George Vukelich, who died last Tuesday on the eve of his 68th birthday, was a storyteller, columnist, book author, radio announcer, jazz DJ, baseball coach, environmentalist, husband, father and, we hear, the best damn grandpa 'round these parts. As Steady Eddy might say, "That's not a bad showing for a bohunk kid from West Allis."
In the next few pages, friends, comrades and family members share some of their memories of Papa Hambone, including daughters Martha and Donna, who contribute excerpts from speeches made at their father's memorial service last Sunday. Wrapping things up is a "North Country Notebook" George wrote in homage to his wife, Helen, about 15 years ago. As son Vince noted at the service, "I think my best tribute to my father is to make sure everybody knows what he considered his greatest strength: Helen, his wife."
George Vukelich and I were bound together by a whim of the alphabet. His last name began with a V, mine with a W, which meant that whenever we shared similar space on an editorial masthead - a frequent occurrence, as we were staff writers for the same newspapers for 18 years - our tags were side by side.
There they are, for example, in the Isthmus issue of July 7-13, 1995. And there they've been, off and on, at one time or another, ever since 1977, when he went to the old Madison Press Connection as a Cap Times columnist on strike and I joined up as a freelance movie specialist. Yet I never thought much about that alphabetical destiny until I picked up the July 7 Isthmus in the Chicago Tribune newsroom and learned that George had died on July 4 (an appropriate exit date for this stubborn, fiercely idealistic American). Now, remembering all those years, I'm proud. I couldn't have had a better companion.
It makes me sad, though, because, other than two years at the Press Connection and one at Isthmus, a masthead was the only space we regularly shared. I've been in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago all those years. And George.... Well, wherever he was physically, we know that in spirit he was always in the deep forest, by the running rivers of his native land, under a canopy of branches and a ceiling of sky, listening to the woods and its great big mysterious beating heart. He was in the North Country, writing his notebooks. I know it, because all those years - wherever I was, I'd pick my Isthmus out of the mail, flip over to the Notebook and get a shot of pleasure by imagining Papa Hambone's sonorous voice reading those resonant lines. I could play that memory game, because I'd had the pleasure of hearing George in person, mostly when we were together at the Press Connection from 1977 to 1980 - with Bob, Dave, Ron, Rubien, Verna, Holly, Ursula and all the others. (Along with George, that makes three of them gone now.)
Like many of his radio audience and friends, I carried his special speech and tone with me. I was a country kid myself. I'd grown up near forests, beside a big crystal lake. When he spoke about the cruelties and callousness of the powerful, the bravery of the outsider, the beauty of the wilds or the harmonies of nature, I could hear him. Clearly.
Now we won't be sharing any more papers, parties or battles together - even though, on any masthead, W will always follow V. If I want to hear George's voice again, I'll have to do something more adventurous. I'll have to take a journey north: go back to the forests, listen to the rivers, eavesdrop on the animals, bend an ear to the wind. Maybe he would have liked it that way.
Michael Wilmington, a senior Isthmus contributor, is the movie critic for the Chicago Tribune.
The strikers and other newspaper workers gathered at St. John's Lutheran Church on East Washington Avenue on a mid-winter afternoon in '79. They were to vote on whether to shut down the paper or to work without pay, and they were exhausted and threadbare and in no mood for sentiment. The fight had been hard and the odds were against them, and one by one they stood to speak. Some talked passionately about the need to fight on, and others spoke about sacrifices that had already cut too deep. Everyone knew two contradictory things: They lacked the strength to go on, but they couldn't give up, at least not yet. The vote could have gone either way.
At the end, the vote was cast to continue fighting because Hambone waited until the very end to speak. It was around this time that his influence on the strike and the paper was beginning to be felt most directly, partly because of the regard in which he was held by the production workers. He almost never missed his 3 a.m. picket duty in that coldest winter of the strike, and he was wearing the big boots and the heavy green fatigue jacket that day when he stood up in the church and told everyone the story of the high school coach and the small-town Wisconsin high-jumper who could not clear the bar no matter how many times he threw himself at it.
As he told the story, Hambone smiled that smooth, clear smile of his, the one that looked serene if you agreed with him and maddeningly untroubled if you did not. The strikers listened, impatient with the high school simplicity of the story and with their own need to hear something inspiring and honest. Finally, Hambone played out the punch line of the story like a piece of bait on the end of a lazy, circling cast until everyone was hungry for it; "Son," he said in the voice of the coach to the high-jumper, "you've got to throw your heart over the bar."
No one who watched the tattered strikers and newspaper workers file out of St. John's to fight one more year of a losing battle could have seen their elation. Because of Hambone's story, defeat had been pushed back - at least for a time. Many years later, some of the strikers would come to understand that someone has to fight the losing battles, or there would never be any other kind of battle.
Dave Wagner is editor of political news at The Arizona Republic.
On the morning of Oct. 1, 1977, I called George Vukelich to break the news that we were on strike.
"We're out," I said.
He was 50 then and I was 34, and although I didn't know it, I was telling him that our daily newspaper careers in Madison were through, mine for the next 17 years and his forever.
After that, George and I saw a lot of each other at night. He was my Newspaper Guild relief on the frozen picket line, arriving cheerfully and punctually at 2 a.m. I was never so glad to see anyone.
When he got the chance to write again, George did not mess around. His first column for the strike newspaper cost us our press.
On Oct. 30, 1977, "North County Notebook" debuted in the Madison Press Connection, and it was not about hunting and fishing. It was a direct attack on a local sports columnist who had crossed the picket line to salvage his job. In the process, he had made the serious mistake of disappointing a little lad named Vince Vukelich.
Papa was furious. He lit into the columnist for "betraying the little kids around town" and said that as the columnist and others like him crossed the line in security vans, they looked "like huge, declawed bears waiting to do some tricks for a little bread."
That columnist's publisher promptly called the association of suburban weekly publishers that sold us press time in Stoughton and made noises about a libel suit. (The law then allowed libel plaintiffs to go after the assets of a press owner as well as the offending writer and editor.)
No one was angry with George when the suburban press dumped us. The pressmen strikers were asked if they would be willing to drive 90 miles to the Kenosha Labor Press, the only printing plant willing to accept our work.
Lyle Willan, their spokesman, rose. "We came to play," he said simply. And so they did, driving through one of the worst winters ever in Wisconsin to print the paper and get it back on time.
Lyle Willan attended George's memorial service Sunday.
I got a call from George when I returned to Madison this year. He wanted to congratulate me on my article in The New York Times about the Monona Terrace convention center. He also said he and Helen were glad I was back in Madison and back at The Capital Times.
I said that was a relief, because I had worried about how some of my friends from the strike era would react.
"Are you crazy?" he said. "Your friends love you. Worry about your enemies."
Ron McCrea, associate city editor of The Capital Times, was the editor of the Madison Press Connection from 1977 to 1980.
The fact that I'm writing this on a cheap Brother word processor isn't lost on me. Some years ago, when my trusty old steam-driven word machine began its slouch toward Bethlehem, George told me to get a Brother. No razzle-dazzle, but better than a typewriter. This is not a testimonial to Sears, however.
George was one of those rare folks whose advice actually prevented me from making mistakes. I bought this word processor, started going to his chiropractor, and to this day I'm still trying to appropriate his sense of humor - an odd pursuit for a guy who makes his living in the ha-ha game.
The man was funny. While the rest of us slaved over a single feeble joke, George merely had to raise an eyebrow, twinkle for an instant, and all was lost...or gained. A few minutes of Socratic lunacy with Hambone would set me up and march me back into this battle against puffery and high seriousness.
George had timing, too.
One day, shortly after completing my radio show and turning things over to George, we were talking in the studio as he cued and rolled an entire program of Louis Armstrong, announcing at every break that Satchmo was truly "the father of us all." I asked him, why Satchmo?
"Who else could be?" he answered.
Actually, the man had more than timing.
Pete Mueller, cartoonist, writer and self-professed idiot.
My father loved language. He didn't speak English until he was 7 years old, and maybe because of that, he loved this language he would speak and write all the more.
When he came to Nicaragua, he could read some of the signs, and I think it took him back to his days as a little boy, speaking Romanian with Baba Jula and his Tata, the old-country man.
We talked sometimes about different words in Spanish that are powerful because of the circumstances under which they come into use.
One of those words is presente.
During the l950s, in Nicaragua and El Salvador, in the Guatemalan Highlands, thousands of people were killed. The word used time and time again at the funeral masses was presente. My father often spoke of its use regarding a man he greatly admired, Archbishop Romero of El Salvador.
Presente means, essentially, that a person who has died is not gone - he or she is with us still, walking with us, accompanying us, watching after us.
It is also, I think, a commitment to carry on the work he could not finish, a pledge to celebrate that life, a promise to keep the sense of hope and joy - and, yes, of outrage - alive.
So today I say to all of you - and I know that you join me in saying this - that George, Hambone, our Papa Hambone, my father, is here with us.
I say presente.
Presente, y hasta siempre.
Donna Vukelich lives in Nicaragua with her husband and two children.
I am Martha Vukelich-Austin. I'm also known as Marty, or as Dad would say, "have you met our daughter, Martha Jane?" I'm batting clean-up today in one of the most important innings of my life.
Dad always said you could tell a lot about people by the company they keep. That's why he hung out with Mom. Life together was an adventure, and they knew how to enjoy the ride. There were ups, there were downs, and slowly but surely together they got through them all. They knew that you had to take along as many people as possible on the journey because it made the whole trip a little easier and a lot more enjoyable.
There has been much written and said about Dad in the past few days, and he almost seems larger than life. He would be uncomfortable with all this attention because he saw himself as this bohunk boy with a few good stories to tell.
To us, he was Grandpa, our dad, our brother, our precious friend.
The stories could go on for days, and actually will be with us forever. There were the stories of Tata Mosh and Baba Jula and never naming the chickens. There was the time Mama and Papa were picking berries and Nana ended up talking to a bear. There was dear Grandma Gutensohn laughing her head off when she played 52 pick-up for the first time with each grandchild. There was the day Nixon resigned and Dynie mowed off all the neighbor's bushes. There was the Thanksgiving dinner during the strike when we called up Madison Newspapers Inc. and asked for William T. Evjue: "Just a minute, I'll go look for him," someone said.
Dad always liked to hang out where the fish were whether he had a pole or not. But lately he had taken to hanging where those grandkids hung. A kid at heart, Dad was living his second childhood with his grandchildren. They meant the world to him. He was the best buddy a kid could have. He could rock a kid for hours, and often did. He read countless stories, told even more and played catch for hours on end with whoever wanted to throw the ball.
Dad lived his life to the fullest. The joy he brought to others with his easy wit and his twinkly eyes will be remembered and is carried on by his grandchildren: JoaquÃn, Jorge, Sabrina, Ben, Bess, Kate and Sam. They know not to sweat the small stuff, and if all else fails, punt. The zest he had for life is really that of a kid who is itching to throw that first ball of the season, cast for the big one, or catch a greenie frog.
He stood up for what he believed. On the radio, it cost him sponsors. During the Vietnam War and at The Capital Times, it cost him his job. But he knew he had to live with himself and would not have been able to do so if he had sold out. This is one of the most important lessons he taught us. Along the way, he made so very many friends. And along the way, he made a few enemies, too. But as he said, it's okay to piss a few folks off when you know they are wrong.
He had such a sense of justice and fairness. He was concerned about what is happening in our cities to our children, the lack of caring and respect for people and the world. Even in this last column in Isthmus, he takes the Republicans to task for what they have done to Wisconsin in their budget bill. Look out for the dead carp, Tommy.
We had Mom and Dad over on Monday night for a little pre-birthday celebration. We had lobster, sang "Happy Birthday" and gave him a new bird feeder that is supposed to be squirrel-proof, if one can be made. I told my husband George on Tuesday morning that I bet Dad had put it up, and he had. We'll be watching for the birds and the squirrels, and so will he.
We are sad, and part of us will always will be sad. But we can be thankful that in the end, it was short and it was sweet and he did not suffer. We love you, Dad. Godspeed.
Martha Vukelich-Austin and her family live in Madison.
George and I often visited my farm ponds "to prune selectively the fish," as he said, keeping only enough fillets for dinner, gently releasing the lunker spawners and small fry for another day. It was his way of giving "Mother Nature a chance."
George often commented on how humans had abused the surrounding land - overgrazed pastures and eroded hillsides - and observed that another century or more would pass before the land would heal. Reflecting on the temporal state of man, he said, "Ma Nature always bats last."
Although gone, his words will continue to echo off these valley walls.
Bud Jordahl is UW-Madison professor emeritus, department of urban and regional planning.
The hat with the feather, the shocks of white hair and the craggy, wind-swept face, a face like an outcrop on the highway, taking it all in as the world zoomed by. That's what I remember most about George. That, and the way he'd saunter into the newsroom, copy in hand, perpetually bemused by people half his age, dressed in the college dorm attire of T-shirt and beat-up jeans, somehow cranking out this serious - thriving, even - weekly newspaper. Depositing his weekly interviews and musings, George would then make the rounds, eventually stopping by my desk.
Back then my band was in the national spotlight, and I was getting ready to leave the paper for the ephemeral pleasures of temporary celebrity. Though George was congratulatory, he was concerned, somehow already knowing what I had yet to learn. "Don't give up on the writing," he counseled sternly. "You can't give up on the writing." Not writing, but the writing, as if it were an act of religious faith. He always smiled when he said this, but he wasn't joking. Behind his mysterious grin was life-and-death seriousness. The writing was the one thing you could count on, the one thing that was yours. The world was stranger than anyone imagined, but this ritual of committing words to paper, George was saying, was your safehouse, your shelter in the storm of confusion.
Phil Davis, former Isthmus staff writer and editor, is now a senior editor at the UW Sea Grant Institute.
By George Vukelich
"Ah," the poet asks, "what is so rare as a day in spring?"
"Ah, indeed," Steady Eddy responds, "the answer to the questions is: That very spring day in the month of December."
Yesterday was that kind of day, an Indian spring day, Steady calls it, when you're tempted to watch the sky for geese going north, and the geese are almost tempted to go.
A sneaky kind of day, sunny and blue and so warm with little breezes you start expecting crocus on the southern slope.
A gift from God, this day.
I brewed up a cup of Red Zinger tea and took it out in the backyard, the backyard battened down for heavy weather.
Alongside the house, the Blue Canoe was beddy-bye, bottom-up and settled down for a long winter's nap.
Under the naked oaks, the Koenig feeder was full to the gunwales with plump sunflower seeds designed to keep the wintering cardinals likewise.
The picnic table was swept clean, the only placesetting some stones from Little Sister Bay.
And yet winter wasn't today.
Today was sleepy sunlight and sweet wind and Helen's birthday.
I remembered the summer day she gathered them, and there was Vince picking up others on the short hop and making the long throw out in the bay.
I remembered the early morning Vince came into this world and his sisters before him.
I remembered the time when I thought marrying a minister's daughter, a Preacher's Kid, was a pretty straight, unrevolutionary thing to do. Later events, however, have proved that I've been hanging out with the most political person since Madame Defarge.
"Some persons," Steady points out, "tend to their knitting that way."
In a day and age when you can clock most marriages with an egg timer, it's a pleasure to recall that she taught me all there is to know about a relationship.
Number One: Marriage is Something you go through with Somebody.
Number Two: Home is a place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.
She says Robert Frost said that first, but he said it for everybody.
On her birthday, you can't get her another Pete Seeger album because she must have every one he's ever recorded.
You can't get her another friend either, because everyone she meets becomes one.
Out here in the winter springtime, I wish I could give her this day.
She would promptly share it with her friends, Steady says. "Just give her all the days you got left," he advises, "only save a couple for catfishing."
So be it. Happy Birthday.
This column appeared in the Madison Press Connection and Isthmus, and is reprinted in the collection North Country Notebook (North Country Press).