Another -30-

The Wisconsin Newspaper Association:

William “Bill” Hale, former owner of the Grant County Herald Independent in Lancaster and several other community newspapers, died April 1, in Florida, following a long battle with cancer. He was 78.

A Missouri native, Hale was born Feb. 16, 1942. He came to Wisconsin from Pleasant Hill, Mo., where he ran The Times, which won state and national awards during his tenure.

Hale owned and published the Herald Independent for 18 years before selling his newspaper group to Morris Newspapers in 2002. At the time of the sale, he also owned The Boscobel Dial, (Gays Mills)Crawford County Independent, Fennimore TImes, and the Tri-County Press in Cuba City.
In a story published today by the Herald Independent, former employees and colleagues remembered Hale as a great publisher, community supporter and friend. These qualities were reflected in an editorial Hale wrote for his first issue of the Herald Independent. The editorial stated that while a newspaper is a business, it also must earn the public’s trust by providing the news, both good and bad.

Hale’s full obituary will be published at a later date. The pre-written obit was stored in a safe in Hale’s apartment in his senior living community, which is under lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Long-time readers of this blog know that I got my full-time start in journalism at the Herald Independent, because Bill hired me before I graduated from UW–Madison in 1988. At the time of the interview, I had worked at the Monona Community Herald (whose owner also has passed on, as well as the owner of the newspaper where I worked next), part-time for almost three years, and had a reasonably impressive set of clips with my name on them to prove that I could do the job.

(Side note: On the other hand, I almost backed out of the job. I had also applied to be the editor of the Chilton Times–Journal, and got turned down. And then whoever got hired backed out or quit early, so the owner called and asked if I wanted the job. Two of my Herald coworkers thought I could do the job, and I scheduled an interview. And then, for some reason, I decided to do some pre-interview research, and I called the previous editor, who passed on a detail that immediately made me decide to not pursue that job.)

Read “Adventures in rural ink” (which was written before my current rural employer, where I have now worked longer than my 1980s and 1990s Grant County experiences), and you’ll see the sorts of things my first full-time job and my first editor job got me into doing. There was the night I stood up in front of a school board and a crowd of around 200 people and told them they were violating the state Open Meetings Law, which brought the disapproval of the school board president, not that I cared. (That turned out to be good experience for my future encounter with Bishop Morlino.) There was my first murder trial.

Bill was an interesting guy. As the obituary reported, he had come to Wisconsin from Missouri (pronounced “miz-zur-UH”) to buy the Herald Independent, and he injected a large amount of modern newspaper into a newspaper that was stuck in a previous decade. He had a very distinctive voice, which I found out (and he later found out) I was pretty good at imitating. He (and some of his employees) smoked like a chimney, a feature of past and future coworkers as well. He also locked neither his house nor his car, and he always left his keys in the ignition switch of his cars. (Which prompted me one night, coming back from a date with the future Mrs. Presteblog, to move his car in the parking lot of the restaurant he was at, from one end to the other. I never found out if he noticed.)

It is safe to say that my life would have gone a different direction had I not started at the Herald Independent. I knew what I was doing (though one must improve with experience, perhaps contrary to what I thought at the time.) I also showed up, to be honest about it, somewhat immature, perhaps his most high-maintenance employee with, for lack of a better term, a roller-coaster attitude about my work, which, lacking much else, I probably took too personally, something that took a while to grow out of. (You’re sure about that? readers ask.)

I suspect that when my work started showing up in the Herald Independent (which was after my first appearance in the newspaper — the speeding ticket I got coming home after a stop at my grandmother’s following the interview), I was not exactly what Herald Independent readers were expecting to read. I gathered that he got a lot of feedback about my work from some people that was less than glowing, not because of lack of quality, but because I pushed some people’s buttons in the process.

I wrote a story about a hair salon that had purchased an exercise machine on which the user could lay there while the machine exercised the customer. The added touch was that they would smear upon your torso a formula that included animal placenta (I forget which animal) and then wrap you up in an Ace bandage so that you could sweat out your fat. The salon marketed at it as “The workout that won’t wear you out.” I went through the whole “workout,” and suffice to say it wasn’t the story the salon owner was expecting, though neither Bill nor the editor changed very much about the story. (To be fair, the salon’s target demographic was not a 23-year-old recent college graduate who had yet to put on the 15 pounds I gained within the first three months of graduation. More on that later.)

Not long after I started, I spent an afternoon in the courthouse during misdemeanor intake, and wrote about what the judge and the defendants did over two hours. When I was the last person there the judge asked if I had business in front of the court, and I said I didn’t. (My ticket was a couple of months earlier.)  I never heard what the judge felt about my quoting a former journalism instructor of mine who observed that judges have a “God complex” while on the bench.

One year later, lacking a feature story for that week, I threw out an idea that intrigued me from National Geographic magazine, where a writer would do an in-depth piece about a community, or a road from end to end. Thus begat The Wanderer, where I tried to take that kind of approach — describe an area as if I’d never been there before — for communities within our circulation area, beginning with Cassville.

The day the newspaper reached subscribers, I got an anonymous phone call (those are the best kinds) from a reader who accused me of bias, by mentioning one of the village’s power plants, but not the other. I pointed out the only reason I mentioned the one was because it was on one end of the village, with the other end being the airport. Then she said I mentioned only one church and not the others. To which I said that was incorrect; I didn’t mention any church.

“Well, you did between the lines!” And then she hung up. Which made me reread the article to see what she was referring to. She was referring to my mention of the view of the village from the cemetery on St. Charles Road.

A few weeks later I went to Bloomington. That story didn’t go over so well among the 11 people in Bloomington who jointly signed a letter to the editor, claiming, among other things, that my mentioning the fire department’s yellow trucks was making fun of their yellow trucks. Another story about Beetown prompted the accusation I made the unincorporated community appear as if it was dumpy with nothing to do there. (If the shoe fits …)

Then there was my special relationship with the high school principal. (Who was Mrs. Presteblog’s high school principal.) I first got his attention by trying to find out the identity of the new high school boys basketball coach before his hiring was approved by the school board. Then I wrote, as part of our fall sports previews, an interview with the new high school volleyball coach in which I asked what was different between herself and her predecessor. She didn’t have an answer and suggested I talk to one of her players. I did, and got the answer that the new coach was more open and the players communicated better with her. Which I reported.

Then I got called into the principal’s office and was told that that was an inappropriate question that made himself and both coaches unhappy. He further asserted that we were supposed to only report positive news about the high school in the newspaper. I had yet to learn my defense mechanism against mandates I wasn’t going to follow — mumble something that sounded like assent and then do exactly what I was intending to do — so we had some words and went on our way for my next meeting in the principal’s office.

There was a weird aspect to this. (In my life that always seems to be the case.) At the time I had just started announcing sports for the local radio station. (Which I am still doing more than three decades later, but you knew that.) And he complimented me several times on my work, possibly because he may have confused me with someone else. (He called me “Dave” a few times.)

I wouldn’t say that I was left alone to do my own thing at the Herald Independent, but in retrospect that’s pretty much what happened. Bill would do some editing on the layout table, which never made me happy, only partly because it screwed up the page layouts. But on the other hand it is possible that doing a story about Potosi and quoting my father on the poor quality of Potosi beer toward the demise of the brand wasn’t a good idea. (The brewery and the beer returned 25 years later, and both are now doing quite well.) I wasn’t told to, for instance, cool it with the high school principal.

For three years the newspaper was most of my life, not because I was working obscenely long hours, but because I didn’t have much of a life outside of work. Being a college graduate and a former resident of comparatively cosmopolitan Madison, I had very little in common with anyone in the area besides my coworkers. So much of my social life was tied to work — dinner with Bill and his wife or Bill and the editor, adult beverages at the soon-to-be-demolished hotel, softball on the newspaper softball team (where we battled a team made up of high school students or recent graduates for last place every season), getting golf lessons (which evidently didn’t take) with Bill’s visiting son, etc.

Every election night, for instance, I called in county results to the Associated Press, for which I got extra money. We would go out to dinner beforehand. Bill’s son, who lived during the school year with his mother, visited every summer because he liked the things he could do in Southwest Wisconsin, including, I think, hanging around with the equivalent of someone’s cool relatives. Bill’s mother visited every so often. She was a fantastic cook. Then there was lunch at the Arrow Inn, which had bacon cheeseburgers and desserts. During five years at UW–Madison I gained 10 pounds. Four months after moving to Lancaster, there was 15 more pounds of Steve.

Working in Lancaster considerably changed my worldview, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Had you asked me at the time I probably would have said that I planned on being there maybe a year and before I intended to find a larger-market job and put Lancaster in the rear-view mirror. I wasn’t going to be there forever because I didn’t have anywhere I could be promoted to (say, editor, since the editor was a Lancaster native), but I was there for three years, doing some award-winning work in the process. I discovered that, unlike what surrounded me in Madison, these were people who had real lives centered on their families and their communities, and, though they may have lacked college degrees, they were smarter and certainly more wise than some people I knew with multiple degrees back in Madison. Three decades later, there is not enough money to pay me to move back to Madison, and I am not the least interested in living in any urban area.

This story would not be complete without mention of my interview with a Lancaster High School graduate who after graduation from Ripon College went to Guatemala with the Peace Corps. (Who was, though I didn’t know it at the time, friends with Bill’s stepdaughter, with whom I went to Bill’s wedding reception.) I was assigned to interview her when she came back halfway through her two-year term, and then again when she came back to stay. Upon returning to the office Bill asked me if I had asked her out. (Possibly because he was tired of hearing me bitch about my lack of social life involving women.) I thought that was ridiculous, if for no other reason than the last line of the story, that she was leaving in the fall for Washington, D.C. to find a federal government job. To make a long story short, this is the result. (Along with three children, four dogs and four cats.)

If you read “Adventures in rural ink” you know I returned for a year and a half to be a weekly newspaper co-publisher and editor. Bill was the business partner in the mention of “business partner problems.” We parted, less than happily on my end, and I didn’t see him for a decade, until on vacation I wandered back to the old newspaper office, and there he was, a year after having sold the Herald Independent to my future employer. We had a nice chat, I expressed my sympathy for the death of his wife some time earlier, and that was that.

Almost a decade later was return number two to Southwest Wisconsin. Bill came to the office a few months after I started, and he said that when my boss mentioned that he was going to hire me that Bill knew I’d do a good job. He even subscribed to the newspaper from Florida. That was the last time I saw him.

Bill’s story ends sadly, though if you consider death sad everyone’s story ends sadly. Bill’s son, my former golf (lesson) partner and softball teammate, died at 40. I am looking forward to reading Bill’s obituary, which as you noticed at the beginning he wrote himself. (Note to self …)

The sands of time tend to erode bad memories that don’t reach the level of trauma, and might polish how things used to be more than you felt at the time. There are, I believe, five of us hired by Bill who still work for the company. (Four of them are quoted here.) The new guys are now the old guys, and there is one who still might be higher-than-average-maintenance and take his work too personally, who insists on doing things correctly (as defined by himself), though he might communicate better now.

Bill hired well, and I don’t say that because he hired me. He hired a lot of local people, many of whom had no background in journalism, and trained them in quality (small-town) community journalism. He also brought in people who weren’t from the area to improve on what was already there. (Ahem.) There are a lot of awards on the walls of the newspapers he once owned as proof. He knew what a quality community newspaper was supposed to do, even if readers and advertisers sometimes didn’t grasp that.

Thanks to changes in the newspaper industry, there are fewer people like Bill in it. (The Lyke family, which ran the Ripon Commonwealth Press more like a community treasure than a newspaper, recently sold to new owners.) In addition to Bill, seven families owned newspapers in the area. One family now remains; the other newspapers are owned by my employer.

Were it not for the fact that the restaurants I used to go to are now closed (including the one with the Friday fish buffet that served as our rehearsal dinner location), it would be a good night for a few drinks and dinner in Bill’s memory.

 

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