Remembering George Vukelich

Remembering George Vukelich

By: Doug Moe

When George Vukelich died suddenly of a heart attack in July 1995, just shy of his sixty-eighth birthday, both Madison daily newspapers carried lengthy, appreciative news obituaries, but neither mentioned what endures as perhaps his most distinguished achievement: the 1962 novel Fisherman’s Beach.

It may be that George’s life was just too full to include everything. He was known to his many admiring friends and fans as an outdoorsman, environmentalist, baseball aficionado, radio host, newspaper columnist, magazine writer, husband, father and amiable barroom companion. Five hundred people came to the memorial service, overflowing Madison’s Unitarian Meeting House. “But we expected that,” the pastor said.

George’s signal talent may have been storytelling. Whether on the radio, where as “Papa Hambone” he for many years delighted listeners on Madison’s WIBA, or in print, with his columns in The Capital Times, Isthmus and Madison Magazine, George wove tales that were funny, poignant and occasionally—if he sensed someone with power abusing someone without—indignant.

Some of us were lucky enough to hear the stories over a glass. I think I first met George in the bar of the old Fess Hotel near the Capitol Square. I was working at Madison Magazine at the time, and our offices were on the floor above the bar. Someone once said that there is nothing in the job description of magazine editor that can’t be accomplished in a bar with a working telephone. The small editorial staff at the magazine gave that theory a full vetting. George would bring in his copy each month and we would repair downstairs. There I would hear stories of the old days of Madison newspapering, of people like Bill Evjue and Miles McMillin, and of the time George joined his reporter colleagues in a strike against Madison Newspapers, Inc., during which he helped found the strikers’ paper, the Madison Press Connection.

We had a mutual friend named Ed Teela, a colorful former paratrooper who sold cars in Madison before quitting to open a bait shop. The decision was destined to make Teela a local celebrity of sorts, although not as Ed Teela. He became famous as “Steady Eddy,” the wry, sage bait shop proprietor in innumerable “North Country Notebook” columns written by George Vukelich. “You don’t have to be crazy to go ice fishing,” Steady Eddy said in one column. “But it helps.”

I remember a Madison Magazine column in which George recalled the night he, Steady Eddy and a newspaper reporter friend named Frank Custer attended the last night of a downtown Madison saloon called the 400 Bar. They were almost the only customers. It was a somewhat solemn occasion and at one point Custer shook his head and said he didn’t understand why more people weren’t upset that a great old bar was closing. “That’s right,” somebody said. “But just let them close a school and people show up in droves.”

One thing I don’t recall George talking about much was his fiction, and I’m almost certain he never mentioned that in 1962, at the age of thirty-five, he had published a novel.

There was much to boast about the publication of Fisherman’s Beach, if that had been George’s way. One might start with the prestigious New York publishing house, St. Martin’s Press, that brought out George’s story of a Wisconsin—Two Rivers— commercial fishing family threatened by illness and sibling rivalries and legislators in Madison who think the fishermen are harvesting too many trout from Lake Michigan.

The reviews bordered on the rapturous. The revered Wisconsin author August Derleth called Fisherman’s Beach “a strong, honest novel, beautifully realized.” The noted Nebraska author Mari Sandoz, who taught at UW–Madison, noted that George “has captured the power and beauty of a great inland sea, a tough old fisherman and his sons who worked its waters, and the forces, old and new, that man can only hope to withstand a little while.” George dedicated the novel to Sandoz.

I think I first heard of Fisherman’s Beach in 1990, when George brought out a new edition of the novel under his own North Country Press imprint. For whatever reason, I didn’t read it then. Maybe it’s simply that there is never enough time for all the books you’ve promised yourself to read.

Then one cold weekend afternoon, early in 2012, I settled down in a coffeehouse with a copy of Fisherman’s Beach. Within moments George had me, with his clean description of the great lake’s ice breaking in spring, while inside a fishing family’s patriarch lies dying, furious with his body’s betrayal and with the politicians who want to destroy his way of life. Three hours later, I turned the final page, knowing I would not soon forget the LeMere family or George’s evocation of both the beauty and harshness of the natural world.

It’s a remarkably assured first novel. Sure, George knew what he was writing about—all those hours outdoors bearing fruit in his art—but he also knew the human heart. I loved this passage in which the family’s prodigal son muses on life: Germaine realized then there was no way around trouble in your life. A man going into trouble was like steel going into the flames and if you had the right stuff the flame tempered you and toughened you and made you strong. If you didn’t have the right stuff, you cracked and flawed apart and went back to the slag heap … There was no way around this trouble thing. Sooner or later, a man had to go into the flames.

Or this, much later in the novel, when a woman, battered by life, explains to a priest why she is going ahead with a
marriage even though the man she loves is not a Catholic: “I don’t think God will punish me for being a little happy during my life, Father.”

I couldn’t be happier that on this, the fiftieth anniversary of the original publication of Fisherman’s Beach, Cambridge Book Review Press is bringing it to a new generation of readers.

Not long ago one of George’s daughters, Martha Vukelich-Austin, shared with me the story of the launch party for Fisherman’s Beach half a century ago in Madison. At age five, Martha was too young to attend. But she was still awake when her dad, mom and older sister came back to the house on Plymouth Circle and broke out a six-pack of Coca-Cola to celebrate and relive the evening. “Dad’s book was exciting for all of us,” Martha noted.