May 9 was my first anniversary as editor of your favorite weekly newspaper.
A larger-number personal anniversary arrives Thursday. On May 23, 1988, I began work at the Grant County Herald Independent in Lancaster. So I have been a denizen, either in person or from a distance (which happens when you marry into a farm family), for 25 years.
I was familiar with Grant County before that. My mother is from Boscobel, so we visited Boscobel often, though before 1988 I hadn’t seen very much beyond northern Grant County. (Or central Richland County, even though my father is from Richland Center.)
My first story for The Journal was the May 2012 marijuana arrests. A court story was my first Herald Independent contribution as well. Well, sort of — a speeding ticket coming back to Madison from my job interview. (Not that I’m bitter or anything.)
Having been born and raised in Madison, I experienced some culture shock upon becoming a Grant County resident. Most of that culture shock was a good thing. Among other things, I figured out that most people in Southwest Wisconsin seem to have a better grip on what’s actually important in their lives, and what they are able to directly control in their lives, than the hippy-dippy cause du jour in the People’s Republic of Madison. (I don’t know how long I’ll be here, but I guarantee you I will not be going back there.)
When I interviewed for this job, I was told that the Platteville area was a busy place for news. This person had no idea, because I was told that before the Chicago’s Best fire, the Argyle house fire, the Town of Wayne triple homicides, and post-May 2012 examples of what I now generically call “mayhem” had occurred. (Not to mention endless meetings on downtown Platteville parking, the 2012 subject du jour, replaced in 2013 by Tax Incremental Financing district meetings, perhaps.) After one Friday in which, following a morning fire, a baseball game was followed by another fire, I was told, “News just seems to follow you.”
I’m pretty sure I was told that 25 years ago too. In my three years at the Herald Independent, I got to cover a failed and successful (by 86 votes) school building campaign, another school board ensnarled in controversy (which forced me to stand up to the school board in front of 200 people for their violation-in-progress of the state Open Meetings Law), several court cases (a few I’d prefer to not remember — you can neither unsee something nor unread something), numerous bad moves by the Grant County Board of Supervisors (apparently some things never change), and the unraveling of the Muscoda Waste-to-Energy incinerator project. Topping that list probably is the murder of Grant County Deputy Sheriff Tom Reuter, from start (hearing “A sheriff’s deputy was shot to death in Grant County last night” on the radio) to finish (life sentence with eligibility for parole two years from now).
I was not necessarily the Reporter of Doom at the Herald Independent. My colleagues in Lancaster found a story from that summer of 1988 in which I underwent a “workout” on a machine that can be best described as a machine that exercises you. (It was promoted as “the workout that won’t wear you out.”) The equipment was certainly for a demographic much older than mine (in fact, much older than mine now). I’m not sure what demographic was intended for the added touch: Being smeared from neck to toe with animal placenta, then being wrapped from neck to toe with Ace bandages. Readers seemed to appreciate my less-than-serious approach to the story more than the owner of the business.
Other stories included a game farm of unusual animals in which, embarrassingly, I got the first name of the woman who owned the farm with her husband wrong; a story about a couple who got two bear cubs (which decided to check out my camera equipment, and then its owner — ever had your ankle gnawed on by a bear cub?); a climb up Lancaster’s water tower; and a series called “The Wanderer” one story in which generated a letter signed by 19 people who cared not for my description of the color of their fire trucks. (They weren’t red.)
I also interviewed a woman during and after her two years in the Peace Corps in Guatemala. I guess I need to apologize to Herald Independent readers because the end of the story noted that she was going to Washington, D.C. in the fall. She didn’t. That story also didn’t say the reporter of that story was going to marry her, but neither of us knew that at the time, 20 years and seven months ago as of today.
(By the way: The headline does not refer to my record as captain of the Herald Independent's softball team. We won probably three or four games.)
I don’t think I’m the Editor of Doom here either. I came in at the tail end of the Veterans Honor Roll project, but just seeing the finished product was neat because one can imagine the amount of work that went into it. An early tip led me to a story about a photographer taking one photo per day of a tree for a year.
One reason to be a journalist is to have the opportunity to meet interesting people who do interesting things. I’ve managed to do that in just a year here. I got to pick up seven Wisconsin Newspaper Association awards for The Journal, and you already know how I feel about that.
Three years in Lancaster was followed by a year and a half as the editor in Cuba City. Being around for two Cuba City state championships is most enjoyable. (I didn’t necessarily expect Cuba City boys coach Jerry Petitgoue to still be here two decades later, while Cuban girls coach Jeff Pustina has doubled his state title total since then.) I thought I left southwest Wisconsin employment for good in 1994. As Woody Allen once put it, if you want God to laugh, tell him your plans.
Speaking of quotes, there is supposedly a Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” (Which supposedly comes from a Chinese phrase, “It is better to be a dog in a peaceful time than be a man in a chaotic period.”) Of course, journalists live for “interesting times.” The biggest challenge I have each week is figuring out what will get in (which means what will not get in). I have yet to have a week in which I can’t figure out anything interesting to include in that week’s Journal.
This column has been a particularly interesting experience to write each week. I haven't lacked for column ideas either. My goal, similar to The Gospel According to Eddie Tor of the late Dick Brockman, is to make readers think about what's going on, including perspectives that don't belong in news stories. As I wrote before, the worst thing you can say to a columnist is not that you hate his or her work, but that you don't read his or her work.