leadership Thought – A lesson-learned, an insight shared
Leadership Q&A – A response to a reader’s or a connection’s question
Leadership Spotlight – A highlight of a person or company helping others to grow their leadership
Rivers of Thought – A more personal thought, observation or musing

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