Recollections: Excuse me, Mr. President
By Thom Gerretsen
Ask almost any community news reporter, and they’ll tell you about the famous people who’ve visited the places they’ve covered. After my January column about Alex Trebek, I was asked if I have a “Top 10 List” of the celebrities I’ve met during my 43 years covering local and state news in Wisconsin. The question came from fellow Marshfield journalist Pat Sternitzky, who with his wife Lisa made their own imprint on state & national farm news with their national network of state Ag Connection websites.
I’ve met five U.S. presidents – though not always when they held the office – plus seven Wisconsin governors, other well-known politicians, and numerous champions and Hall-of-Famers in four major sports. Trebek – the “Jeopardy” host who played a role in WDLB’s “Car 1450” contest around 1990 – is one of two TV celebrities I’ve interviewed along with actress Rebecca Romain. My list is longer than most, thanks to my 21 years in Marshfield’s radio newsroom and a statewide news network formerly run by WDLB’s previous owner Goetz Broadcasting. Of course, the presidents top my body of work. And in compiling this list, I’ve already been reminded that I confused one president’s appearance with another. While I remember the people, the circumstances do get hazy over the years!
President Gerald Ford – While at WPDR Radio in Portage, I covered the former Vice President’s speech in Madison after he was appointed to the presidency in the wake of Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. I crossed paths with Ford again in 1997 when he was the main speaker at a dedication ceremony for Marshfield Clinic’s Laird Center for Medical Research.
President Jimmy Carter – I covered the former Georgia governor and peanut farmer in Wausau during the third year of his only White House term. He spoke at Newman High School in March 1979 at a campaign fundraiser for former U.S. Rep. David Obey, D-Wausau. Unfortunately, he left without answering reporters’ questions.
President Ronald Reagan – I was at WPDR when the ex-California governor campaigned in DeForest for the 1976 election he lost before winning in ’80. On his way out, I asked a quick question – I forgot what it was. But I was so giddy that he answered me, I aired both my question and his 2-3 word answer the next day. When I first wrote this, I thought Reagan went through Marshfield on a campaign train in 1984. It was actually George H.W. Bush who with his family campaigned on a train across Wisconsin in 1992, just three days before he lost re-election to Bill Clinton. I didn’t cover that. Marshfield’s Gary Cummings – who reminded me of this — was the engineer on the segment from Stevens Point to Chippewa Falls.
President George H.W. Bush – He was Reagan’s Vice President when I covered a central Wisconsin campaign speech before he won his only term in 1988. Ten years later, I had one of the surprises of my life while on a green at the U.S. Women’s Open in Kohler. I was waiting to interview tournament winner Si Re Pak after a 20-hole playoff when I turned around, and “George 41” was right in front of me! He spoke at a ceremony that day to start the building of Kohler’s Whistling Straits – and I interviewed him about his love for golf. Also, I once spoke with First Lady Barbara Bush when she came to Marshfield to campaign for her husband; both were very classy and gracious.
President Bill Clinton – Before he was elected in 1992, I sat in front of a table where the then-Arkansas governor spoke at the 1987 Wisconsin Democratic Convention in Stevens Point. If he talked to reporters afterward, I missed it. This was on a Friday night, and I high-tailed it back to Marshfield to sleep and get this on WDLB the next morning. I did interview his wife Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin Rapids in ’92, almost a quarter-century before she lost her own White House bid in 2016.
That’s more than 10 notables already! More next week.