The Badger Herald turns 50

Doug Moe remembers his time at the student paper

Wednesday is the last chance to get a reduced-price ticket for $100 to the 50th anniversary party The Badger Herald student newspaper is throwing in its own honor in Madison over three days in October. After Aug. 1, the price goes up to $125.

I don't know if I'll go — I'm not big on reunions — but earlier this summer the reunion came to me, in a manner of speaking. And it was a bit disconcerting.

I will explain.

Last winter I wrote a Madison Magazine column on Troy Reeves, who manages the Oral History Program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The program captures campus history from those who lived it — around 1,500 interviews and counting.

After my story appeared, Reeves got in touch with an unusual request. At least, I thought it was unusual. He wanted to interview me for the Oral History Program.

I've lived in Madison most of my life, but I can't say my years at UW–Madison — 1974-79 (including two summer sessions) — were particularly noteworthy. I was an OK student. But you could drink at 18 years of age in those days. And later, when anyone inquired about my college experience, I'd say I'd like to do it again sober.

Still, I've made a living over the past 40 years asking people for interviews. When someone asks me, I'm not going to say no.

I'd told Troy that I wrote for both campus newspapers, The Daily Cardinal and The Badger Herald. It was just a few stories for the Cardinal before I met a couple of characters from the Herald staff in the Grotto bar — what did I tell you? — who convinced me to join the weekly, upstart Badger Herald. (The Herald was founded in 1969, compared to the Daily Cardinal's 1892 launch.)

Troy brought some old, bound volumes of the Herald from my era to our interview. It was fun paging through them, but also disorienting.

My recollection was I started writing a general interest feature column when I joined the Herald. In reality, I worked as a news and sports reporter for almost a year before getting the column. My byline was "Douglas Moe." I never go by "Douglas." Nothing good ever comes in the mail to "Douglas." But there it was on those old Herald columns.

The most enjoyable thing for me about paging through the old issues was seeing other bylines. The Herald's editorial pages were notoriously conservative, but we ignored them and just tried to write good stories in the rest of the paper. We delighted in poking fun at the frequently self-reverential Daily Cardinal. They went nuts when we put on our front page the slogan "Once a Week but Twice as Good."

The two guys who recruited me to the Herald were George Stanley and Mike Beno, who grew up together in Green Bay. We bonded over beer and Jerry Jeff Walker songs. They've both had distinguished journalism careers. George is currently the top editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, while Mike is editor of the bimonthly magazine Our Wisconsin.

Other Herald alum from my era there included Marcia Nelesen, later a prominent reporter for the Janesville Gazette; Jim Armstrong, who went to Denver and became a successful sports columnist; and Eddie Ben Elson, the great prankster, who somehow landed on the Herald masthead as "evangelical editor."

As bad as the editorials were — when Mao died, the editorial headline was "Top commie bites dust" — there was one editorial writer you couldn't help but like: Robert E.A.P. Ritholz. The middle initials were real, and of course stood for Edgar Allan Poe. Ritholz wore tweed sport coats and was balding on top with hair in back that hung to his shoulders. He was conservative but quick to laugh.

Ritholz was from the Chicago area and moved back there after getting two masters' degrees at UW–Madison. I saw him in the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago 20 years ago when I was promoting my Mike Royko biography. Ritholz was there helping his buddy, Chicago "ghost hunter" Richard Crowe, with Crowe's tour of "haunted Chicago." It was in the same capacity a few years later that Ritholz got his picture in the New York Times pouring a beer for the spirit of John Dillinger outside Chicago's Biograph Theater on the 70th anniversary of Dillinger's death.

Now it's the 50th anniversary of the founding of The Badger Herald. I saw a few good things I did in those old issues. In one of my first columns I went to NBC-15 and interviewed "Mr. Mephisto," a ghoul who was a hero to every Madison baby boomer watching late night weekend television from the late 1960s through the '70s.

Mephisto, actually a station employee named Dick Flanigan, hosted a midnight show called "Inferno." He played bad horror movies and traded insults with a talking box on his desk. Madison teens loved it. The show launched a thousand pizza deliveries.

Dick Flanigan, who died in 2017, gave this student journalist an interview. It was an early indication that journalism could take you places you wouldn't otherwise get to go. Maybe I should make that anniversary party after all.  

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

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