Against the odds, Ed Garvey biography to be published

Author deleted interviews with lawyer, politico
Against the odds, Ed Garvey biography to be published
Photos courtesy of Rob Zaleski
Rob Zaleski's biography of Ed Garvey is due out next month.

I am not a big believer in fate or “things happen(ing) for a reason.” But sometimes something emerges against considerable odds, with a result so spot on, it can make you wonder if some higher power was involved.

So it is with longtime Madison journalist Rob Zaleski’s wonderful new book, “Ed Garvey Unvarnished: Lessons from a Visionary Progressive,” due out in September. It’s a warm and candid portrait of the progressive lawyer and political candidate famous for his dry wit and verbal takedowns of those who didn’t see things as he did, which is to say, most Republicans.

But I wondered what prevented the book from coming out earlier?

For starters, even though Zaleski had interviewed Garvey numerous times during Rob’s distinguished quarter-century writing for The Capital Times, the journalist was not sure Garvey would regard him as an appropriate biographer.

“I wondered if he would consider me liberal enough,” Zaleski told me recently.

Zaleski’s journalism tended more toward human interest than straight politics. Early on, he considered himself politically moderate. But reporting — and Zaleski’s columns were reported; he didn’t pontificate — opened his eyes.

“It was writing about people who were down and out that moved me to the left,” Zaleski said. “I realized there are a lot of people who are hurting.”

He needn’t have worried. When Zaleski invited Garvey to lunch in late 2010 and floated the idea of a book, Garvey beamed. Rob explained he was thinking not of a conventional biography but a series of extended conversations.

“When do you want to start?” Garvey said.

They began pretty much right away, meeting every few weeks for an hour or two in Garvey’s Shorewood Hills home. It was winter — the winter of Wisconsin Democrats’ discontent with newly elected Scott Walker — and Garvey would typically greet Zaleski at the door with a cup of coffee before they repaired to his study to talk.

The conversations were everything Zaleski hoped they would be: Garvey unfettered, on subjects including his small town Wisconsin youth; his early efforts on behalf of civil rights; his controversial work for the National Football League players’ union; his unsuccessful runs for governor and Senate; his fight with Parkinson’s disease and more.

They spoke 17 times over six months. In a preface, Zaleski writes, “Ed Garvey, I concluded after [the] last interview, was a flawed but honorable and brutally honest man, much as I’d assumed. And behind the confrontational façade, a kind, compassionate man and a fierce, uncompromising fighter for the have-nots.”

But during that last interview, Garvey sprang a surprise. He told Zaleski he’d been working with another writer on a book about his NFL union days. It was nearing completion.

Taken aback, Zaleski said he didn’t think the world was ready for two Ed Garvey books. Ed understood. They stayed friendly, but Zaleski shelved the idea for his book.

He did more than that. Rob deleted the interviews — more than 20 hours! — from his computer.

Six years later, in February 2017, Garvey died. Zaleski was vacationing in Mexico with his wife, Cindy, and missed the funeral, but there was no missing the outpouring of tributes to a colorful Wisconsin original, including a lengthy obituary in the New York Times.

Zaleski then realized the other book Garvey talked about had never appeared.

As for his own, Rob reached out to a friend and computer guru at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Could the deleted Garvey interviews possibly be retrieved? The man found them.

Was it fate?

Zaleski supplemented the conversations with personal remembrances of Garvey, presented in an epilogue, from accomplished friends like Cap Times editor Dave Zweifel, Green Bay Packers’ President Mark Murphy and Bill Kraus, the savvy politico who died in December 2018. David Maraniss contributed an insightful foreword.

Zaleski will discuss and sign copies of the book at Mystery to Me bookstore on Sept. 19 at 7 p.m.

“He was always hopeful,” Zaleski said of Garvey.

That optimism about life shines through in the book. Its publication against long odds makes one smile, too.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.