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Ken Zurski lands on his brand

by Steve Tarter | Photos by Ron Johnson |
Ken Zurski

Local author comes out with ‘my little pandemic book,’ the second installment of his Unremembered series.

Ken Zurski has always found history to his liking.

His first book, The Wreck of the Columbia, chronicled the 1918 riverboat disaster that claimed 87 lives and effectively ended the steamboat era on the Illinois River. Then came Peoria Stories, a collection of tales of what famous folks such as Teddy Roosevelt and Charles Lindbergh did in their travels to central Illinois.

Unremembered book series

Zurski chronicles the ‘famously interesting’ but ‘mostly forgotten.‘

Then came Zurski’s third work in 2018. based on unrememberedhistory.com, the blog site he started after Peoria Stories was published. He had written more than  100 short stories of people and events that were “famously interesting” but “mostly forgotten,” he said.

“I didn’t want to do a ‘bathroom book,’” Zurski recently explained at the Cultured Grounds coffee shop in Downtown Peoria following his daily shift as traffic reporter on WMBD radio, a job he’s held since coming to Peoria in 2003 from Chicago.

He calls his latest effort “my little pandemic book,” a project started during that period when so many people were confined at home with plenty of time on their hands. Initially, the book told the story of the friendship between famed dancer Isadora Duncan and the British sculptor Kathleen Bruce in the early 20th century. When Zurski submitted it to his publisher, it was suggested that he broaden it to include other people.

Telling the stories of once-famous folks who have slipped out of the spotlight is your brand, the folks at Amika Press said: Embrace it. Zurski did. Unremembered 2 was born.

‘Embrace your brand,’ Zurski’s publisher told him.

Not everyone in Unremembered 2 is entirely forgotten, mind you. You’ll find familiar names such as composer Oscar Hammerstein, grandfather of the lyricist who later teamed with Richard Rodgers, and James Barrie, the author of Peter Pan. But others — such as Maude Adams, once the most popular actress in America; Charles Klein, the British-American playwright who died in the sinking of the Lusitania; and Ellen Terry, a British actress whose career spanned seven decades — are not what you’d call household names anymore.

“The names will mean more once you read the book,” said Zurski, 57, who clearly loves introducing readers to personalities and pacesetters of the past. Yet the resident of Morton — where he lives with wife Connie and two high-school-age children — does more than dig up fascinating individuals from the past.

Zurski’s skill involves intertwining characters into a continuous narrative that makes for an immersive reading experience. Now that he’s found his brand, Unremembered 3 is already in the works, he said.

Meanwhile, Zurski retains his day job, generating a total of 45 traffic reports that are aired on five different radio stations each weekday. He works from 5 to 9 a.m., informing area commuters about occasional accidents, construction updates and road closings. While tie-ups are slight compared to the snarls one experiences in the Windy City, Peoria area commuters, unaccustomed to traffic gridlock, can be a demanding audience, said Zurski.

Zurski retains his day job at WMBD, generating a total of 45 traffic reports each day.

Not only is the traffic lighter in Peoria, it’s a whole lot safer. As a traffic reporter for Chicago’s WBBM back in 1999, Zurski was aboard a small plane with another reporter when the engine cut out in mid-air. After suggesting a nearby suburban landing spot, Zurski recalled the young pilot telling him, “We’re not going to make the Schaumburg airport.”

While he would later describe it to Chicago media as “a textbook emergency landing,” the Cessna aircraft that landed in a muddy field was totaled, sending glass and headphones flying and the occupants scrambling, as “there was still a half-tank of fuel on board,” recalled Zurski. Alas, he didn’t let a little thing like an airplane crash slow him down.

“The next day I went up again. I figured, what are the odds?” he said.

Nowadays, the only planes that Zurski boards are passenger flights on commercial aircraft. He recently traveled to New York courtesy of the History Channel to tape a segment for the network’s “Built America” series to be shown sometime in 2023. The show’s producer had come across one of Zurski’s blog posts and wanted him to elaborate on camera.

From chronicling traffic to authoring page-turners, Ken Zurski has indeed branded himself in our memories back home in Peoria, and beyond.

Steve Tarter

Steve Tarter

is a Peoria Magazine contributor who was born in England, raised in Boston, moved to Peoria to attend Bradley University and decided to stay. He has spent a career in journalism and public relations.
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