Former Wisconsin Governor Tony Earl Dies, Gentler Politics, Too

Tony Earl during a 1986 campaign trip in Door County, aboard Utopia with Gregory Humphrey

One of those politicians all would agree was a most pleasant and kind man died on Thursday.  Tony Earl, the former Wisconsin Governor was 86 years old, and though politics always creates a bevy of differences over policies it can be said he had genuine friends on all sides of the political spectrum.  I saw that play out in person as Earl sought reelection in 1986, a time when our state politics could be frothy but not yet downright mean.

That summer I drove my aqua-marine colored Chevet into the driveway of Fred Peterson, owner of the famed Peterson Shipbuilding family in Sturgeon Bay. I note the car type as I knew it did not blend harmoniously with the impressive home and lawns of a very successful businessman and shipyard owner. I knew he was a staunch conservative Republican and what I, the chairperson of the Door County Democrats, was about to suggest was plucky, for sure.  Earl had wanted to make a campaign swing through the county and his staff wondered if I might arrange for an event.  I pondered it for a couple days and then thought way outside of the box about an idea that was sure to generate press.   

Having lived in Door County for a couple of years I knew Peterson had constructed, in 1946, the famed staysail schooner, Utopia.  Soon thereafter he took three years to circumnavigate the globe. The stories of that trip were often talked about by locals.  Peterson greeted me warmly at his door and if was soon thereafter I suggested that he take Governor Tony Earl on a ride aboard his beloved schooner with some others from around the county.

Photo from Inland Seas Education Association

His first responses are ones that did surprise me and these decades later they are fondly recalled as they speak to a gentler time of state politics.  Peterson wondered what dates were being suggested, how many might be aboard, and whether there should be some snacks and soda served.  I do not recall he ever said yes, but rather just started planning how to make it happen upon the governor’s arrival.  That classy older man speaks to the way our politics once really did play out.

The scheduled day on the water was warm, and sunny, with just a few clouds above while perfect harmony was onboard. Fred was proud of his schooner and honored to have the governor out for a trip; my fellow Democrats were pleased to be there, a few local businesspeople I asked to join were able to talk with Earl about ideas, and his campaign staff was truly pleased with the event which garnered press attention.  It strikes me as I write about the death of Earl and that excursion on the Utopia how people from different ends of the political divide could unite. People who might be grousing about property taxes, environmental policy, or the need for more transportation funds were able to find common bonds while relaxing and viewing the beauty of Door County.

In 2006, I chatted again with Tony Earl following a concert at Overture Hall in Madison. We talked about the years that had gone by and reflected on the time when the tone and style of politics were gentler and seemingly less rhetorically driven. The former governor knew a boatload about state politics, the upsides of winning, as well as the sting of defeat. Through it all, as I reminded him, he was always a gentleman and gracious. His eyes still flashed, and his words still had precision and honesty; laced often with humorous phrasing which allowed him to be a great storyteller. When I asked Earl if he missed the excitement of the campaign trail he flatly stated he did not since politics had become just plain mean and nasty. He told stories of how he would have heated disagreements with his opponents, but at the end of the day the common bonds of friendship took control, and the arguments were retired. He added the personal assaults aimed at each other make politics harsher, and less fun.

The thing that struck me about Earl in 1986 was his genuineness, which was not a trait I noticed in every politician I would come to know. He was solid enough with his own set of principles that he would not campaign on Sundays when running for re-election, even though many tried to convince him otherwise. That type of person with strong inner convictions has always moved me in his or her direction. With the passing of Tony Earl, we know we have lost more than a man many respected and admired.  We also have lost another slice of decency and honor which was a staple of our state politics.

My New Doty Land Podcast: Elvis, Thunderstorms, Dan Rather, And Local Radio

Fond memories of Gregory Humphrey’s first day on WDOR radio with Elvis’ music, recollections of Dan Rather one Sunday morning on a Texas radio station, and a severe thunderstorm in Sturgeon Bay when a Brewer baseball game is knocked off the air as callers light up the phone lines!  Funny memories with another Doty Land professional-sounding podcast.

Doty Land is not the biggest or the best podcast, but it is mine and it makes for lots of smiles and hours well-spent on the Madison isthmus.

Photos: Butch’s Bar, Life, Lost To Fire In Sturgeon Bay

Tragedy in Sturgeon Bay.

One person is dead, one is injured and another remains unaccounted for after a fire early Tuesday morning at Butch’s Bar in downtown Sturgeon Bay

The drone photography of Paul Haan underscores the enormous loss this week in Door County as the bar was consumed in flames.

I passed this building at least once a day as I went about my life during the years working at WDOR AM/FM. When working in my other role as a politico in Door County I would go into this bar and pass out campaign lit and shake hands for the Democratic blue-collar vote at election time. The owner at the time was a union man and a Democratic member of the county organization.

Conservative Republicans, Like Ron Johnson, Play To Under-Educated Base

There seems to be a race underway in the nation where elected conservative Republicans seek to dive deeper into absurdity in an attempt to be nuttier than the previous one.

In Wisconsin, we were offered more outlandish buffoonery from Senator Ron Johnson who stated in a town hall meeting he had an idea about combatting COVID.

“Standard gargle, mouthwash, has been proven to kill the coronavirus. If you get it, you may reduce viral replication. Why not try all these things?” (For the record this is not actual science and rebuked by medical professionals.)

Kentucky Republican Congressman Thomas Massie posed his family in front of a decorated tree with all hefting military-type assault weapons for a Christmas greeting, shortly after the Oxford High School gun massacre.

Meanwhile, Tom McMillin, a Republican from Oakland Township, proposed in a social media post that mandatory school attendance be removed in Michigan. He is a member of the Michigan State Board of Education!

I recall during my years as Door County Democratic Chairperson talking with a wide array of people at events such as the annual fair or when campaigning door-to-door for local candidates. At times, I encountered some of the most unbelievable sets of views and ideas that could be imagined. So what is being reported, all too often, in our newspapers and online is not new. Right-wing lunacy has long-been part of our political narrative.

What is so troubling now, however, is that instead of the tin-foil hatted folks being aberrations in the party they now are the base of the GOP. But that is not how I first came to know conservatives.

In my teenage years, I started watching Firing Line with William F. Buckley. He was a conservative with a vocabulary that reached out through the television set and made me sit up and pay attention. In my rural upbringing reasoned approaches to the world seemed utterly sound to me. Then I graduated from high school, left home, and encountered the world.

My first job was working in radio broadcasting in Door County. With a red streak that then ran very deep, the local politics was not for a faint-hearted liberal Democrat. I found, however, that the vast majority on the other side of the aisle were logical and reasoned with varying points and perspectives about the issues of the day.

The conspiracy-laden John Birch Society and the truly unhinged Posse Comitatus crowd were in the county, and not ashamed to spill their views when answering their front door during an election year. Tigerton Dells was then a topic in Wisconsin and those headlines concerning the Posse seemed to embolden that segment of the electorate. I was soon most aware that enlightenment liberalism was not spread evenly across our state.

But that element was a narrow sliver of the whole. Today, however, the under-educated within the GOP revel in their status and expect the rest of us to meet them at that level. Republican officeholders encourage the ridiculous ideas and notions so as to retain power, rather than seeking to better inform and lift up the voters.

There have always been times of great transition and uncertainty in the nation where politicians have used fear to spin a message and gain office. Today class divisions and market revolutions, continuing demand for power and rights among groups from Blacks to transgenders, along with a shifting electorate that is more brown and diverse provide the combustible elements for current conservative pols.

But what is most dismaying is the low level that conservative Republicans will dive into when playing to their base. Such tactics are dangerous to a democracy that does rely on educated citizens to make sound decisions about the path forward for a nation.

John Adams wrote the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. Though he penned that public education should be at the heart of that state’s understanding of government, it is easy to see how elected officeholders can, and should, also be teachers and ones who impart facts to the citizenry. He wrote that “wisdom and knowledge . . . diffused generally among the body of the people [are] necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties.”

I wish conservative Republicans would ponder the role they need to play when speaking to their base of support.

And so it goes.

Sadness Mars Holiday Tradition, Waukesha Children Deprived Of Magical Feeling At Parade

It was a jarring end to a very nice day in Wisconsin.

Sunshine had allowed for people to get outdoors in the afternoon and feel the brisk winds while some people took the warm weather as a sign to–at last–put up outdoor decorations. I noticed others raking lawns and terraces in the afternoon and kids out biking again before winter snows finally arrive. Everyone seemed to be outside and smiling.

And it was, without doubt, that same sense of uplift from such weather that people were feeling as they gathered in Waukesha for the best type of parade there can be—especially if you are a kid. The Christmas parade!

As we sat down for dinner on the isthmus we heard the devastating news.

We turned on the television and saw terrified people, with debris left all about after an SUV drove through the ones participating in the parade, or watching from the sidewalks. As I write some details are emerging with reports of more than 20 people injured, and some killed. The vehicle was located and photos show the horror that played out with the damage to the front end. The driver is in custody.

Of all the images that have poured out on Twitter, there was one, above all, that punches the hardest.

The news of who died has not been released as of this posting. But I can not help but consider that a child–not necessarily the one in the above stroller–left for that Christmas parade with pure excitement on the face, but will never go home again.

The speeding vehicle was simply appalling, and whoever was driving, utterly reprehensible. There have been enough raw nerves, pain, suffering, and stresses for our society in this state over the past weeks. No one should now need to endure this horrific crime ramping up to the holiday season.

I feel for all of the victims, but especially the children. How can that not be the case?

I know the following will sound hokey, but it is how I feel.

When I worked at WDOR our station annually broadcast over the radio a Christmas parade. Ed Allen, Sr. would create the theater of the mind as the sights and sounds were placed into words for the listeners throughout the Door County peninsula. And of course, he would chat with all sorts of people who attended. The best conversations were with kids who might otherwise have been taken aback by a news camera, but there was nothing to be afraid of from a microphone!

So Ed would engage them in banter and it was always the highlight to hear the expressions of delight coming from youngsters who were at that age when Christmas was magical.

It should have been the same for the boys and girls tonight in Waukesha, too.

It was not.

What a dreadful way to start the holiday season.

And so it goes.

“Naked Radio” Making Smiles Galore In Door County

A good friend came back from Door County and told James she had watched a play stating, “I laughed so hard and thought of Gregory at WDOR!”

I quipped back to James, upon learning the title of the show. “Well, radio announcers do it on the air!”

Our friend was talking about a getaway weekend where she thoroughly enjoyed Naked Radio.

When a small radio station gets swallowed up by a corporate parent, the local DJs are relegated to obscurity. But when a snowstorm knocks out the county and the station loses its tie to the pre-programmed feed, the guys have to punt, and a rejuvenated station brings back spontaneity and joy to the community it serves.

From the writers who brought you Cheeseheads, the MusicalMuskie Love, and No Bones About It. Dave Hudson and Paul Libman have created magic once again.

Libman’s prolific career composing for advertisers has left him with an exceptional skill for writing jingles, which fill the score with catchy, memorable, and often hilarious songs.

The name (Naked Radio), according to Hudson, has a double meaning. The first is the radio station itself is laid bare in the storm without the insulation of the corporate broadcasts. The other meaning suggests things get a bit unhinged in the station, though Hudson reassures us the play will be fit for Northern Sky’s usual audience. “Well hey, we’re on the radio, you can’t see us.”

I would absolutely love to see this comedy.

My years in radio were written about in my book Walking Up The Ramp (which is a phrase for the time/temp and add-ons over the musical intro to the song with my ending any talking as soon as the singer hits the first syllable.) One of the fond memories I had–though clothed–was with wild weather when on air.

My first night alone at the station a massive thunderstorm knocked WDOR AM/FM off the air. I had no knowledge of how to turn the station ‘back on’.

Back home when the power went off due to a storm, we logically called the electric company, and alerted them to the problem. Who would have guessed that listeners would call a radio station to alert announcers they were off the air? Did people really think broadcasters at a studio would not know when they were no longer transmitting something over the airwaves? Grateful for the help, did I really need the extra stress of answering the phone? The five telephone lines lit up before me. Five little orange buttons on the face of the telephone blinked frenetically, and I was suddenly fielding calls from very well-intentioned people. “Yes, thank you for your call. We are indeed experiencing a bit of technical difficulty. Things should be back to normal soon.

Yes. I appreciate your call. Do have a good evening.

Hello. WDOR. Yes, thank you for your call…”

At the same time, I was of course trying to figure what was to be done to set things back on course. I felt a nervous sweat trickle down my back.

I have fond memories, however, of winter snowstorms.

Were snowstorms to have occurred while I was on the air, there would have been a flurry of contact with listeners. First, there would have been the usual report from the local police about the road conditions, urging caution with the slick streets. I would have listened, and yawned as I had heard if many times before, but thought to myself that the well-intentioned law enforcement official did not provide the type of information I wanted.

Rather, I would wait for the man who called himself ‘the Egg Harbor Reporter’ to dial me up and give some gripping account of how a car nearly wiped out at the curve where he lived, or how many inches had stacked up on his mailbox. (The Egg Harbor Reporter performed his job earnestly. I can still hear his slow deadpan delivery of the information he called to share.)

Egg Harbor Reporter: “Hey Trevor, it is coming down mighty heavy right now.”

Me: “It is snowing huge flakes here, too.”

Egg Harbor Reporter: “The dog wanted to go outside but once I opened the door he only was interested in being outside for a minute. I can’t blame him. I cannot even see the bird feeder up in the tree; it is blowing so hard. Have the scanner on and there are lots of slide-offs. Today is when you want to have a wrecker service.” With that he would give a hearty chuckle. “Say, what happens if you cannot make it home and have to stay at the station?”

Me: “I call in the military for an airdrop of food!”

Egg Harbor Reporter: “You have any Kenny Rogers handy to play for me?”

Me: “With or without Dolly?”

Egg Harbor Reporter: “Well, everything is better with Dolly.”

Me: “Will do. Let me know if things get really interesting up your way.”

The Egg Harbor Reporter was a clear favorite of mine, and often had a song request. I am not sure the man ever slept, as he had a reason to call and chat about the weather every chance he got, and I must say he was highly entertaining. He wasn’t the only one, though. I also loved to hear from the folks on Sunday when snow piled up who had made it over the ‘Brussels’ Hill’ in Southern Door County as they came back from church but wanted me to alert others to take another route.

Perhaps the best account of the local streets in Sturgeon Bay came from the lady who from time to time delivered a baked good from her oven to me at the station as she went to church. She would pop into the back door of the studio, thank me for the Southern gospel music I played starting at six o’clock in the morning, update me on the streets in winter, and drop off some wonderful sweet. Some people are nice to the person who delivers their morning paper, but she appreciated her local neighborhood radio announcer.

If you have the opportunity to see the Naked Radio play please do so. As one of the reviews noted….“It’s part warm remembrance and part regret about the vast disconnect that technology and simplification and instant gratification have brought – but mostly a clever, if soft-paced, offering of entertainment.”

And so it goes.

WDOR Radio At Christmas Time

Among the best times at WDOR radio (Sturgeon Bay) was the Christmas season when it seemed cookies and sweets were always on the desk area in the middle part of the building. Late afternoons we aired Letters To Santa, and my first ever beef cooked medium rare—at a holiday party thrown by the GM–alerted me how mom needed to stop making meat gray! (She never did.)

The record collection of seasonal music over the previous 40 years made for a spirited sound for weeks on-air. And Keta Steebs from the local newspaper (Door County Advocate) calling and asking to have a seasonal drink for the holidays which meant as much talking local politics as anything else.

When I saw this pic (below) my mind flew back and smiles abounded. Life has been good. And radio continues to have a special place in my heart. As does the Allen family who thought I had what they wanted at their station.

Blue Door County

There were plenty of reasons to smile on election night in Wisconsin. One of the moments that brought a cheer from this home was seeing the news report that Door County, long deep Red and conservative, had again flipped Blue. Having lived there while working in radio, and serving as Democratic County Chair in the mid-80s meant that even though there was angst to be found in other places around the nation I found genuine pleasure in the land of fish boils.

Door County had seen the light in 2008 and 2012 when it supported Barack Obama, but turned wild in 2016 when it threw its votes to Donald Trump. But knowing that the trend lines in the county were shaped by new arrivals over the years and they are becoming more socially aware with a diverse population meant I had hope going into the election. But as we know hope and reality are very different things when ballots are counted.

Living in Sturgeon Bay, and spending lots of time in the northern parts of the county where sunsets and incredible lake breezes made for fond memories, also allowed me insight into how conservative the peninsula truly was. I heard from friends who grew up there that no one with a liberal view expressed it in church or on a bowling league without being aware that a loss of friends and being slighted was a very real outcome.

I was not concerned about living there for decades so I joined up with the local Democratic Party–small though it was–wrote letters to the editor of the paper and was not shy about supporting the principles of the party. That upfront energy in time allowed for my being elected as chairman of the party. We had a great membership that knew uphill slogging in local elections had to be undertaken again and again.

So I was truly pleased this past week when Door County voted for Joe Biden with 49.93% of the vote (10,044). The loser, Donald Trump received 48.48% and (9,752). It was not a landslide, but it was a win.

Dorothy Mosgaller, one of the 1960 Kennedy voters, a long-time activist, and a staunch advocate on my behalf, would have smiled and in her soft voice say, ‘This is what happens if you just keep plugging along’.

She is absolutely correct.

The local businesses have no problem taking cash from Chicago liberals who vacation in the county. But when it comes to accepting their responsibility for electing people who will shape more inclusive social policy, equitable taxation, and fighters for climate change legislation they are absent.

So it is up to the new arrivals who over the decades have infiltrated ‘the locals’ and bring their voting patterns with them that will move the county forward. As 2008, 2012, and this past week demonstrates.

And so it goes.