Mitch Henck going back on the air — in Indiana

Madison media personality heading closer to home
Mitch Henck going back on the air — in Indiana
Photo courtesy of Mitch Henck
Mitch Henck

When last we heard from longtime Madison media personality Mitch Henck, in a January farewell column in the Wisconsin State Journal, he was moving to Florida to be near his kids and put his toes in the sand.

Do they have beaches in Anderson, Indiana?

Unlikely, but Anderson, 40 miles northeast of Indianapolis, does have a radio station, WHBU, the second oldest commercial station in the state. And starting later this month — March 18, as it looks now — Henck will be hosting a morning news/talk show on WHBU. Fans in Madison will be able to stream it on the Internet.

“It’s what I do,” Henck says, adding that he was looking forward to getting back on the air.

The station is owned by an old friend who threw in basketball tickets for Henck’s beloved Butler Bulldogs as part of the package. The deal also has Mitch selling ads for the show.

His 27 years in Madison have been quite a ride. It wasn’t radio but rather TV news that first brought Henck — a native of Lafayette, Indiana — to town in 1992.

My wife, Jeanan, was assistant news director at WMTV 15 and the station was looking for someone to replace anchor Rick Fetherston, who’d left for American Family Insurance. Mitch’s tapes — he was at a station in Green Bay — stood out. He was hired and didn’t disappoint. Mitch breathed politics and could think on his feet. When things got dull in the newsroom, he’d recite Robert F. Kennedy speeches from memory.

Eight years on, Henck left TV to work for Jim Doyle, later a two-term governor but then Wisconsin’s attorney general. They worked together only a year but Doyle’s affection for Henck was evident when we spoke last week.

“A huge heart, incredible sense of humor and active mind,” Doyle says. “Everybody loves Mitch.”

Doyle laughed recalling how they’d travel the state together. From across the car he’d see Henck practicing his grip on an imaginary golf club — in February.

But there was serious policy work, too. The two shared a commitment to the state’s technical colleges that was reflected in Doyle’s budget once he was governor. “Those were the people Mitch cared about,” he says.

Henck is probably best known in Madison for his extended run as host of “Outside the Box” on WIBA-AM radio, a morning talk show that showcased his moderate politics, self-deprecating humor and frightening knowledge of college basketball trivia.

The humor is a true gift. Mitch tells a story of how he once spent the better part of a day cleaning his apartment in advance of his sister visiting Madison. Her first words on arrival: “My God, how can anyone live like this?”

His love-hate relationship with golf provided abundant material, including the time Mitch turned himself over to local pro Derek Schnarr with a goal of breaking par for 18 holes. Derek’s advice: Quit thinking so much and just hit the ball. Mitch says, “Even non-golfers tell me they appreciate the raw descriptions of my repeated failings.”

His love life was fodder, too. He once brought a date to Kosta’s, the State Street restaurant run by his great friend, Gus Paras. At some point while Mitch was entertaining the room at large, the woman slipped out the back.

Thereafter, when Mitch walked in, Gus would stage whisper, “I’ll lock the back door.”

The laughter stopped in October 2012 when Mitch suffered a serious stroke. It was a fearful time — he spent nearly a month in the hospital. But as he recovered, one saw in Henck the heart that Jim Doyle referenced, and courage, too. Here was a talk radio host who could hardly talk. Mitch not only made it back to the radio, he resumed doing “The Big Show” — the Sinatra-tribute cabaret and comedy act he started in 2008.

Mitch was deeply touched by the flowers, fruit baskets and avalanche of cards he received from his radio listeners. “I suppose in talking about my flaws and fears,” he says, “I built up an intimate relationship with them. It connects with people.”

Internationally-known opera singer Kitt Reuter-Foss helped Henck get his voice back. I accompanied him once to her Verona home for a voice lesson. In a stern voice, Reuter-Foss counseled Henck to drink copious amounts of water. It was vitally important.

“And I don’t like water,” Reuter-Foss said.

“Have you tried it with Scotch?” Henck replied.

The years since he lost his radio job to current media economics have not been easy, but Mitch has faced them undaunted, without losing his humor.

Florida made sense, since both his son, Stephen, and daughter, Ariana — of whom he is immensely proud — live in the St. Petersburg area.

But in going to Indiana for a radio gig, he is headed home in two ways. He has a sister and nieces in Lafayette. And his college roommate is the public address announcer for Butler basketball.

Mitch mentions “You Can’t Go Home Again,” the famed novel by Thomas Wolfe.

“I’m pushing back against Wolfe,” he says.

I like his chances.

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