Neil Heinen’s career in words

Heinen retires Sept. 15 after 20 years working with the magazine.
Neil Heinen
Photo by Sharon Vanorny

In the introduction to the still indispensable guide to writing, “The Elements of Style,” co-author E.B. White described a chapter as “addressed particularly to those who feel that English prose composition is not only a necessary skill but a sensible pursuit as well — a way to spend one’s days.” In that one sentence I discovered the explanation for a 40-plus-year career that was more rewarding, satisfying, challenging and surprising than I could have ever dreamed. The belief that spending my days writing was indeed a sensible pursuit, and one for which I would actually be paid, gave me needed confidence and security that I might be able to do something useful with my life.

I’ve always struggled to explain exactly what it is I do, or did. There was a fair amount of talking involved, mainly asking questions. I often needed to read aloud what I had written. There were frequent calls to speak publicly, to moderate, facilitate or host. But virtually all of it required writing and reading. And since both were so important, I can’t reflect on a career in journalism — from writing 15-minute scripts for radio newscasts to thousands of editorials and For The Record opens to columns and Madison Magazine stories — without paying tribute to my influences.

White also suggested that writing for a living carried with it a responsibility. “A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. [A writer] should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.” Informing and shaping life in Madison has been part of my particular responsibility of being editorial director for WISC-TV and Madison Magazine, and lifting people up, not lowering them down, has been both an overarching end and means. That was the belief and expectation of the people who supported and encouraged me and made possible my attempts to make a difference. My journalism school professor and mentor, Jim Hoyt, the late WIBA News Director Bob King, Morgan Murphy Media Owner Liz Murphy Burns and COO Brian Burns, general managers David Sanks and Tom Keeler, Madison Magazine publishers and editors Jen Winiger, Mike Kornemann, Brian Howell, Brennan Nardi, Karen Lincoln Michel and Andrea Behling, and most of all my longtime boss and friend Tom Bier and my friend and co-conspirator George Nelson, all believed in the importance of truth, accuracy, lifting people up and informing the life of a city and the lives of its citizens. And they believed in me for which I will be forever grateful.

The wonder of 40 years in journalism is how much I learned from so many. I have interviewed, listened to and observed hundreds of interesting, smart, passionate, typically generous and kind people. They told me their stories, what they’d learned and what they cared about, and each of them led me to someone or somewhere else in unending layers of discovery. I learned the most from my extraordinary wife, Nancy, my co-writer, my fellow traveler, my moral compass and my personal BS detector. I’ve often been told I “know everyone.” What most people don’t know is how many of these influential and powerful people knew me first as Nancy’s husband. On so many of our walks through the UW Arboretum, fellow walkers would smile as they passed and just as I was about to say they must recognize me from television, Nancy would simply say, “They’re good customers” of her decade-long civic institution the Wilson Street Grill. It is together that we know everyone and have had relationships and developed friendships that have enriched our lives. And my work.

Neil Heinen and his wife, Nancy Christy, stand in their backyard along with their dog, Macaroon, who is a bouvier des Flandres.

Photo by Sharon Vanorny

I’ve had the privilege of being present for and writing about some of the most significant developments in Madison’s history and the people who made them happen. Some were brick and mortar: Monona Terrace, the Kohl Center, Overture Center for the Arts, Madison College, the Lussier Community Education Center, Domestic Abuse Intervention Services and the Capitol East District. Some were civic issues that marked our evolution as a community: our schools, our criminal justice system, domestic violence, the contributions of people with disabilities, end-of-life issues, food insecurity, conscious capitalism and the Race to Equity initiative.

In each case the veil was pulled back a little further and I learned more about who we are, our dreams and aspirations, what divides us and what keeps us together. My role was to listen, compile, sift and winnow and find the words to describe, explain, support, encourage, sometimes comfort, sometimes provoke and inspire imaginations. Literary genius Susan Sontag quoted Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (when someone like Sontag does the quoting, attribution is required): “A writer — and, I believe generally all persons — must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and [a writer] must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material.” What a gift I have been given.

I’ve done editorials at the White House, the Alamo and the town square in Mantova, Italy. I’ve interviewed Jane Goodall, Richard Davis, César Pelli and one of the greatest glass artists who ever lived, Bertil Vallien. I’ve had lunch with Barack Obama, been made fun of by George W. Bush and been given a personal tour of “the war room” at the Department of Health and Human Services by then-Secretary Tommy Thompson. In addition to everything else, my career has been a thrill ride. I consider myself extraordinarily lucky.

One of my favorite poems is by the brilliant and sensual Russian poet Vera Pavlova.

If there is something to desire,
there will be something to regret.
If there is something to regret,
there will be something to recall.
If there is something to recall,
there was nothing to regret.
If there was nothing to regret,
there was nothing to desire.

I have so many memories, and blessedly few, if some, regrets. I got to spend the majority of my days trying to lift people up. I am grateful.

Neil Heinen, who was editorial director of Madison Magazine and WISC-TV, officially retired Sept. 15. This is his final “For the Record” column, capping 20 years of monthly column writing for this magazine.