Remembering who "got away" in 2009

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Posted by on January 01, 2010 at 12:07:35:

Doug Moe: Remembering the Madisonians who "got away" in 2009

By DOUG MOE | Wednesday, December 30, 2009 5:00 pm

Every year at this time the New York Times publishes an issue of its Sunday magazine titled "The Lives They Lived." It's made up of short profiles of people who died in the past 12 months and is never less than fascinating.

This year's issue arrived Sunday and it contained the usual mix of famous and obscure names, including pieces on the writer Budd Schulberg; baseball pitcher Mark Fidrych; and scientist Robert Rines, who had an obsession with finding the Loch Ness monster.

My favorite story - superbly crafted by writer Michael Paterniti - told the sad tale of Travis the Chimp, the media-friendly chimpanzee who on a day in February snapped, viciously attacked a friend of his owner, and was shot dead by police.

My all-time favorite piece in "The Lives They Lived" series came nearly a decade ago when Madison author Lorrie Moore wrote on Frederic Cassidy, her UW-Madison English Department colleague and founder of the Dictionary of American Regional English, who died in June 2000.

Moore noted that the magazine had advised her not to "feel constricted by the life" in writing about Cassidy.

"But when one contemplates Fred Cassidy's life," Moore wrote, "constricted is not what one feels." In a salute to Cassidy's life's work, she continued, "Nor is crimpled. Nor is hendered.

"Not (as is said chiefly in scattered regions of the South) hardly."

Reading the issue every year, I'm reminded of some of the Madisonians, or those with Madison connections, who "got away" in the past 12 months.

In January, Wilmott Ragsdale died at 97. I took a journalism course from him in the 1970s and like many of his students thought him among the best professors on the UW-Madison campus. He lived an adventurous life, landing at Normandy as a war correspondent and climbing a mountain in Southeast Asia when he was 85.

"You can teach people the violin," Ragsdale said, when asked about teaching journalism. "Why can't you teach them journalism? Isn't journalism the craft of choosing what's interesting and stating it in a clear way? If people are interested in doing that, you can teach it."

Don Robinson, a longtime Monona Grove High School teacher, died in February at 86. Robinson was best known for his extraordinary portrayal of Scrooge in the annual CTM production of "A Christmas Carol."

Robinson's "the show must go on" panache was perhaps best evidenced after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in October 2000. Two months later he was on stage as Scrooge, the State Journal reviewer calling his performance "incandescent."

He was such a life force that it's still hard to believe David Carley, the brilliant businessman and political candidate who spent many years in Madison, died in May at 80. Two months later I was writing about the death of John Sveum, at 63. Many Madisonians knew him even if they didn't know they knew him. Sveum, a Madison radio veteran, was "the voice in the box" on the popular 1970s late night Channel 15 show "Lenny's Inferno."

I haven't had a chance yet to write anything about Mark Gates, who died Dec. 11, at 57, of lung cancer. I never met Gates in person but I spoke with him at length on the telephone in 2006 after he won a prestigious award from Publishers Weekly magazine. I was struck by his warmth, humor and enthusiasm - and I wanted his job.

The award Gates - who moved to Madison with his partner in 2002 - won was "sales rep of the year," and his job involved getting Midwestern booksellers to stock titles of the publishers he represented. It was a great job for someone who loved writers, books and the people who sell them, and Gates did.

There are many more, too many, who got away this year, and now I'm remembering one of them, the wood artist Skip Johnson, who lived near Stoughton and died in September at 81 with instructions of what to do with his ashes. He had them shot out of a cannon.

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