Madison authors, topics, book events and publishers
Today’s program hits for the cycle, as we welcome George Hesselberg. His book Deadlines: Slices of Life from the Obit Beat, a collection of obituaries he wrote for the Wisconsin State Journal from 1979 to 2017, was just published by our very good friends at the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, and was the subject of an event a few days ago at Mystery To Me Books, which is still available for virtual viewing.
It is an inescapable truth that every person and animal on this planet is going to die. Some will die in glory, some will die in shame, most will die in private, their passing unnoticed by all outside their circle of family and friends. Or their passing would go unnoticed, were it not for their newspaper obituary. Usually, the obituary is a straightforward account of the signposts and milestones of their lives – dates and places, marital and family status, occupation, hobbies, details of the visitation and funeral.
But in the hands of a journalist with unbounded curiosity and great style, an obituary can prompt an account that transcends the commonplace and becomes a piece of writing worthy of collecting and publishing in a book. A journalist, that is, like George Hesselberg, and a book like Deadlines: Slices of Life from the Obit Beat.
And what lives they were. The unofficial mayor of the Mazomanie nude beach. UW Police chief Ralph Hanson, and pioneering Madison policewoman Mary Ostrander. The avatar of attorney advertising, Ken Hur. Folk artist Simon Sparrow. Legendary sandal maker Cecil Burke, and fourth-generation cobbler Michael J. Falci Jr. A radio villain. A short order cook, and esteemed academic. A sword-maker, a beloved rural doctor, a circus owner, a Holocaust survivor, and scores more, 66 entries in all – and not all of them about human beings. These are not stories about their deaths – these are stories about their lives.
George followed the traditional path to a career in journalism. Cheesemaker, sign painter, stage hand, candy hawker, a series of jobs in Norway including night watchman, bartender at Peppe’s and translator, and, most relevant of all for today’s discussion, grave digger.
Then he settled down to a 45-year career with the State Journal, first as a general assignment and regional reporter then as the paper’s most popular columnist. He retired from the paper in 2017, but thankfully for us, continues to write.
His previous books include a collection of columns from 30 years ago, Paint Me Green And Call Me Fern, his coverage of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway, Olympic Moose Salami and other Lillehammer Tales, and the children’s books, Vesper Stories and Special Days, Special Tales. A native of Bangor WI, he holds a BA in journalism and Scandinavian studies from the UW and lives in Fitchburg WI.
It is a pleasure to welcome to Madison BookBeat my friend, George Hesselberg.