Thursday, January 22, 2009

Another Rick Whitt column

Here is a column about Rick, written by Pete Devlin, published in the Jan. 7, 2009, issue of the Door County Advocate. It is a great tribute, although a few facts are inaccurate. In particular, he married me before coming to Sturgeon Bay. We met in a speech class at UW-Madison in 1959. The rest became history. Pete Devlin and Rick were co-workers and friends in Green Bay. He writes columns for the Advocate.

Those of you who have grown up on the Door Peninsula or who have lived here for more than 40 years might remember a fellow named Rick Whitt.

I first met him when I came to work at WNFL Radio in Green Bay back in 1975. He towered several inches over my 6-foot height, and he used to walk down the halls singing, "Black socks that never get dirty, the longer I wear them, the blacker they get ..." at the top of his lungs. He once tried to control the direction of fall of a tree he was cutting down in the back yard of his home, by wrapping a rope around the tree trunk — with the other end secured to the back bumper of his old Ford van. The massive trunk fell where it wanted anyway, damaging the back of the house and pulling the van bumper out of shape. He coined the phrase "Neenah-Man-Apple-Kosh" to describe the Fox Cities that were growing into one metropolitan area 35 years ago. We in the WNFL newsroom had a flat aluminum strip about a foot long by three inches wide that we used to evenly tear apart news stories that were dispatched across the Associated Press teletype. He referred to it as "the news wrench."

He had worked Armed Forces Radio in Tripoli, Libya, in the late 1950s. Then he married the boss' daughter, a Door County girl, whom he met while working at WDOR Radio. They had five children. I remember sitting at their dinner table one time for a meal where the mashed potatoes were made with nothing but water. One child had a dairy allergy, so the whole family — and guests — ate potatoes made with water. The table topic among the half-grown children that day somehow turned toward sex. It was the first time I witnessed an open, honest dialog on the subject between parent and child. I was impressed.

He was a political liberal with a capital "L" and argued passionately on his daily talk show for helping the poor and less fortunate in our communities. Off the air, he was president of the now defunct Green Bay Welfare Commission. Mornings after commission meetings, he was generally in a sour mood after having knocked heads with fellow members over giving a homeless person a voucher for a night of lodging and a meal. The recipients needed to state their case before the whole commission, a humiliating gauntlet he believed those who were truly needy should not have to endure.

He quit WNFL, he said, because commercial radio was "becoming too political," taking a job instead managing the then student-run radio station on the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay campus. When he left that job a year later, he confessed he had no idea what politics really were until he worked in the university system. From then on, he found contentment and a paycheck behind the wheel of city buses in Green Bay, Fond du Lac and Madison, as he followed his wife's career path.

The last time I saw him was perhaps five years back at a WNFL reunion. He didn't look well. He was thin in a way that bespoke illness. He left fairly early, and we shook hands. He passed away following that long illness on Jan. 7. Ironic that I received a copy of his obituary from the Green Bay paper via e-mail from another WNFL alum — who never worked with Rick — who now lives in northern Thailand.

The paper said a memorial service was held in Madison. I didn't get there. However, he was such a memorable person, such a decent person, that I had to share my memories of him with you. And perhaps, because he still has family locally, they might find this simple column > comforting in some way.

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