One afternoon, two celebrations: Honoring Madisonians Terry Devitt and Boris Frank

Celebrating two accomplished individuals
One afternoon, two celebrations: Honoring Madisonians Terry Devitt and Boris Frank
Terry Devitt and Boris Frank

This is a story about two accomplished longtime Madisonians who didn’t really want public recognition but wound up having bashes thrown for them on the same day at the same time, 20 miles apart.

My wife, Jeanan, and I were invited to both and wouldn’t have missed either. Life is funny.

First up on the afternoon of Aug. 25 was a party at the Crossroads Coffeehouse in Cross Plains for Terry Devitt, who retired last month after more than three decades as a science writer at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, most recently serving as director of research communications.

I’d enjoyed a lot of Devitt’s work though hadn’t met him. Jeanan, however, has known and admired him as a friend and colleague for years — since graduate school.

The Crossroads is a popular gathering spot in Cross Plains operated by Devitt’s wife, Mary since 2007.

Devitt was the consummate “the story isn’t about me” writer — we heard he had waved off efforts by the university to recognize his service — so I figured an interview with him was unlikely. The event at the Crossroads was as far as he would go.

I got Mary aside and asked if she thought it would be OK for me to write something.

She smiled and said, “Write it.”

Now you know whom to blame, Terry.

In a 2014 interview with a science writing blog, Devitt said, “There is nothing like recognition from your peers.” The attendance of so many of his UW colleagues at the Crossroads event was a clear indication of the esteem in which he is held.

The globetrotting photographer Mickey Kienitz was there, recalling a 1987 trip to Belize he and Devitt made to record a Mayan dig. That was about the same time Devitt was starting to chronicle the significant role played by UW scientists in the Hubble Space Telescope, a legendary astronomy research tool.

Devitt turned to science writing after he soured on general assignment reporting — one too many phone calls to families of the victims of brutal crimes. He went back to school for a master’s degree and a UW journalism professor, Sharon Dunwoody — who spoke at the Aug. 25 gathering — opened his eyes to science writing. Terry later explained the attraction: “What could be better than having the universe as a beat?”

In January 1996 Devitt helped launch The Why Files, a website that sought to “explore the science behind the news” and did it so well that it lasted for two decades and endures as a book.

It’s likely Devitt’s best-known work came with Jamie Thomson, the celebrated UW stem cell scientist. Devitt wrote about it in the spring 2008 issue of On Wisconsin magazine, a unique piece in that Terry opened a window into his own world as the chronicler of a quiet researcher who — with Thomson’s 1998 isolation of human embryonic stem cells — became an overnight sensation.

“The world’s press made a virtual mad dash for Wisconsin,” Devitt wrote, a decade removed. “Occupying an office next to mine in Bascom Hall for about a week and a half, Thomson did nothing but interviews” — the New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, the BBC, everyone called. It went on to a lesser degree for months, years. Devitt oversaw it all, “a reluctant gatekeeper,” as he called himself, balancing the needs of the scientist and the reporters.

I don’t think Thomson made it to the Crossroads last month, but he should have.

I’m not sure because Jeanan and I had to leave early and hurry back to Madison and across town, all the way to the Goodman Community Center Brassworks building, for a gathering that wasn’t in honor of Boris Frank.

Frank insisted on that.

The event was called “a celebration of the nonprofit safety net.” But it was Frank who had decided it was time to pull his family, friends and colleagues from half a century in the nonprofit sector together for a party, and everyone who came was there to see Frank.

I knew Frank just from seeing him around town and having written a newspaper column about him in 2009, after he’d been named executive director of the Henry Vilas Park Zoological Society.

Then in April 2017 Jeanan and I had a chance to interview Frank on stage at a meeting of the Great Madison Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. In 2010 Frank received the group’s Lifetime Achievement Award at a recognition luncheon on National Philanthropy Day.

Frank has helped nonprofit organizations in areas from youth music to education and animal welfare fundraise and plan strategically — he’s served as counsel for over 150 capital campaigns, including more than 85 public libraries.

In our 2017 chat he shared lessons learned in the nonprofit world — “be a listener; be transparent; trust but verify; profit is not a dirty word” — but he also talked about how he meets with groups of young people for coffee just to find out what they’re thinking and how they see the world.

Frank shared another tip: “Ten laughs a day — minimum!”

I think that curiosity and openness to the world came from his growing up, when turned 7 years old, he ate ice cream with Ginger Rogers — his dad worked in Hollywood — and then New York City, where as a teen he got a tour of the best delis from the comic actor Stubby Kaye. It launched an adventurous life.

Frank came to Madison for college in 1954. He spent nearly two decades with WHA-TV before starting his own consulting business in 1982.

Among those honoring Frank at the party last month were former county executive Rick Phelps, marketing maven Marsha Lindsay and United Way of Dane County president Renee Moe.

“A humbling experience,” Frank says in a note the next day. “I was totally overwhelmed.”