“Chase your dreams but always know the road that will lead you home again.” —Ziad K. Abdelnour

I chased my dreams and ultimately U.S. Highway 51 led me back home again to the North Woods, now wordsmithing at the Vilas County News-Review after a COVID-crazy season away writing downstate for the daily Journal Times in Racine.

Several seasons away actually. It was late spring — functionally early spring in the North Woods —  when I headed south for Racine in early June, and earnestly winter when I permanently returned north after Christmas, numerous 600-mile round trip extended getaway weekends to see my wife back in Boulder Junction notwithstanding.

Or, perhaps I should say I’m back home from home. If it sounds a bit crazy and confusing, well, it was, being 2020, the masked year of The Twilight Zone meets Supermarket Sweep.

Racine, the Belle City, was the home of my youth. It’s still where my folks live. For the past six months, it was the place where I hung my old school fedora after a long day pounding the keys in the second floor newsroom at 212 Fourth Street in downtown Racine. 

Returning to Racine to write for the hometown Journal Times was a season of homecoming and returning to my childhood roots as I challenged novelist Thomas Wolfe’s 1940 “You can’t go home again” counsel.

It was a chance to connect with old classmates, make some new friends, and practice my craft in the old hometown, including work on some Racine-focused local history stories I’d been eyeing for years.

Writing for the daily Journal Times was also a chance to live out a professional dream and journalistically hit for the cycle to use a baseball analogy, having spent my career in the weekly and bi-weekly newspaper realm.

As it turns out I returned home to Racine, but ultimately not to stay, thanks to a dream come true job offer from News-Review editor Gary Ridderbusch and publisher Kurt Krueger that brought me back to the North Woods, my home for the past 14 years.

“The wheel is come full circle.” —William Shakespeare

An avid reader of newspapers since my earliest recollections, learning to read by comic strips Blondie and Dagwood, Peanuts and Tumbleweeds,  and later expanding my vocabulary thanks to the  likes of famed syndicated columnists Mike Royko, Erma Bombeck and Bob Greene, I knew somewhat instinctively I wanted to be in the newspaper business, my childhood fantasies of being an unshaven South Pacific beachcomber à la Cary Grant’s Walter Eckland character in the Oscar-winning 1964 romantic comedy Father Goose notwithstanding. 

Around the age of 13 or 14, having returned home to Racine from a delightful fall Colorama visit to the North Woods, I had what I later would call a Field of Dreams moment while riding my bike,

But instead of building a ball diamond in an Iowa cornfield, I would someday be newspapering in northern Wisconsin.

Cue legendary newspaper columnist Will Rogers whispering from the other side like Shoeless Joe Jackson in “Field of Dreams” — “If you write it, they will read.”

More than four decades before author Beth Vrabel’s contemporary kid reporter The Newspaper Club juvenile literature series, I was busy  cutting my journalistic teeth as publisher, editor, reporter, graphic artist, chief cook and bottle washer for The White Birch Court News, circulation 7, compiling all the breaking news fit to print on our bucolic cul de sac.

From such humble roots I later transitioned to a new role as reporter, editorial cartoonist and business manager during my senior year for William Horlick High School’s bi-weekly Herald newspaper, my burgeoning interest in the profession heightened by the heady big league opportunity to interview Milwaukee Brewers skipper Harvey Kuenn just days after the October 1982 Milwaukee-St. Louis “Suds Series.” 

My exclusive Herald front page and center spread scoop with affable local-boy-done-good Kuenn, which earned kudos in the sports section of The Journal Times, sealed the deal. I’ve always credited Kuenn with being the true foundational inspiration for my career in the trade.

Adding to my youthful interest in pursuing print journalism as a career, television at the time offered up inspirational, if fictitious Fourth Estate role models ranging from Ed Asner’s Los Angeles Tribune city editor character in the CBS drama Lou Grant to Jack Klugman’s endearingly slovenly New York Herald sports columnist Oscar Madison character in the prolifically-rerun ABC comedy The Odd Couple. 

Additionally, the comic pages offered up Jeff MacNelley’s Shoe, which chronicled the Fourth Estate exploits of a motley crew of avian print journalists at The Treetops Tattler.

College at Marquette University followed soon afterward and I found myself writing and cartooning for the student-run Marquette Tribune newspaper, dabbling in occasional feature stories and drawing my satirical weekly comic strip Curmudgeon Hall, skewering college life with equal parts Herman, Doonesbury, The Far Side and Bloom County, with a dash of late night talk show host David Letterman’s sardonic irony thrown in for good measure.

A Curmudgeon Hall taking aim at the university’s traditional annual Christmas break tuition increase letter, spurring a good-natured O’Hara Hall response from Marquette president Father John “Buck”?Raynor, S.J., was the highlight of my collegiate journalistic career.

But the biggest takeaway from Marquette was the mentorship and friendship of adjunct professor and retired veteran Milwaukee newsman Art Olszyk, who laid upon my shoulders the mantle of responsibility for the practice of old school community journalism.

Fast forward 30 years and Olszyk’s advice has served me well at scores of newspapers and magazines in Wisconsin, Illinois and Wisconsin, most recently at The Journal Times back home in Racine, where my enduring love for journalism first started.

It’s been quite a ride, running from the low tech days of manual and electronic typewriters, light boxes, border tape, pica rulers, Xacto knives, proportion wheels and rubber cement in my early days to the computerized digital world of today’s modern, internet-connected newsroom. 

Despite the seismic changes in the industry over my career, some things haven’t changed for me — Olsyzk’s voice still ringing in my ears and an enduring love for learning new things, meeting new people and making a difference in the community.

“When life brings you full circle, pay attention. There’s a lesson there.” —Mandy Hale

It being 2020, my life made two full circles last year, first returning to Racine and then, as the year drew to close, returning to the North Woods, my longtime home.

Ever since I laid eyes on Boulder Junction as a four-year-old camper in 1969, the North Woods always felt like home, first as a multi-generational vacationer and since 2007 as a first generation North Woods resident.

Eagle River has always been an integral part of the many memories made over the years, including fond childhood memories of outings to Pleasure Island and The Big Barn Shops, watching Star Wars for the first time on the pre-multiplex big screen at the Vilas Theater in 1977, and browsing the shops on Wall Street in downtown Eagle River for vacation souvenirs.

And for me, of course, a special interest was always picking up the weekly News-Review off the newsstand, reading all the breaking North Woods news and being slack-jawed in amazement at the photographic sight of Three Lakes musician-entertainer Skip Wagner playing two trumpets simultaneously. 

And now I’m here in Eagle River writing for the News-Review, once again practicing journalism in the North Woods. A longtime dream come true yet again, now for the third time, which it’s said is the charm.

Home is where the heart is. And absence, they say,  makes the heart grow fonder. Coming full circle twice in 2020, there’s indeed a lesson to be learned.

Life takes you to unexpected places, but love brings you home.