Wendy Bucci, daughter of MAD magazine founder, calls Madison home
William M. Gaines, her father, got a kick out of his daughter's adopted home
On Halloween nights in Madison throughout the 1980s, a few trick-or-treaters didn’t only get sweets.
When the door opened at one residence, the woman of the house gave out candy, while an older gentleman, seated just inside the door, stood and handed the little ghouls and goblins copies of a magazine.
The man had long hair swept back from his forehead — “styled only by the force of gravity,” someone once said — and a bushy white beard beneath a grin that reached his eyes when he laughed, which was often.
The magazine was MAD, and the man was William M. Gaines, its founder and publisher.
The home was owned by his daughter, Wendy Bucci, who arrived in Madison from New York City for college in 1977, intending to stay four years. Instead, she never left. Which gave her irreverent father — a legend in magazine publishing — a great excuse to get out of Manhattan in late October, Bucci’s birthday month.
“He came every Halloween,” says Bucci, who remains in Madison, having retired from teaching elementary school in Verona.
“He loved going to State Street on Halloween,” she recalls. “We’d do a variety of things. One year he judged a werewolf contest at the [now-closed bar] Stone Hearth.”
Bucci says her dad was recognized only once while handing out candy to Madison trick-or-treaters. A parent exited with his child and then rang the bell again. Gaines opened the door. “I know you!” the parent said.
How many magazine publishers are recognizable at all? When Gaines died in 1992 — 27 years before MAD announced it would cease publishing bimonthly editions of new material at the end of 2019 — his lengthy obituary in The New York Times made clear the outsized impact of MAD and its brilliant, eccentric creator.
The magazine’s “wacky brand of humor influenced everything from The National Lampoon to ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ” the Times wrote.
Gaines, the obit continued, “filled the office water cooler with wine and celebrated hitting the million mark in circulation by packing his staff off to Haiti,” where MAD had exactly one subscriber. The publisher hand-delivered a renewal notice, signed up the man’s neighbor and pronounced the trip a financial success because they’d doubled their subscription base on the island.
Bucci says that growing up in Manhattan, she and her two siblings caught only glimpses of their dad’s celebrity.
“I didn’t know who my dad was, quite honestly,” she says. “We were very grounded. Nobody was better than anyone else in this world. I had two parents who were incredible, and we turned out pretty normal.”
Bucci says she read MAD because it was always in the house, and she knew her dad was somebody when people approached him in restaurants for an autograph.
It was at a comic book convention, when Bucci was in her early teens, that it truly hit home.
“He went up and did a panel,” she says. “I sat and watched, and people were screaming and going crazy. I had no idea until that moment.”
Bucci had been accepted to Syracuse University. But then a friend’s father talked her into applying to the University of Wisconsin–Madison so his daughter would have a roommate.
When Bucci told her dad, he said, “Wisconsin? Great!” Gaines had served in the Army Air Corps at Truax Field Air National Guard Base in Madison during World War II.
Bucci met her husband, Bob Bucci — the eldest of nine children from a family in Waukesha — in the dorms at UW–Madison. They’ve now been married nearly 40 years and have three grown children and two grandsons.
Bucci began her teaching career as a substitute — it gave her flexibility while raising her own kids — then taught elementary school full time in Verona.
She was initially hesitant about teaching second grade.
“I thought, ‘This is not going to work,’” Bucci says. “‘They are not going to laugh at my jokes.’ And then I fell in love with it. They were so young and full of wonder. I loved watching them at the beginning and then seeing who they’d turned into by the end of the year.”
She gets back to New York City about once a year now, Bucci says. She took her daughters to see Bette Midler in “Hello, Dolly!” on Broadway. But it’s different, staying in hotels, her family no longer around.
When Gaines wrote her letters from New York, he addressed them with a rubber stamp that listed the city and state as “MADison, Wisconsin.”
“He loved that I was here,” Bucci says. “He loved Madison. He loved the brats and the cheese curds.”
She says she felt “relieved” when the news broke about MAD ending publication of original content in the monthly format. It was time; the magazine had changed.
Still, the last issue — December 2019 — contained a photo of Bucci’s second grandson on page 54, an honor accorded all babies in the extended Gaines family.
“MAD founder Bill Gaines’ great-grandson, Max Michael Eversoll, Born May 1 in MADison, Wisconsin,” the announcement read.
Little Max is pictured sleeping, right arm across his chest, with his middle finger extended.
“My baby picture was in there,” Bucci says. “Now there are all these great stories, and I get to tell them. How lucky can I be?”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” at madisonmagazine.com.