Grave digger, cheese maker, bartender and amazing writer: Thoughts, insights and tips from George Hesselberg

George Hesselberg always fascinated me.

Hess, as he was affectionately known around the Wisconsin State Journal newsroom, retired from the State Journal in 2017 after 40 years at the paper, but his employment experience went far beyond that of the traditional ink-stained wretch.

According to his own recounting, he “worked as grave digger, night watchman at the Norwegian telephone company, bartender, translator at the Norwegian State Department, sign painter, stage hand, cheese maker, tin roofer.” Also, he spent his grade-school years working for the Bangor (Wisconsin) Independent, a weekly newspaper writing up the 4-H club meetings and the high school baseball games.

Hesselberg was a prolific writer and storyteller, the kind of journalist you always want to imitate for the simple reason that it would be impossible to do so.

His desk sat next to one of the few tiny windows in the newsroom, stuffed in an area away from the prying eyes of editors. His hours appeared to me to be random and his stories always called to me first when it was time to proof the first edition on night desk. The mug shot that accompanied his columns stared back at me with a confident, yet impish, smile that said to the readers, “Can you believe this?”

Even in retirement, Hesselberg continues to find those “Can you believe this?” stories that other people tend to miss. Case in point, in perusing the Sunday obituaries this week, he ran across a story of a 95-year-old man whose time in the military during World War II received only a passing mention. Hess dug in and posted his findings to Facebook:


Hesselberg explained in an email how he developed the skill of finding these kinds of stories that would otherwise have remained hidden.

“There has to be more to this,” he wrote. “What am I missing here? Does anyone else have any interest in this and why? Will this help someone figure out what happened? Then go after the details… I think I developed this to survive while on the cop beat. There were several police reporters in Madison when I started and the competition was keen. I looked for something nobody else had… I read the fine print, always. I read the legal ads, I read the obits.

Hesselberg also wrote the obits, and he did so in a way that typified what I tell students: Your story should help readers learn about someone in death that they wished they’d known about in life.

“Imagine trying to tell a reader why he or she should care about what you are writing,” he said. “Go to Facebook and search ‘Hesselberg obituaries’ I have been posting my favorites over the years. Note the majority are about ordinary people, not captains of industry. A favorite is one I wrote after riding along with the coroner to a death call and finding a suicide. Newspapers don’t write about suicides, but this one has some good elements for a young reporter to notice. There are lots of interesting details, including the very last line.”


SIDE NOTE: My favorite obit was probably the one Hess wrote for himself and placed into his own clip file in the newspaper’s morgue. Hesselberg’s detail-oriented piece included his cause of death (stabbed in the back by management) and the way he was interred (his body was found in Lake Wingra, tied to a typewriter).

A knack for locating details and a penchant for critical thinking helped Hesselberg find stories where no one else would even think to look.

“When something doesn’t make sense, it is a story,” he said. “I try to find out something that nobody else knows, about any topic, from a cop brief to a series on cemetery plot swindles. (called ‘reloads’)”

Hesselberg’s ability to write for his readers endeared generations of Madisonians to him, as he not only found those “nobody else knows” stories, but he told them in a way that connected with his audience. (“There is a fine line that should not be crossed between telling a story and lecturing the reader,” he wrote.) The State Journal’s reach spanned the state’s capital city and towns of fewer than 1,000 people, which provided him a cornucopia of people with myriad interests.

I have to remind myself that not all readers are alike,” he said. “This is one reason I liked journalism on a daily newspaper: It was filled with all manner of news written in all styles about all subjects. I try not to assume I know what a reader already knows, and that makes a reporter write simply.”

In that same vein, the big question for Hesselberg had to do with helping my readers: How can students who are just starting their career tap into their own potential like you did and tell stories that engage readers? Or, put another way, what can students do to “make it” in this field? Just like his life and his writing, his answers included a wide spectrum of insightful ideas. Enjoy:

  • “Trite, but: Ask one more question of one more person. Doesn’t cost anything to ask, ever.”
  • “I wish I could remember the name of the editor who, when I rushed in to write on deadline and was trying to convey my enthusiasm on a topic, merely said: ‘Surprise me.'”
  • (As managing editor Cliff Behnke said,) “Get the name of the dog.”
  • “Go to the scene whenever possible. Even if it is after you had to write a breaking story. You never know what you might find.”
  • “A young reporter who asks for help in understanding an issue is going to be a good reporter.”
  • “Just because something has been done one way for 30 years does not mean it should be done that way now. Find a different way. (Editor Chris) Drosner made an unwittingly brilliant move in 2010 and told me to write the Jimmy the Groundhog story, which became my favorite three-paragraph bylined story ever.”
  • “There is no cheat sheet. Also, since you asked:  Don’t wait, learn a second language and study a third.”
  • “An editor is a necessary evil.”
  • “Be nice.”

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