Last week I listed my 10 favorite books of 2021, but I didn’t count local writers in that list. Over the course of the next month, I’ll look deeper at a handful of books by Wisconsin writers that I enjoyed last year.
Let’s start today with Dead Lines by George Hesselberg.
One advantage of having been mayor of Madison is that I’ll get a free obit out of the Wisconsin State Journal. I only wish George Hesselberg was still there to write it.
These days you have to pay to place an obituary in the paper, but if you’re someone of note (even a guy noted for not having gotten your snow plowed) they’ll write you up, probably in the Local section, next to the Crazy Lenny’s Electric Bikes ad.
But when Hesselberg started as an intern at the State Journal in 1972, obits were just a service the paper provided to anyone who couldn’t fog a mirror. Usually it was funeral home personnel who would call in the news. It was Hesselberg’s job, low on the totem pole as he was, to confirm the spelling of the loved one’s name and to make sure other details were correct. He also had to cross-check the name of the deceased with the paper’s morgue of old clippings to see if he or she had done anything of note…robbed a bank, shot someone, served in the state Legislature, that kind of thing.
Hesselberg found that he liked it. He liked digging into someone’s life on the occasion of its end. Even as he moved up to cover the police and every other beat the paper had to offer and to pen his own column for 18 years, he continued to write obituaries.
And last month the Wisconsin Historical Society Press published a collection of 66 of his favorites, spanning the years 1979 to 2017. In Dead Lines: Slices of Life from the Obit Beat you won’t find any famous politicians and not many movers or shakers. And those few in these pages who did have influence tended to do their moving and shaking behind the scenes.
In fact, several of the selections aren’t about people at all. Hesselberg wrote obits for a polar bear, a tarantula, a chimpanzee, a cat, a donkey and an ape. In fact, his ode to Chief, a popular polar bear at the Vilas Park zoo who died in 1988, has one of his best lede’s ever. “Chief, a polar bear who never traded his dignity for a marshmallow, died at the Henry Vilas Zoo Sunday while being a polar bear,” Hesselberg wrote. You will have to buy the book and read the story to find out why that line is so good, but it does make you want to read on, which of course is the point.
Many of Hesselberg’s selections are about Madison’s street people, eccentrics or others who lived lives of quiet oddness. He writes about each of them with an understatement and gentleness that never comes off as maudlin or patronizing.
One of the most touching was about a man named Harry Specht who died in 1983 at age 47. A meticulously organized man, Specht dressed in suit and tie on a Sunday morning, tidied up his house, organized his legal and financial papers neatly on the kitchen table and then started up his car in his garage with the door closed. When he was found the next day there was an envelope with him in the car containing a deed to a cemetery plot, a contract for a headstone and a Mother’s Day card. His mother, to whom he was devoted, had passed away weeks before.
That story, in the hands of a lesser writer, could be over the top, but Hesselberg writes like the reporter he is to the bone. He’s objective and factual and he keeps his fingers on the keys and off the scales. Without telling you what to feel, you feel so much more.
Other selections I liked a lot include:
Bill Matheson. He worked the night shift at the Duluth water utility…and was also a concert violinist.
Ralph Hanson. Probably the most famous person in this collection, Hanson was the chief of the UW-Madison police during the turbulent 1960s. He never carried a gun and his officers joked about it. So he went to the shooting range one day and proved his prowess by nailing the bullseye with 10 shots. When someone posted his riddled target outside his office, he took it down. The point had been made.
Thomas. A man who wanted to remain anonymous, but not to the extent of being reported as dead well before the fact. Thomas’s obituary appeared in 1982 (not reported by Hesselberg). He contacted Hesselberg to set the record straight…in 1996. George took care of it.
Michael Falci. A cobbler who fixed Jackie Kennedy’s shoe heel when the Kennedys were campaigning here in 1960. He opened his shop on a Sunday to accommodate JFK, who arrived in person with his wife’s shoe…and never paid for the work.
Vade and Russell Henderson. The couple was inseparable into their 80s. When Vade became gravely ill, Russell, coping with terminal cancer himself, vowed to stay alive to care for her until the end. He died only after she did.
Anita Kayachith. This wasn’t really an obit, as Anita is still alive. In 2003 she was a two-year-old traveling with her parents when they were both killed in a crash on the interstate on a snowy night. She wandered off from the wreck. Hesselberg’s story is really about Rhonda Waldera, a state trooper who noticed a sippy cup and other kid stuff that she knew parents wouldn’t leave in a car without a child present. Waldera didn’t give up on the idea that there had been another passenger, a small one at that. Anita was found three hours after the crash, asleep and alive a few hundred yards away in the snow.
Eency. The pet tarantula in Sally Achenbach’s kindergarten class passed away in 2007. She encouraged her students to collect grasshoppers and crickets for Eency. As Hesselberg reported it: “‘The children loved to watch it take hold and suck the juice out of them,’ Achenbach, a kindergarten teacher for 32 years, said sweetly.”
George Wood. The 88-year-old wandered into the Witte Hall dormitory lounge on a rainy fall day in 2009, and promptly died. Hesselberg pieces together what happened. Wood had gone to the campus area to do some shopping and most likely just ducked into Witte to get out of the rain and had a heart attack. Hesselberg ends the piece with classic understatement. “Wood had been shopping at the University Bookstore, where he bought a calendar,” he reports.
Almost all of these stories are like that. They’re stories of people who just did their jobs or raised their families or wandered about town being themselves. They weren’t trying to change the world, but in Hesselberg’s hands their stories might change your point of view about what it means to live an interesting life.
Dead Lines isn’t about death at all. It’s about the lives these people lived before they got their names in the paper for the last time, which in most cases was also the first time. Hesselberg’s work captures the spirit of another one of his subjects, artist Simon Sparrow, who died in 2000, but lived for 86 years before his obituary appeared. In an earlier story he told Hesselberg, “Life just is, and nothin’ takes its place.”
This piece originally appeared in Isthmus.
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