Spring 2016

…to look beyond the conventional wisdom and the oft-repeated stories to try to find the reality behind the myth. That, I believe, is the work of a journalist. If one is lucky, if might lead to a Pulitzer Prize. But more important, it will lead to truth and understanding.” –David Maraniss

This issue of On explores the subject of Excellence.  Joseph Pulitzer’s legacy has endowed the professions of journalism, photography, literature, poetry, music, and drama for the last century. The Pulitzer Prizes, awarded annually to 21 recipients, honor excellence in these areas. We are proud to be part of the centennial celebration of the Pulitzer Prize.

So, for this issue of On, we invited David Maraniss, the Associate Editor of The Washington Post who got his start as a journalist in his hometown of Madison, to reflect on the honor of being a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. 

We are also excited to share with you what all we’ll be doing, thanks to funding support from the Pulitzer Prizes Board and a long and impressive list of additional donors. As always, you are doing great work, too, as you’ll see from the list of WHC grant funded projects.

We invite you to read On.


In this issue of On:

From the Director’s Desk: Excellence

This year marks the centennial of the Pulitzer Prize.  To make the celebration a grassroots affair and to take it national, the Pulitzer folks turned to the community of state humanities councils.  Their hope – and ours – is that we use the anniversary year to inspire young people with the values represented by Pulitzer Prize-winning work.  It’s also a good opportunity for all of us to reflect on the future of journalism.

David Maraniss is a Wisconsin native and Pulitzer Prize winner who is known both for the political reporting that won him his first Pulitzer, and the obsessively researched and wonderfully told books whose subjects reveal the breadth of his curiosity.  They include biographies of figures as diverse as Vince Lombardi and Barack Obama, as well as works on the Vietnam War and the 1960 Rome Olympics, and most recently about the city of Detroit.  In this issue of ON, Maraniss kicks off our celebration of the Pulitzer Centennial by sharing lessons he learned through his reporting on Bill Clinton, for which Maraniss won the prize in 1993.

I’m also delighted that in this issue we can share photos by Gary Porter who, along with three fellow journalists at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, won a Pulitzer Prize for their series on the young boy pictured.  Doing Pulitzer-worthy reporting takes hard work, so all four journalists are joining us this year as part of our Working Lives Project, celebrating the Pulitzer Centennial by sharing stories about their careers as journalists, as well as stories they have reported.

As you’ll also read in this issue, we’re working with the Northeast Wisconsin Scholastic Press Association to encourage excellence among high school journalists.  Look for more about these students in the WHC’s blog, Humanities Booyah, in the coming months.  We’ll tell you about the Pulitzer-inspired stories that the students write and announce some Wisconsin prize winners.  Who knows?  Maybe one of them will take home a Pulitzer some day.

Dena Wortzel’s day job is as executive director of the WHC. The rest of the time she can be found wrestling hay bales, messing with animals, and watching the grass grow on her farm in Hollandale.

Featured: On Excellence 

David Maraniss is an associate editor at ‘The Washington Post’ and a three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist who won the Pulitzer for national reporting in 1993 for his newspaper coverage of then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton. He was part of ‘The Washington Post’ team that won a 2008 Pulitzer for the newspaper’s coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting.  David’s most recent book is ‘Once in A Great City: A Detroit Story.’  Other critically acclaimed books include ‘Barack Obama: The Story;’ ‘When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi;’ ‘First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton;’ ‘They Marched Into Sunlight – War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967;’ ‘Clemente – The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero;’  and ‘Rome 1960: The Summer Olympics That Stirred the World.’


David in Indonesia researching ObamaAt the time, I was the Southwest bureau chief for the Washington Post, working out of an office in the Littlefield Building on Sixth Street in Austin, a city that in so many ways reminded me of Madison, my hometown: state capital, great public university, a bit of a counterculture sensibility. The food was better in Austin, with its Tex-Mex style, and there was more music, and it was hotter all year round and spring came much earlier, which is where this story opens.

A sweet spring Friday in early April, 1993. My in-laws were visiting, and they loved to play golf, so even though it was a workday, I slipped out before lunch to play hooky on the links with my wife and her parents. When we got home five hours later, I checked the answering machine. Those were the archaic days when it was a real machine with buttons to push and a tape that played back messages. The first one was from Donald Graham, publisher of my newspaper in Washington. Oh, man, something big must have happened and I missed it, I thought to myself. I’m probably going to get fired.

It was with a feeling of trepidation that I returned his call. He asked how I was and what I was doing. I was so nervous, I uncharacteristically blabbed for five minutes about what was going on in Texas and all the stories I was working on, leaving out my time hacking around the golf course. There was a pause, then he said. “Well, I just called to tell you that you won the Pulitzer Prize.”

That was 23 years ago. I’ve been part of two other Pulitzers for the Post since then, but the first one meant the most. People still ask, what was it like? I fully understand that there are millions of people in this world who do amazing things for no reward and that prizes are arbitrary and essentially exercises in self-aggrandizement. Still, to be honest, no matter how cool and rational I tried to be, this was thrilling. For four days, until the official announcement the following week, my telltale heart pounded so hard inside my chest I thought it was giving away my secret.

I had spent the entire 1992 election year writing stories about Bill Clinton, trying to explain him from every perspective – family dysfunction, socioeconomics, geography, religion, education, politics, race, culture. My goal had been to look at the forces that shaped him as a postwar baby boomer with the idea that if (and when) he became president the readers of the Post would have a deeper understanding of his unique traits – the contradictory impulses of darkness and light, idealism and self-preservation, that explained his actions. The basic theme that came out of that was loss and recovery. When Clinton was down, you could be sure he would find a way to come back, and when he was on top, he would sow the seeds of his own demise before recovering again. From all of my reporting, I could see this defining pattern of his life.

The process through which I came to understand Clinton provided lessons that have stuck with me ever since, and that I try to impart to young journalists. To put it mildly, the newspaper business is not the same as it was when I won the Pulitzer for National Reporting in 1993 – before the internet, cell phones, 24-hour news cycles, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Snapchat, Instagram, blogging, trolling. The decline of printed newspapers is an inevitable reality of technological change. Some of us might not like it, but there is nothing we can do about it, and it is not even the most important thing. The platforms for presenting news have changed and will change even more in the next generation, but I think there are two things more important than platforms, and they must not change.

The first is the need for story. Story is how we understand the human condition and find the universal in the particular. And the second is the need for a search for truth. Not the harrumphing black and white truth that political pundits proclaim from television studios or bloggers bellow from their bedroom offices. But the hard, subtle, complicated truths that come only by going out into the world and working to find the facts.

To do that, I rely on what I call the four legs of a table. The first leg is to go there, wherever there is. For the Clinton work, that meant rooting myself in the places of his life, from Hope to Hot Springs to Fayetteville to Little Rock to Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale, and spending enough time in each that I could understand their particular geography and culture. It was a night clerk at a motel on the outskirts of Hope who told me that she was Billy Clinton’s great aunt and that she had a box up in her attic that might be of interest to me. When we looked in it, we found letters young Clinton had sent his grandmother when he was a student at Georgetown.

The second and third legs are to interview as many people as you can, as often as you can, and to search for archival documents that can capture the past with more specificity than the memories of most people can provide. And the fourth leg sounds more mystical than I mean it to be. It is to look for what is not there. By that I mean to look beyond the conventional wisdom and the oft-repeated stories to try to find the reality behind the myth.

That, I believe, is the work of a journalist. If one is lucky, it might lead to a Pulitzer Prize. But more important, it will lead to truth and understanding.


Beth Plankey, adviser for Neenah High School's Satellite, talks about how to convert to an online publication at the 2015 NEWSPA conference at UW-Oshkosh. Photo courtesy of NEWSPA.

Beth Plankey, adviser for Neenah High School’s Satellite, talks about how to convert to an online publication at the 2015 NEWSPA conference at UW-Oshkosh. Photo courtesy of NEWSPA.

Recently Funded Projects

Grants totalling $78,327 were awarded to organizations in 13 counties from June – November, 2015

Bayfield County: Washburn Heritage Association for 2016 Winter History Festival, awarded with support from the HRK Foundation

Brown County: UW-Green Bay for The Culture of Fusion

Dane County: 

Civics in Wisconsin for Project Citizen

Center for the Humanities for Journey to the West in Wisconsin

Door County: Egg Harbor Historical Society for a proposal development grant

Fond Du Lac County: Children’s Museum of Fond du Lac for Lake Sturgeon:  Shaping a Culture

Jefferson County: Friends of Lorine Niedecker, Inc. for Lorine Niedecker Wisconsin Poetry Festival

Milwaukee County: 

Greendale Public Library Foundation, Inc. for Booktoberfest 2015

Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center for The Holocaust in Global Perspective

Dr. James Cameron Legacy Foundation for White Frame/Black Frame:  The Hidden Roots of Racial Realities

ArtWorks for Milwaukee for Culture Work:  Narratives of Production in a “Post-Industrial” City

Milwaukee Public Theatre for Most Dangerous Women

Outagamie County: Lawrence University for Latino Americans:  500 Years of History and Culture

Sheboygan County: Sheboygan County Historical Research Center for Abraham and Mary Lincoln–Their World of Spiritualism and Mystery

Washburn County: Friends of Hunt Hill Audubon Sanctuary for Works of Nature – Waterworks, awarded with support from the HRK Foundation

Waukesha County:

UW-Waukesha Foundation for Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books

New Berlin Public Library for Let’s Talk Presidential Elections:  Looking Back

Winnebago County: Fit Oshkosh, Inc. for Color-Brave Community Read:  Between the World and Me

Wood County: 

Wisconsin Rapids Community Theatre for ARTi Gras 2016

Wisconsin Rapids Community Theatre for Chekov Play Reading Series

In the Spotlight


Members of the Oshkosh North yearbook staff complete a team building exercise during the 2015 NEWSPA conference at UW-Oshkosh. Courtesy of NEWSPA.

Youth Journalists Compete for Wisconsin “Pulitzer”

The Pulitzer Prize was established 100 years ago this year.  To celebrate and inspire future journalists, Wisconsin high school students are invited to participate in a local version of the Pulitzer Prize competition thanks to a grant from the Pulitzer Prize Board to the WHC.

The journalism contest will be operated by the Northeast Wisconsin Scholastic Press Association (NEWSPA).  NEWSPA, which is housed in the Department of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, sponsors an annual conference and contests, and provides other educational resources for high school journalism students and advisers.

“We are thrilled to be involved with the WHC initiative, and this grant money will allow us to create exciting opportunities for newspaper advisers around the state to gain a deeper understanding of how to reach the skills and spirits of tomorrow’s journalists,” said Trent Scott, the president of NEWSPA as well as the chair of the English Department at Oshkosh West High School and adviser to the Index, the school’s newspaper.

“Now, more than ever, our students need to understand the power of the written word, be it print or online,” Scott added.


Wisconsin Pulitzer winners offer talks as part of ShopTalk

Photo of Nic Volker and family

Photo by Gary Porter, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his part in reporting the story of Nic Volker, the young boy pictured here with his family.

Audiences around the state can learn about the working lives of four Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists thanks to a grant from the Pulitzer Prize Board.  Kathleen Gallagher, Mark Johnson, Alison Sherwood and Gary Porter won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for a series that they, and Lou Salidvar, wrote for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  The prize for explanatory reporting was awarded for a three-part series about a child who suffered from a medical condition that baffled doctors. 

The four journalists will be speaking for the WHC as members of ShopTalk, the WHC’s newly-launched presenter program that invites audiences to reflect on the experience and meaning of work in our lives.  Talks are offered in 2016 as part of the WHC’s celebration of the centennial of the Pulitzer Prize.

For information about the talks, visit the WHC’s Working Lives Project on our website and look for ShopTalk.


Nic Volker photo by Gary Porter

Photo by Gary Porter

Thank you to 2015 Donors

Anonymous, Seymour & Honorable Shirley Abrahamson, Jasmine Alinder & Aims C McGuinness III, Alan Anderson, Richard Gale Ballantine, Maurice & Sybil Better, Sue Bridwell Beckham & Richard H. Beckham, Ann Boyer, Oscar & Patricia Boldt, David Brostrom, Deborah Buffton & Stephen Minnema, Carol Cohen, Sheila Coyle, Donald Cress, Norlisha  Crawford, Erin Devlin, James & Ann DeLine, Jerry Dombraski & Helen Moslavac, Henry J Drewal, Marty Drapkin, Sally J Drew, Kathy & Kent Ehley, James & Jean Elvekrog, Joyce & Bill Erickson, The Evjue Foundation Inc., Jean S Feraca, Paulette Feld, Raul C Galvan, Russell & Suzanne Gardner, Daniel & Margaret P. Geisler, Michael A Gordon & Michele Sumara, Don Greenwood, Stan Gruszynski, Bob & Beverly  Harrington, Joan & George Hall, John L Hanson, Max & Ann Harris, Robert Hallam & Charlotte Blotz, Standish & Jane Henning, Ronnie L Hess, Steven D Herschleb, David & Victoria Hestad, Pamela S Hill, Lorne T Hillier, Michael D Holloway, Peter B Hoff, Susan & Leslie Hoffman, HRK Foundation-MAHADH Fund, HRK Foundation-MHR Foundation, CJ Hribal, Thomas C & Nancy Hunt, Carol W Iwanowski, Ronald  Jetty & Tammy Kempfert, Richard Jordan, Mary Ellen Kearney, Michael & Julie Kean, Theodore & Jan Kinnaman, James & Mary Knapp, Barbara Kohlbeck, Diane Kostecke & Nancy Ciezki, Gail & Tim Kohl, Herbert H.  Kohl, Marie Kohler, Alan Kruger & Charlotte Meyer, Janet Labrie, Marvin Lansing & Nancy Kraft, Diane Lichtenstein & Steven Diamond, Barbara Lockwood, Donna M Lorence, Nancy O. Lurie & Jodie B. Lane, Katharine C Lyall, John WW Mann, Marquette County Historical Society, Richard Magyar & Lyria Palas, Miles & Roberta Maguire, Denise Marino & Herb Paaren, Dennis & Barbara McCann, Holly McEntee, Susan McLeod, Curt Meine, Susannah S Michaels, Karla & Bill Mullen, Stephen  R. Myck, David R Newby & Kathy McElroy, Orange Tree Imports, Enaya & Islam Othman, Judith W Pierotti, Kate Pruitt, Norman Ramer, Diane Reinhard, Troy Reeves, Joseph Rodriguez, Brian & Karen Rude, Jesus & Imelda Salas, John Savagian & Diane Grace, Walter Sava, David Saetre & Janet Bewley, Bonita  Schey, Jim & Shawn Schey, Kristy Seblonka & Matthew Brown, Lawrence A Shields, James  M & Melissa Sosman, Michael J Soref & Alexandra White, Studio Northwoods, Millard & Barbara Susman, Jason Terry & Erica Hannickel, L William & Nicole Teweles, William & Carol Tennessen, Gerald Thain, Sara J Toenes, Carol & John Toussaint, Chia Youyee Vang & Tong Yang, Gerald D Viste, Ralph & Jo Wickstrom, Beth Wortzel & Jim Powell, Clarice Wortzel, Dena Wortzel, Anders Yocum & Ann Engelman, Alex Zacarias

For their generous support for the Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires Initiative, we thank the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Pulitzer Prizes Board, and Columbia University.

The Wisconsin Humanities Council is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. To make a tax-deductible donation, click here

About the ImagesNic Volker with his mother by Gary Porter

Gary Porter was on a team of journalists who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for a three-part series in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, about a child who suffered from a medical condition that baffled doctors. He is a member of our ShopTalk and is available to speak for free around the state in 2016. His talk is entitled “Looking Back through the Lens of My Life: Experiences become the Path.”