At 87, Bill Stokes is a first-time novelist

Madison Magazine
Doug Moe

Newspaper columnist’s book worth the wait

In the end, it took 65 years, give or take.

For a guy who was great on a newspaper deadline — and no wretch who earned his ink stains in Wisconsin was ever better than Bill Stokes — this first novel thing was hard to put a period on.

“A long, long trek,” Stokes, 87, says. “Some of the writing goes back to my University of Wisconsin–Madison days in the ’50s.”

But now he has done it, and — stop the presses! — it was worth the wait.

“It’s a wonderful novel,” Marshall Cook, himself a novelist and noted writing instructor, said last month.

Margaret’s War,” to be published this month and narrated by a 15-year-old northwest Wisconsin boy named Billy, is the story of what happens when German POWs are brought to a prison camp in Barron County during World War II.

“A lot of it is from personal experience,” Stokes says. “I grew up in Barron and there was a prison camp there. I do remember seeing them.”

It is not exactly unknown — the story of the camps was told in a nonfiction book titled “Stalag Wisconsin” — but surely it is little remembered by most people today.

Stokes’ fictional rendering is filled with marvelous characters, including an oddball attorney named Cyrus M. Butler who was inspired by a colorful real-life friend of the author. More on Cyrus M. Butt — the real guy’s name — momentarily.

But first, Bill Stokes. I’m sure there are readers today unfamiliar with his byline.

Bill likes to say he owed his newspaper career to Ed Gein. A Stevens Point Journal scribe told the story of the mad killer so well that he was stolen away by the Milwaukee Sentinel. Stokes, who finished J-school in Madison, got hired in Point.

The State Journal in Madison was next. The story that earned Stokes a column — he would be a featured columnist for the rest of his career — was written after a mass monkey escape at the Henry Vilas Zoo.

The papers were filled with photos and stories, but only Stokes thought to write a piece from the vantage point of one of the monkeys, sitting high in a tree and watching the people acting strange below.

Before long, it was Stokes’ turn to get the call from Milwaukee — specifically from the Journal, the state’s biggest paper. An editor with good instincts allowed Bill to roam Wisconsin with no assignment other than finding intriguing tales to share. He delivered hundreds.

“There’s no way of describing how great that job was,” Stokes once told me.

He finished his newspaper career at the Chicago Tribune, but he didn’t stop typing. Stokes began a memoir of his newspaper days, and then at some point, after moving to a home he built on a hill outside Mazomanie, Stokes picked up his German POW novel again.

He shared a draft with Madison Magazine columnist John Roach, who was enthusiastic. But then, in 2012, at the Stokes family Thanksgiving dinner, talk turned to the nude Mazo Beach on the Wisconsin River, and Bill soon found himself writing a play with his granddaughter, Sarah Stokes. They called it “Naked at Amazo.” The play premiered at the Mazomanie Community Building in July 2014.

Still, Stokes never forgot the novel. He believed in it and wanted to see it published. The research he did to supplement his storytelling was revelatory, none more so than stumbling upon a former German POW — from the camp in Barron County! — who returned to Wisconsin and was working as a businessman on Madison’s north side when Stokes found him. The man was happy to be interviewed and showed Stokes a scar on his ankle from where he tripped on barbed wire during a POW soccer game.

And Stokes wanted to honor the memory of his late friend, Cy Butt, a brilliant, irreverent gadfly, fond of drink, who attended UW–Madison for decades. The rumor was Butt had a trust fund that paid him a handsome yearly sum provided he was in school. He lived in mortal fear of graduating. Attorney Milo Flaten claimed Butt spent 12 years in law school alone.

“He was such a character,” Stokes says, “and I delighted so in his company, that I hoped at some point to use him in a novel.”

The character of Cy Butler in “Margaret’s War,” a friend and mentor to the young narrator, Billy, is a fine tribute to Butt, just as the novel is a fine capstone to Stokes’ career.

“I’ve been at this thing such a long time,” he says, “I’m really happy that it’s finally going to see the light of day.”

Speaking for readers in Wisconsin and beyond, me too.

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