In His Own Words: John Fennell
John Fennell’s first experience at Milwaukee Magazine didn’t go well. He interviewed for the editor-in-chief job and wasn’t picked. But no one told him. He was left waiting and wondering for months, only hearing through the grapevine that someone else got the job. A year later, that editor left, and the magazine came back to him and offered him the job. Thus began the longest tenure, by far, of any editor-in-chief in Milwaukee Magazine history. Fennell had the top job from 1992 to 2005, a period of relatively big budgets and ample staffing where the magazine became a journalistic force in Milwaukee and a recognized leader nationally, raking in handfuls of awards at the annual City and Regional Magazine Association convention. Fennell left to become a professor at the University of Missouri’s journalism school, where he teaches magazine journalism and runs the annual CRMA awards. This semester will be his last – he’s leading a study abroad program in London, the final chapter in his academic career. Here he looks back at the people, stories and cultural moments that defined his time at Milwaukee Magazine, which he calls “the second child I never had.”
Milwaukee Magazine: How would you characterize that period of the city’s history?
John Fennell: Milwaukee was in transition. [Former Mayor] John Norquist, whatever one can say about him, I think he was a visionary for the city. During that time, cities like Milwaukee were trying to figure out how do we energize ourselves? How do we find the money to do civic projects that make people want to stay? And I think Norquist was the beginning of all of that. That riverwalk has been a major boon for Milwaukee. You can just see it. Then the loyal corporations like Northwestern Mutual building along the lake. And you look at Harry and Betty Quadracci’s $10 million contribution to the art museum, and you see what that has spawned with Discovery World and some of the other projects along the lake. All of that started during that particular period and it was exciting.
MM: What was your biggest challenge as editor-in-chief?
JF: I had this understanding that the editor and publisher [Betty Quadracci] HAD to get along. That is just the nature of the business. There had been an attitude at the magazine that ad sales and editorial was totally church and state. I took a different approach. I’m going to communicate with her and tell her what we’re doing. … She really opened up to me and I think to other people, too. She got to trust me, and I earned that trust. And she earned mine. Early on in my time there, my wife and son, who was in grammar school at the time, stopped by to pick me up. Betty motioned my son over and asked him what kind of soda he wanted from the machine. And she gave him some popcorn. My son never forgot that. She had a real heart for children.
MM: How did you and the magazine part ways?
JF: After 13 years, if you’re an editor, you have to question yourself. Am I still effective? Are we doing the right things? Are we still on target? I began to feel like I was losing my edge, and some days, the hard days, I would walk out of there and think, I can’t do this anymore. And suddenly this opportunity came up: I got a call from the university. I didn’t expect ever to work at a university. They knew my work because they were coordinating the CRMA awards. Unknown to me, the magazine had a stellar reputation among the faculty.
MM: It’s been more than a decade since you left the magazine. How do you view the experience now?
JF: I read my final editor’s note, from August 2005. It just talks about this whole idea of Milwaukee, the lake, the stuff that was happening. I ended with, “I leave, reluctantly, with an expanded mind and a grateful heart, richer beyond words for the opportunity.” I still feel that way. I just feel very loyal to the organization. It gave me a tremendous opportunity and I hope I did well with it.
Henry W. Maier (D) was in his 24th year (!!!) as mayor of Milwaukee
Betty Quadracci took over as publisher in 1983, shortly after her family’s company, Quad/Graphics, acquired Milwaukee Magazine. She held onto that job for 30 years, until months before death in 2013. Betty stamped her identity on the publication more than anyone else, earning the trust and lasting friendships of both advertising and editorial staffers. Her hard work and visionary leadership allowed the publication to thrive, boosting advertising and circulation. She supported and in some cases demanded quality investigative and service journalism, even if it exposed uncomfortable truths about high-profile figures in the community.
Feisty, funny and endlessly supportive, Betty’s defining qualities became the defining qualities of the magazine.
Her legacy endures. As the only magazine owned by Quad/Graphics, Milwaukee Magazine continues to thrive, pumping out 12 monthly issues plus two special issues, focusing on health and weddings, annually. The August 2017 issue was one of the largest in the magazine’s history.
In a 1983 issue, we snarkily suggested that then-Journal reporter Divina Infusino was the city’s “Best Publicity Agent,” because she wouldn’t stop trumpeting the talent of a band we considered “overrated.” That band? The Violent Femmes.
Political Pendulum, then vs. now
The magazine dedicated the back page of its inaugural 1983 issue to an essay bemoaning the sorry state of the Wisconsin GOP, fresh off an electoral drubbing the previous November. Can they ever find their way out of the political wilderness, we wondered. Today, the same question applies to state Democrats, the incredible shrinking party. In a March 2017 article entitled “Washed Up,” we chronicled the swing to the right in Madison, and how that has left Milwaukee with virtually no statewide clout.
A survey in 1983 showed UW-Milwaukee top man Frank E. Horton making $71,050. Current chancellor Mark Mone rakes in $339,999, a 90-percent raise in inflation-adjusted dollars.
Stay Classy, MilMag!
Conspicuous consumption was de rigueur in the 1980s, sometimes referred to as “the greed decade.” These 1983 ads show that Milwaukee Magazine was in step with the times. Like totally.
An Exit That Lives In Infamy
Founding editor Frank Kuznik’s tenure didn’t last long. He was ousted after just a few months, replaced by a young phenom named Charlie Sykes. But Kuznik left an impression: “I had some disagreements with the sales manager, who made my life miserable in a lot of ways. So, as a parting gift. I left a fish in the ceiling above her desk. The idea was that she would come in Monday, smell the fish and quickly find it, and the prank would be over and amount to no more than an odoriferous farewell. Unfortunately that fish was not discovered until the smell had permeated the entire floor. As I recall, a staff member called me to say that one of the custodial staff finally got on a ladder and found it, and when he pulled it out of the ceiling, everybody went, ‘Oh, Frank!’
MILMAG HIT PARADE
Article: “The Education of Howard Fuller”
Published: July 1988
The Story: Basketball star at North Division High School. Student body president and first African-American graduate at Carroll College. Civil rights crusader in North Carolina. Founder of the short-lived, black-students-only Malcolm X Liberation University. Bushwalker in Mozambique using his African name, “Owusu.” That’s an incomplete list of identities explored in this profile by Tom Bamberger. Fuller’s new job as head of Milwaukee County Division of Health and Human Services was the peg for the story, which looked back at his many adventures as a leader. It also speculated about his future, and how a man who ran headlong into bitter political and racial fights could sustain his efforts. “He is one of the few people in my lifetime who will make a difference in the world. I’m just concerned he will kill himself doing it,” said a college friend.
Then What: Fuller was superintendent of schools in Milwaukee from 1991 to 1995. Since, he’s dedicated himself to school choice, advocating for voucher and charter schools as a means to even the playing field for minority kids and give central city parents options beyond public schools. He founded and runs the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University.
Article: “Murder of a Tyrant”
Published: May 2015
The Story: This page-turner chronicled the still-unsolved 1981 bow-and-arrow assassination of Karl Lotharius after he left Von Trier, the North Avenue bar he’d founded a few years before. “As he reached the backyard patio, a 30-inch, double barbed, razor-tipped wooden arrow sank into his stomach – its point and fletching protruding from opposite ends of his abdomen,” wrote Zach Brooke. Was the killer former Lotharius business associate Herbert Dolowy Jr., whom Lotharius implicated on his deathbed? Or was it Lotharius’ former lover Mark Tagatz, who killed himself six months after the murder?
The Backstory: Brooke started work on the story as a student at UW-Milwaukee, collaborating with three classmates. After graduation, the classmates moved away and Brooke remained focused, getting a big break when the FBI provided its file on Lotharius, in answer to Brooke’s public-records request. It was Brooke’s first story for the magazine, and remains his favorite. “I’m still trying to follow up,” he says, noting that a bow-and-arrow murder mystery has been a hard tale to beat.
Then What: No one has been charged in Lotharius’ killing. Von Trier remains open, an East Side institution that still bears much of the German decor hand picked for it by Lotharius, who died just four years into its now-40 years’ existence.
Article: “Marilyn’s Story”
Published: April 2001
The Story: This blockbuster of a tale told the other side of the hottest political scandal in Milwaukee – Mayor John Norquist’s sexual dalliance with staffer Marilyn Figueroa. In the 17-page opus by Mary Van de Kamp Nohl, Figueroa broke her silence, explaining the relationship less as an affair and more as a power play on Norquist’s part, with years of unwanted advances and dire threats should she ever divulge what happened. “Norquist lied to this reporter … when he said he had ‘never had any sexual relationship’” with Figueroa, wrote Nohl. It makes us think: Shades of Clinton-Lewinski, Milwaukee-style?
The Backstory: Nohl was the first reporter to win Figueroa’s trust. Their first interview, in Figueroa’s lawyer’s Madison office, went eight hours with few breaks. Figueroa spent some of it curled in the fetal position, trembling. Nohl worked 14-hour days for a week assembling the story, which blew past the deadline. When it came in, editor-in-chief John Fennell walked over the Nohl’s desk, the pages visibly shaking in his hands. “Do you know how powerful this story is?” he said.
Then What: Norquist agreed to a $375,000 settlement with Figueroa and didn’t run for re-election, moving to the Congress for the New Urbanism in Chicago. When the article came out, Wisconsin reporters tracked down a vacationing Nohl in Portugal, curious how she got Figueroa to trust her. She told them of repeated requests for the interview, with copies of previous stories. Figueroa later told her the overtures had little role in it. “It was your eyes,” Nohl recalls Figueroa telling her.
Article: “White Men Can’t Dress”
Published: May 2000
The Story: True to its title, this photo essay chronicled a previously unexplored racial disparity in Milwaukee, of the sartorial kind.
The Backstory: Photographer Tom Bamberger says he noticed the striking difference in dress between white and African-American men one year at Bastille Days. The latter dressed with style and elan. The former wore sweats. To take it further, he got permission from the Bucks to walk the concourse during halftime of two games and photograph random male fans. Working with his then-wife, Liza Redlin, they got very different reactions when approaching fans saying they’re doing a fashion story. “Black guys would say, ‘Cool’” and pose, he says, “and white guys would point at their friends and laugh.” Bamberger says it showed him journalism was not always grueling work. “In this case, it was so easy and fun,” he says.
Then What: White suburban women called after the piece ran, singing a one-word chorus: “Finally!”
AND A WORD FROM…
MILMAG’S FIRST EDITOR
“Entertaining any long-term hopes for a publishing venture is asking to be disappointed. However, if any publication had a good chance for long-term survival, it was Milwaukee Magazine after the Quadraccis bought it. The Quadraccis represented local ownership, which is key to a city magazine’s survival.”
— Frank Kuznik most recently was editor-in-chief of the Prague Post before it folded in 2013. He still lives in Prague, working as the chief classical music writer for a Czech newspaper and teaching journalism.
MILMAG’S YOUNGEST EDITOR
“It was certainly not my idea [to be editor at age 27]. Everything is because of Betty [Quadracci]. I had a wonderful relationship with her … I remember walking through that door [at age 25] and sitting next to really incredible journalists in Kurt Chandler, Mary Nohl and Ann Christenson, and being in awe that a magazine of that size was able to maintain people of their caliber on staff. Other magazines of that size were much more lifestyle focused. The journalism MilMag was able to do was so different than other mags in that tier.”
— Cristina Daglas was editor-in-chief in 2012-13 before leaving to run D Magazine in Dallas. She’s now at espn.com, where she runs the site’s NBA coverage.
The city’s concert scene used to be so much more metal. In a 2007 article, we reported on Miramar Theatre owner Bill Stace challenging Shank Hall owner Peter Jest to a boxing match. “Come on, dude,” Stace said at the time. “I’m ready to rock. You’re younger than me, you’re bigger than me, I don’t care. I’ll smack you down.”
The conflict never came to fisticuffs. And the dueling impresarios seem to have mellowed in recent years. Jest still helms Shank Hall, and Stace – who left the Miramar last year – is currently raising funds to begin remastering more than 30 years of music recordings, intent on eventually turning them over to local radio stations.
In 2008, we dubbed 88Nine the best “new radio station,” but suggested they still had some kinks to work out: “The transitions aren’t always pretty, but the station is noncommercial, plays lots of music … and its high-energy approach reaches out to the community and involves listeners.” Ten years on, the station has smoothed out those kinks and continues to excel at what it’s always done well.
A Couple of (Not-So-Average) Joes
In 2000, if you wanted a white-tablecloth dining experience, you tried to nab seats at Ristorante Bartolotta, Lake Park Bistro or Eddie Martini’s, the hottest names in town. Joe Bartolotta, then 41, was the man with the plan. Big plans. Three restaurants into building his empire, he was profiled in our May 2000 issue along with Joe DeRosa, whose then- 5-year-old ’Tosa steakhouse embodied what locals wanted in fine dining (huge cuts of meat, with servers hovering and fussing over diners).
While the Bartolotta titan-to-be grew into a recognizable local face, DeRosa stayed behind the scenes. But our readers were some of the first to know it was DeRosa who helped Bartolotta get his start as Ristorante’s first and only investor. Bartolotta clearly recalls repaying the loan: “I went to his office. [DeRosa] slid a legal pad across the table and said to me, ‘Write your number on there.’ I do that and slide it back. He looks at it and says, ‘Honestly, I expected a little bit more.’ Undaunted, Bartolotta asked DeRosa to write down the number he was expecting. “It was a dollar more,” Joe B recalls, betraying the smile in his voice. Years later, DeRosa sold Eddie Martini’s to his longtime GM and is concentrating on his casual venues like Jose’s Blue Sombrero (a ‘Tosa location is in the works)
Noting that competitors like Odd Duck and Goodkind with oft-changing menus are doing “amazing stuff,” Bartolotta says being focused on consistency worries him sometimes that “we’re not remaining fresh and current.” His business’ philosophy, spelled out 18 years ago, of sacrificing “a bit of the bottom line to buy the best available products” has not changed. What has: With 16 restos and catering facilities, “we’ve had to become a lot more business driven.” That growth has yielded a huge workforce of current and ex-staff who’ve gone on to open restaurants here and far beyond our Great Lake.
Where Are They Now?
In February 1983, we rounded up a group of locals we deemed the “83 Most Interesting People in Town.” We revisited with a few to see what they’ve been up to for the last three-and-a-half decades.
Many were stunned by the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. But Janet Boles, professor of emerita of political science at Marquette, understood that Hillary Clinton’s victory was anything but assured. When we wrote about Boles in 1983, she was an expert on the politics of the Equal Rights Amendment and sat on Ms. magazine’s advisory board. Since then, she’s received several awards for her research on elected women and public policy in Milwaukee.
Her take on the current political climate? “Women have largely achieved equal legal rights without the ERA,” she says. “Political representation has been far more elusive. The Trump presidency, however, promises a non-incremental advance – as did the Anita Hill hearings.”
H. Carl Mueller hasn’t climbed a career ladder so much as he’s run a vocational obstacle course, pivoting from Sentinel reporter to politics to assistant UW-Milwaukee chancellor, the post he held in 1983. From there, he headed Mayor John Norquist’s staff and joined a P.R. firm. “I wanted to be part of the city, and help change it for the better,” he says now.
In 1983, photographer Steven Foster was 27 and had already had a solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago and was an associate professor of art at UW-Milwaukee.
Foster’s still prolific. Since stepping down as a professor, he’s embarked on many new photography projects. He’s currently represented at The Alice Wilds, a Walker’s Point gallery.
The larger-than-life personality of Maximillion Adonnis, general manager of Giovanni’s Restaurant in 1983, was extinguished soon after. The 5’6”, 250-plus pound man with only one arm and a last name he made up (his real name was Gajewski) was gunned down in the parking lot of the restaurant, Mafioso style, in 1989. The murder remains unsolved.
Of the 83 folks in our article, John Naus, S.J., had the most interesting occupation: “priest, philosophy teacher, clown.” The late Naus was a beloved professor in 30-plus years at MU. His Philosophy of Humor course was a hit. “We could have moved the class into the Varsity Theater and filled it up,” says Beth O’Sullivan of the philosophy department. ◆