Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Personal Remembrance of Sharyn Wisniewski

I first saw notice of Sharyn’s death in a post on Facebook, and thought “that can’t be right; she’s way too young”. Sharyn died of brain cancer Thursday, and she was only 62.

Through the course of my former career as a news anchor, I spoke with Sharyn on the phone hundreds of times, chasing news stories.  For many years, Sharyn was then-County Exec Kathleen Falk’s executive assistant, and for several years after that, she was the marketing director and official spokesperson for the Dane County Regional Airport.

The County Exec’s office and the airport: a couple places where news frequently happens, and I encountered few people as thoroughly professional as Sharyn in dealing with the media.  After a number of years speaking with her in an official sense (news gatherer to news source), I finally met her in person at some social function.  It’s not unusual for radio news anchors to never actually meet in person people they speak with frequently.  Reporters do; they get out into the field and stick microphones and cameras in people’s faces; anchors pretty much live in the studio, and when pressed into service chasing breaking news, they do their interviews on the phone.

You used to be able to spot a rookie radio or TV news reporter or anchor in Madison easily, because they’d mispronounce her name.  Sharyn pronounced it the Polish way – wis-NESS-kee (although I suppose the true Polish pronunciation would be closer to “vis-NYEF-skee”).  Rookies would mispronounce it the American way, wis-NEW-skee.  That usually happened only once, until someone who’d been around a while heard the mistake and corrected the rookie.

Of the hundreds of “official” conversations I had with Sharyn, I remember only one in particular.  It was several years ago. Something happened to some Midwest Airlines passenger jet at the Dane County airport; I don’t even remember the specifics, but I seem to recall the cabin filled with smoke after the plane landed and firefighters were on the scene as they hustled people off the plane.

Newsrooms have a lot of “secret phone numbers” where they can get in touch directly with news sources without going through switchboards or layers of gatekeepers.  I heard about the incident on the scanner and called Sharyn’s secret direct number and she picked up the phone right away.  I said “Sharyn, this is Tim at MidWest, what’s going on?”

A bit of explanation here.  When I was on anchor duty in the newsroom after 9 AM, I was responsible for news for all the radio stations in the building – which, back then, was 7: WTDY, Magic 98, Q-106, The Lake, WJJO-FM, The Tux, and LaMovida.  If there was breaking news, I’d get it on all the stations, either by going on the air live with the individual station’s on-air personality or by recording a news bulletin audio file which would go on the air in the next “break” on the station.  So, rather than identify myself with call letters, like “This is Tim from WTDY” or “This is Tim from Q-106”, I‘d just say “This is Tim from MidWest” – as in MidWest Family Broadcast Group.

Anyway – to continue the story, after I identified myself as “Tim at MidWest”,  Sharyn said “Good morning, Tim”, and began a recitation of very specific information – the airplane’s flight number, the type of equipment (what kind of airplane it is), the number of people on board, and the level of response from the fire department.

Suddenly it dawned on me that Sharyn thought she was talking to Tim Hoeksema, Chairman of the Board of Midwest Airlines, who would also have identified himself to her as “Tim from Midwest”.

I interrupted her and said “Sharyn, this is Tim Morrissey from the MidWest Family group of radio stations, not Tim Hoeksema of Midwest Airlines”.  We had a good laugh together about the unusual coincidence, and I told her all I needed to know right now is whether anybody was hurt and if there was any danger to people at the airport. I said she’d already provided all the other stuff I needed to know to write and deliver a news bulletin.

I told her I knew she was going to be very busy, and that I’d get off the phone so she could take other calls.  She laughed again, and said “next time there’s something involving Midwest Airlines, just identify yourself as ‘Radio Tim’ right away”. 

I know I spoke with Sharyn many more times after that incident; but I’ll always remember the “Tim from MidWest” story.  What a wonderful, professional, and friendly person she was.  I’m sad that she’s gone so young.


  1. Tim....great tribute..thank you and yes she was too young!

  2. Any who may doubt it could be so will surely find this fine eulogy confounding, because it suggests that people can be ethical and treat each other with respect, even trust, and the world will still work. It should occur far more often, but that it does not speaks to the quality of those involved when it does. Gotcha journalists and reactionaries take note (As if).

    It is dismaying to lose such good people so soon.