Opinion

Steve Hannah's love letter to Wisconsin

Book is collection of his "State of Mind" columns

Anyone who knew Steve Hannah and heard he was writing a memoir would have bet their mortgage that the finished product would be entertaining (he's a talented wordsmith), somewhat cynical (Hannah spent years in the newspaper business), not short on bluster (he grew up on the East Coast) and filled with bold-faced names (Hannah ended his career running The Onion, which took him to Hollywood).

Well, one out of four isn't bad. "Dairylandia: Dispatches from a State of Mind," out this month from the University of Wisconsin Press, is certainly entertaining. Hannah's quick, wry wit is quietly present throughout. Yet the bigger story that emerges — in a blend of autobiography and selected profiles — is how completely Wisconsin and its people, across more than 40 years, stole Steve Hannah's heart.

"Where I grew up," Hannah told me recently, "people were loud and aggressive and self-aggrandizing, out to screw you before you screwed them."

"I got here," he continued, "and met all these people who didn't behave like that. Not everybody, but an awful lot of people, who were honest and humble and comfortable with who they were, not trying to get a leg up on anybody. I admired all of them."

He wrote about them, too, in a syndicated newspaper column called "State of Mind" that ran from 1994 to 2006. Hannah's favorites among those pieces are in the new book, bracketed by his recollections of their reporting, and, in many instances, fresh updates — the writer reconnecting with his subjects many years, sometimes decades, later.

Hannah got to Wisconsin by accident. After college at Colgate and grad school in Ireland, he was hitchhiking cross-country — there was an on-and-off female friend (possibly) at the other end — when a stop in Chicago led to an introduction to another woman. Hannah stopped hitchhiking. The new friend, Susan, was from Madison. Hannah married her.

They started a family and followed Steve's journalism career, first to CBS News in New York, where Charles Kuralt told him if he wanted to learn how to be a reporter, he had to work for a newspaper. But Hannah soon wearied of covering crime for a New Jersey paper, and they came back to Susan's native Wisconsin.

So began Hannah's 16-year run up the ladder at the Milwaukee Journal, ending as managing editor. When he left the Journal, Hannah began a public relations business that brought him into contact with some Wisconsin and New York financiers — more on that momentarily — and he also began writing "State of Mind."

"Far and away the best thing I got paid to do," Hannah writes of the syndicated column, in the introduction to his new book.

"Mainly I just went wherever I pleased and talked to ordinary people — many of them quite extraordinary, as it turned out — about their lives."

Some of the people profiled were regionally well-known, such as the poet Ellen Kort, Tommy Thompson's brother Ed and attorney Jerry Boyle. Others were unknown enough to be shocked that Hannah wanted to write about them. More than one asked Hannah, "Do you actually get paid for doing this?"

At one point, Hal Bergan — a friend Hannah knew from covering the Capitol, when Bergan worked for Gov. Tony Earl — sent Hannah a note. "I think you have a book here," Bergan wrote. The "self-actualized" people Hannah was writing about had really resonated with him.

Hannah saved the letter, but his life took a turn. He heard through a Madison attorney friend, Brady Williamson, that The Onion, the humor publication launched in Madison, needed a hand. Readership was booming — the brand was hot — but the books were a mess.

Hannah brought it up to a New York money manager named David Schafer, who bought a majority interest, eventually installing Hannah as CEO of The Onion, a job he held for 11 years.

On leaving The Onion, Hannah remembered Bergan's note. Yes, a book. He had the contacts to get meetings with large New York publishers.

"Great!" one said. "A book about The Onion!"

"Well, no," Hannah replied. "It's about Wisconsin, and the people, and …"

"Get back to me when you wise up," the publisher responded.

Hannah found a smaller publisher, and now "Dairylandia" is coming out. He and I will discuss it at 7 p.m., Oct. 25, at Mystery to Me bookstore.

I may ask him about his mom, to whom the new book is dedicated. Steve said she instilled a curiosity about people in him early, and was, in fact, a gifted storyteller herself.

Rita Walsh Hannah could talk to anybody about anything, Hannah says. He recalled overhearing a phone call, maybe a half hour long.

"Who were you talking to?"

His mom smiled. "Wrong number."

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


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