When I was speaking with George Hesselberg last week about his terrific new book, I mentioned how a favorite line of Jim Harrison’s poetry might have been a fitting epigram: “Death steals everything except our stories.” Although we were on the phone, I could sense Hesselberg rolling his eyes.
“A perfect line,” he said. “And if you had told it to me three years ago, I could have used it.”
Truth is, Hesselberg didn’t need it. His new book, “Dead Lines: Slices of Life from the Obit Beat,” puts on ample display the traits that made Hesselberg one of the Midwest’s very best newspaper writers across more than four decades.
He was baloney-proof, fair, tough-minded when it came to public officials, occasionally funny, empathetic (though never sentimental) and — rare on a newspaper page — he did it in stylish prose: a turn of phrase, an unexpected insight.
In his 42-year career at the Wisconsin State Journal, Hesselberg worked nearly every beat and is likely best remembered for his 18-year run as the paper’s most prominent columnist. But be it a column, feature, or news story, when he had the chance Hesselberg gravitated toward people he found interesting, even if they couldn’t see it themselves. Or as he puts it, characters “who would never consider themselves a character.”
Often the opportunity arose when one had died, providing the hook an assistant city editor would need to allow such anecdotes in the paper.
These are the stories collected in “Dead Lines” and they range in subject from a polar bear at the Vilas Zoo to the unofficial mayor of the nude beach in Mazomanie to a male skeleton dressed in women’s clothes unearthed in the chimney of a music store on University Avenue.
“I think the writing holds up,” Hesselberg says. “That kind of writing is timeless. Most of the things in newspapers don’t hold up more than a week. But these kinds of stories, with a good narrative, are almost like short [fiction] stories.”
Hesselberg’s journalism roots run deep. Growing up in the village of Bangor — between La Crosse and Sparta — Hesselberg read the La Crosse Tribune and became the 4-H correspondent for the Bangor Independent before he was a teenager. “I liked telling stories and talking to people,” he says. Since Bangor High School did not offer journalism classes, Hesselberg reached out to the University of Wisconsin and wound up taking a correspondence course through UW Extension. “I wanted to learn,” he says. “I would type out a lesson, send it to Madison and they’d send it back, corrected.”
After high school he enrolled at UW–Madison, studied journalism, and in summer 1972 landed an internship at the State Journal. It was before newspapers charged for obituaries — now routinely supplied by family members — so Hesselberg and the other interns took obit calls from funeral homes, learning early the importance of getting things right. “Spelling was sacred,” he notes in the Introduction to “Dead Lines.”
Hesselberg conceived the new book shortly after his 2017 retirement, in conversation with old newspaper chums Dennis McCann and Dennis Chaptman. Beer may have been involved.
“It was one of our executive meetings,” Hesselberg says. He mentioned how he’d enjoyed rereading a piece he’d done after Cornelius Cooke, who in warm weather lived in an RV near Vilas Park and spent his days planting walnuts in and around the Arboretum, died in 2009.
With his friends’ encouragement, Hesselberg eventually tracked down some 200 stories written in a similar vein, a list he trimmed to 80 “that I liked” and finally to the 66 that appear in “Dead Lines.” (I will be interviewing Hesselberg about the book in a Mystery to Me bookstore event on Nov. 2 at 7 p.m. It’s in-person at the Monroe Street Arts Center and can also be live streamed.
Hesselberg’s book joins a short but distinguished list of kindred volumes, including “52 McGs,” a collection by an acknowledged master of the news obituary, Robert McG. Thomas of The New York Times. Also worth seeking out: Marilyn Johnson’s “The Dead Beat,” a lively history of writing about the dead.
Readers will applaud Hesselberg’s decision to include a few animal tales in “Dead Lines.”
The lead of his 1988 piece about Chief, the zoo polar bear fatally shot by a police officer after a troubled man jumped into his pen, was classic: “Chief, a polar bear who never traded his dignity for a marshmallow, died at Henry Vilas Zoo Sunday while being a polar bear.”
Then there’s his 2000 lede concerning Rover, a cat who had earlier been mistakenly pronounced dead after a mix-up of collars at the Dane County Human Society: “Rover, an eccentric gray cat with a raccoon-like walk, is dead — again. This time it should take.”
I would venture, too, that “Dead Lines” will prove a superior book title than the one Hesselberg chose for his first column collection 30 years ago. He was drinking in Licari’s, a bar near the paper, with John Kovalic, the cartoonist. They began scrawling prospective titles on a bar napkin. Over time, one — inexplicably — stood out: “Paint Me Green and Call Me Fern.”
It went on the cover, and the book, well, let’s hear from the author.
“They kept putting it in the gardening section,” Hesselberg says.
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