Sunday, May 22, 2016

A Farewell To Sly’s Mom

Some of my most memorable moments as a broadcaster came during the many years that I worked with one of the best bad-boys of radio, John “Sly” Sylvester. During that span of well over a decade, with Sly dishing out the jabs and me doling out the news, Sly and I got to be pretty good friends. I got to know his family; he got to know mine. My wife and I would go to Sly’s bachelor pad and the evening often ended with Sly and me smashing something to smithereens with a sledgehammer and my wife loading me into the car and driving us home; when he came to our home for dinner, for high school and college graduation parties for our kids, or whatever, we often ended the evening by blasting unlawful fireworks off my front porch.

One night, years ago, during the days when Sly was known to take a second drink…and third, and fourth, and…well, you get the idea…the grown-ups ended the evening far too inebriated to even think about getting behind the wheel of a car. We called upon our son and his pals, who were playing video games in the lower level of our quad-level home, to take Sly back to his home.

Showing how poor one’s judgment becomes after drinking, I gave our son the keys to my Cadillac to transport Sly safely home, and one of our son’s other pals followed in Sly’s car. My son and a couple of his buddies piled into my big black Caddy with Sly, and their adventure began. I’ll never know exactly what happened on the trip between our house and Sly’s, except that apparently Sly directed the young men on some sort of detour that resulted in an odyssey that our son and his pals laughed about for years.

When my wife’s father passed away in ’06, we were sitting in the funeral home in South Holland, a far south suburb of Chicago that’s a good two and a half hours from Madison, when my wife pointed to the parking lot and said “I think that’s Sly!” Sure enough, driving a vintage Chevy station wagon that was part of his fleet of unusual vehicles, Sly emerged from behind the wheel and came in to pay his respects – a gesture we will never forget.

Although we parted ways professionally in late 2008, Sly and I have maintained our friendship, and when my cell phone rang around 9 PM the evening of April 16th, I figured he was just calling to set up a luncheon date. I was saddened when Sly told me that his mom had passed. Just as Sly is a part of our family, I became part of his family and got to know Sly’s parents.

Jack and Doris were two of the finest people I ever had the privilege to know. And now, they were both gone.

The memorial service for Doris was this past Saturday at the Good Shepherd Church off Whitney Way at Raymond Road. When we got out of our car, the first person we encountered walking toward the entrance of the church was Joe Wineke, former Assemblyman from Verona and former head of the state Democratic Party. We had a nice, short visit with Joe and then entered the church.

The place was packed with people who had come to pay tribute to Doris. The first person we saw inside was our friend Steve Bartlett, and we had a nice visit with him. Shortly after that, former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, one of Sly’s best friends, entered and we had a nice catch-up visit with Russ and talked about his campaign to get his Senate seat back from Ron Johnson. A few moments later, we encountered another old friend, U.S. Congressman Marc Pocan, and my wife and I had a long visit with him.

As I signed the guest book, the next person in line was Scot Ross, the executive director of One Wisconsin Now, the organization which is presently engaged in exposing the hypocrisy of the state’s new voter photo ID law, among other things. We had a nice, short visit. A few moments later Mayor Paul Soglin entered the crowd. Then the recently-retired head of Madison Teachers Inc., John Matthews joined the throng. Right behind him was John Nichols of The Nation and The Capital Times.

It was like a who’s who of Democratic power-people, who’d come to honor Sly and Doris.
Then we encountered a number of people my wife and I knew from our broadcasting days – “Radio” Bob Lewin, Reggie Risseeuw, Rick Schuh, and Trevor Hoffmann. Next I spotted Shawn Prebil, friend and former morning show partner during the days when some consultant-du-jour had banished Sly to afternoons.

After finally getting to the place where Sly was standing and greeting people, my wife and I had a “group hug” with Sly and gave him our condolences, and reminisced a bit. Then, so as not to monopolize his time, my wife and I went into the church and waited for the service to begin.

We had a quick visit with Robin Marohn, financial and marketing whiz and king of social media. He and I have ties that go back to our Oshkosh days. Katie Crawley-Dybevik spotted us and came over to greet us. Before she was with the Mayor’s office, she was a radio news reporter in Madison, and we reminisced about those heady days in the late ‘80’s when there were literally dozens of radio news people working at various stations around town, and the fun we had competing with each other to be the first with some scoop or other.

Just before the service started, I looked a few rows ahead of us, where UW Professor Barry Orton, a nationally respected expert on telecommunications and acquaintance of long standing, was giving me the high-sign. When he and I communicate via e-mail, he signs his message “The Other Barry at UW”, so as to make sure I won’t confuse him with Barry Alvarez.

Stepping into the aisle directly in front of us was Casey Hoff, another refugee from broadcasting, with whom I had the pleasure of working with for a couple years. Casey slogged his way through Marquette Law School and is now a highly successful defense attorney with his own practice in Sheboygan. With Casey were his lovely wife and their adorable toddler son. It was good to catch up with them.

And then I looked to my right and saw that Dylan Brogan, who was a part-time jack-of-all-trades at the radio station just before my demise, had just entered. I quickly crossed the aisle and shook his hand and congratulated him on his meteoric rise in Madison media. Dylan is now a brilliant writer and reporter, who writes for Isthmus and does the news on WORT-FM, as well as running Sly’s professional social media presence.

Then we were told to be seated, and Sly and his sister Julie came down the aisle and took their seats at the front of the congregation. Silence fell over the crowd.

Then, from behind us, came the mournful sound of the bagpipes. Madison Fire Department Lt. Ted Higgins, in full Scottish/MFD regalia, marched down the center aisle playing a dirge.

As the service got underway, the pastor made some remarks; the congregation was invited to sing along on “I’ll Fly Away” and then after a scripture reading, Sly took the microphone to eulogize his mother.

If you don’t know Sly personally, you may think of him in terms of his bad-boy image on the radio, his fiery rants, and his often over-the-top rhetoric. But those of us who know Sly personally know his deep intellect, his abiding loyalty to his friends, and encyclopedic knowledge of politics and many other topics. There’s a lot more to Sly than what might meet the ear from one of his broadcasts.

The eulogy he delivered for his mother was structured like classic Greek literature, complete with a recurring theme and wonderful personal asides and observations. He talked of his mother’s many marches, literal and figurative: to and from Milwaukee Washington High School as a student; her battle against cancer; her final journey to her eternal rest. It was one of the most beautiful, poignant, touching send-offs I’ve ever heard.

Doris, you and Jack can be proud of your son. He’s a good man, and I’m proud to say, a good friend.

Photo credit for all 3: Kathryn Forest