O'Hern and the newspaper's first issue.
When I moved to Madison in the 1980s, it was a hot spot for alternative weekly newspapers. Myself, I liked the one with the funny name -- Isthmus -- but there were plenty of other choices, like City Lights and Free for All. Who would have predicted that the one with the funny name would survive them all and prosper into the 21st century?
I suppose I might have predicted it if I'd known publisher Vince O'Hern back then. After I got a job at Isthmus, I quickly learned that he's a guy who would never run a fly-by-night operation. He had something I'd never encountered before: a vision.
Vince was a product of the idealistic 1960s, landing in Madison after a blue-collar upbringing in the Rust Belt and a stint in the Peace Corps. Anyone could see he had ambitious goals for the publication. He came not from the business world, but from journalism school -- Northwestern's -- and intended Isthmus as an outlet for serious reporting. I can honestly say I've never met anyone with more journalistic integrity. This is one publisher who wouldn't dream of asking his editors to fudge a well-considered review or report, no matter whom it might tick off.
And that includes himself. When the organization mounted its first Isthmus Jazz Festival concert, our staff arts writer called it as he saw it and turned in a negative review. This was admittedly an awkward situation -- Isthmus slamming its own fledgling event -- but Vince published the review, continued to sign the writer's paychecks, and never held it against anybody. How could a journalist not love a boss like that?
At the outset, Vince conceived of Isthmus as different from a daily newspaper. He co-founded it in 1976 with Fred Milverstedt and became a pioneer in the alternative newsweekly movement, which included the likes of the Village Voice and the Chicago Reader. The mission was to focus intensely on Madison, taking its measure from Capitol to co-op to cafe. The early issues featured unconventional topics, sharp-edged commentary, a comprehensive calendar of events, and ambitious arts-and-entertainment coverage -- all in all, a new voice for Madison. Isthmus became a showcase for one-of-a-kind writers, who won armloads of state and national awards and, even better, the respect of many local readers.
Some people didn't like the publication, of course, and some still don't. But Vince has always taken the slings and arrows in stride. The important thing was to keep trying to do good work that made a difference in the community.
I mentioned that Vince didn't come out of the business world, but he certainly transformed himself into a formidable businessman. He expanded the operation from his house to a series of rooms at the Hotel Washington, then to bigger and better spaces on the Capitol Square. He changed with the times, steering the organization through recessions and major disruptions. One of those disruptions -- the Internet -- didn't unsettle Isthmus the way it did many other publications because Vince had the foresight to jump on board early.
For staffers, Vince created an environment where people could express their creativity and pursue their passions. That's such a beautiful quality in a workplace that many employees have happily stayed for years. As a result, Isthmus feels like family. Vince's talented and accomplished wife, Linda Baldwin, joined the organization as associate publisher in the 1990s and has helped steer it ever since. Others have found their soul mates sitting at the next cubicle and gotten hitched. Vince's dog Ricketts used to follow him into the office, and another staffer's furry friend roams the hallways at 101 King St. to this day.
One employee brought her son into work for the first few years of his life. That's right -- among its other accomplishments, Isthmus raised a child.
Vince O'Hern has presided over the Isthmus family for 38 years, often bemused, but always dead serious about maintaining high standards. The company wouldn't exist unless he had imagined it back in 1976 and lovingly tended it ever since. And if he hadn't, Madison might well be a different place today. The Milwaukee Press Club will recognize that fact in October, when it inducts Vince into the Wisconsin Media Hall of Fame.
Vince and Linda have decided to sell the business to fellow Madisonian Jeff Haupt and begin their retirement. Well, retirement of a sort. I have no doubt they will remain heavily involved in community and charitable projects to benefit the city they love.
Isthmus will continue its mission without them, just as they'd planned. Long live the publication with the funny name.