Joel DeSpain signs off and hits the road

Joel DeSpain’s career took him from TV journalist to law enforcement public information officer.
Joel Despain with his trailer
Photo by Sharon Vanorny

When Joel DeSpain landed his first full-time job in journalism — running WISC-TV News 3’s nascent Rock County bureau in the early 1980s — his office was at the airport between Janesville and Beloit. The only people he saw regularly were a group of guys who lurked at the end of a long basement hallway. DeSpain thought they were airport maintenance, noting, “I couldn’t figure out why they wouldn’t talk to me.”

They weren’t maintenance.

“They were the Rock County Metro Narcotics Unit,” DeSpain says. “Over time they got to know me and they would take me out when they were doing drug busts. I got footage nobody else was getting.”

That early lesson about building trust served DeSpain well in the ensuing decades. He brought it to Madison’s City Hall, where he reported with distinction on cops, courts and politicians for Channel 3 (today’s News 3 Now). He drew on it again in 2007 when he joined law enforcement himself as the Madison Police Department’s first civilian public information officer.

In that position, DeSpain needed to gain credence on two fronts: from reporters who worried he might favor his old colleagues from Channel 3 and from some on the police force who weren’t sure what to make of their new civilian spokesperson.

DeSpain did the job well enough that when he announced he’d be retiring from MPD at the close of 2020 — the end of nearly four decades in Madison public life — it made the news. DeSpain told The Capital Times that a priority going forward was spending time in national parks.

Joel Despain speaking to the media

Courtesy of Joel DeSpain

“My dream was to work in the national parks,” he says of a goal that had been on his radar since his first year of college at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point. “But Reagan was president and we were told there weren’t likely to be any full-time jobs in the national parks. So I transferred to Madison and got in the journalism school.”

It was a homecoming. DeSpain was born in Colorado but grew up in Madison. Among his favorite memories as a student at Randall Elementary was a visit from Badgers (and later National Football League) tight end Larry Mialik. When Mialik told the kids that the stadium was barely half full — that they were needed at Camp Randall — DeSpain took the implied mandate to heart.

“I’ve rarely missed a game since,” he says.

Joel Despain walking outdoors

Photo by Sharon Vanorny

A year or two later, at Cherokee Middle School, he was captivated by the Watergate hearings playing on TV in the lunchroom and learned it was the work of two reporters that had set it all in motion.

“That’s where my love of journalism started,” DeSpain says. “Then I went to West High and worked on the Regent Review.”

At UW–Madison in 1981, journalism professor Jim Hoyt recommended DeSpain for an internship at Channel 3.

“It was a great internship,” DeSpain says, “because they put you on the air.” After graduation, the station hired him and a career was launched.

Joel with Dan Rather and Susan Siman

Joel DeSpain with Dan Rather and News 3 Now’s Susan Siman at the 1996 Democratic National Convention. Courtesy of Joel DeSpain

About the time Channel 3 brought DeSpain back to Madison from Rock County in the mid-1980s, veteran newsman Tedd O’Connell was relinquishing the City Hall beat. O’Connell introduced DeSpain around, then took him to City Hall’s epicenter: the basement coffee shop.

“Plant yourself,” O’Connell told DeSpain. “People will tell you things.”

And they did. On a late afternoon in October 1988, I was having a drink with Gene Parks in the Fess Hotel bar when Parks was handed an official letter firing him as the city’s affirmative action director.

Parks was furious. I looked out the bar window — and there was DeSpain with a cameraman. He’d been tipped off about the firing. DeSpain followed as Parks stormed up Doty Street to City Hall, intent on confronting the mayor.

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Joel DeSpain with MPD Assistant Chief Victor Wahl. Courtesy of Joel DeSpain

It made for great television that night. More importantly — getting back to trust and relationships — when Parks died 17 years later, DeSpain was invited to speak at his memorial service.

The decision to leave journalism in 2007 wasn’t easy. But DeSpain and his wife, Joyce, had two young children and the hours of a TV newsman can be long and erratic. An MPD detective mentioned they were civilianizing the PIO job. “You should put in,” the detective said, so DeSpain applied.

The new job brought a baptism by fire: The disappearance and eventual foul-play death of a college student, Kelly Nolan, which became a national cable news story, occurred when DeSpain had been on the job less than a month.

Those were tough news conferences, as were any pertaining to officer-involved shootings. But DeSpain never wavered in his belief that, more than most city police departments, Madison’s serves as a guardian of the community, a force for good.

Joel with Tom Maulson

Joel DeSpain with Tom Maulson, then-tribal chairman of the Lac Du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa at the height of the spearfishing controversy. Courtesy of Joel DeSpain

On crimes of less gravitas, DeSpain drew on his creative side with his detailed crime logs and police reports for the public. He was a hit. Isthmus called his “Police Blotter” blog “an underground cult sensation.”

People loved reading about, for instance, the rescue of the Aphrodite statue stolen out of a restaurant, Parthenon Gyros.

“The officer had done a great job in his report of telling how he’d gone about bringing the Goddess of Love back to the Parthenon,” DeSpain says.

DeSpain turns 62 in June and plans an active retirement. He bought a teardrop camper for his national parks pilgrimage. He has some documentary video ideas and writing he wants to pursue. “I never lost my love of journalism,” he says.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” on madisonmagazine.com.

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