Doug Moe: Former columnist Stokes still wants to write, even as 80 approaches

Wisconsin State Journal

The house sits on a hill outside Mazomanie, with a lot of glass and what the owner, who built it, calls the best view in Dane County.

The afternoon of Sept. 11, the house will host a party, not that the owner wanted it, necessarily, but his wife and kids insisted. Friends are invited to stop by to mark the occasion, and it is an occasion. On Sept. 11, Bill Stokes, home owner and gifted writer, turns 80.

“A brutal fact,” Stokes was saying Tuesday. “But what are you going to do?”

If you’re Bill Stokes — maybe the best newspaper columnist the state of Wisconsin ever produced — what you do is take time to visit with friends, and then get back to the novel you’ve been writing for a decade and thinking about for 50 years.

Stokes has set the manuscript aside more than once — most recently, to work on a memoir of his years in newspapers — but it refuses to leave his imagination.

Back in January, when Stokes and the novel were in a period of separation, Bill thought he might benefit from some outside counsel.

He sent a note to John Roach, the local writer and producer, whom he knew casually.

“You have never done anything decent for me in your whole life,” Stokes wrote. He suggested Roach remedy that circumstance by reading and commenting on his manuscript.

Roach said he’d be glad to read it, and Stokes dropped off a copy at Roach’s office. Two months passed, and then two more.

Roach sent Stokes a note. “Weren’t you going to get me your novel?”

Stokes sent along another copy, which Roach actually received, and the two met for a beer. Roach was enthusiastic about the novel, which is set in Barron County — where Stokes was raised — during World War II and involves German POWs being held at a camp in the county.

The encouragement got Stokes going again. Lately he’s been doing some rewriting and polishing on the novel, which is titled “Margaret’s War.” He won’t finish before his birthday, but he seems confident he will finish.

One of the book’s main characters is based on Cy Butt, a colorful eccentric Stokes met in Madison early in his newspaper career.

Stokes has long said he owes his reporting career to the serial killer Ed Gein. A Stevens Point Journal writer detailed Gein’s ghoulish behavior so well that the Milwaukee Sentinel called. Stokes, fresh out of UW-Madison, was tapped for the opening in Stevens Point. From Point, he came to the Wisconsin State Journal.

It was in Madison that Stokes’ talent flourished. He was a natural storyteller with an affinity for oddballs, and creative enough when the monkeys escaped from the Vilas Zoo to produce a piece that landed him a column.

Stokes wrote his zoo escape story from the point of view of a monkey in the top of a tree, watching the humans acting strangely beneath him.

Stokes was eventually lured to the Milwaukee Journal, where he spent a decade, filing feature dispatches from around the state. There was rarely a direct assignment. Stokes would just point his car one direction or another and hope to bump into something interesting. Inevitably, he did. Bill once told me “there’s no way of describing how great that job was.”

His last newspaper stop, another step up, was at the Chicago Tribune. It was never a perfect fit — Stokes was still based in Wisconsin — but Bill produced good work in a variety of roles at the Tribune.

Stokes had survived a heart attack while at the Tribune, but his beloved wife, Betty, mother of his five children, couldn’t beat the cancer that eventually took her life in 1999.

Together with his kids, Bill then built the house outside Mazo. It was a labor of love, and therapy, too. There were offbeat touches like a tree in the atrium. Finished, it was beautiful. Bill had always wanted to face the sunset, and now he did.

For the last nine years, Stokes has lived there with his second wife, Patricia. They had dated in college and reconnected after Betty’s death.

Stokes is part of a regular lunch group of old reporters and pols who meet Fridays at the Avenue Bar. They talk smart and then Bill drives home and works on his novel or the newspaper memoir.

The party a week from Sunday was his wife’s idea. Pat spent many years teaching elementary school in Deerfield.

“She treats me like a second-grader,” Bill said. “I respond in kind.”

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