The Legacy of Betty Quadracci
Her impact on local journalism and the creation of Quad/Graphics was great -- and greatly underestimated.
It’s become a cliche, how often we declare it a “shock” when someone dies, but it truly was in the case of Betty Quadracci, the longtime publisher of Milwaukee Magazine who died at age 75. It’s not that her health was good. She was wheel-chair bound and sometimes had to take oxygen in the last years of her life, but she was so incredibly tenacious it is still impossible to imagine her passing.
She lived most of her life in the shadow of her husband Harry Quadracci, justly celebrated as the genius behind the creation of Quad/Graphics, but her role in building that company was never fully understood. Nor did most people appreciate her courage as publisher of Milwaukee Magazine.
She contracted polio as a child in the 1940s and had to be a fighter. She “almost died,” her sister Sue Ewens told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “She had to learn to walk all over again. She always tried harder than everybody else — just to make up.”
Betty used to say this was a common trait of polio survivors. And because in later life the childhood survivors of polio often get hit with the return of debilitating symptoms, her fighting spirit was challenged all the more. But she never stopped battling. As recently as four years ago she attended a Milwaukee Press Club Gridiron Dinner and stayed out till very late with me and other Milwaukee Magazine staffers. I wanted to head home for bed but she insisted we continue celebrating. To say she had a zest for life would be an understatement.
Harry was the visionary who built Quad/Graphics into one of the world’s largest printers, but Betty “provided endless encouragement – even when Harry doubted himself” her son Joel Quadracci, the current CEO of Quad/Graphics, told Fox 6. She suggested he take out a second mortgage on their home to finance the new business.
Betty once told me that she and Harry would entertain clients at their home several nights a week, often putting them up for the night. It was a key way they made sales and cemented loyalty of clients, and Betty took the lead in this. She was wonderful at socializing: remarkably gracious, a good listener who was genuinely curious about people and great at remembering names.
Betty served as the publisher of Milwaukee Magazine for more than three decades, the longest tenure of any publisher in town, and she made it possible for the magazine’s editors and writer to pursue excellence and publish hard-hitting stories (The magazine has won some 200 journalism awards under her leadership.) She loved smart people, wanted the magazine to have the most talented writers and photographers, and took pride in what she called the “sassy” style of the magazine.
And it was Betty who typically would be confronted with the complaints from powerful people in town — including friends of hers — who objected to a story. But she never backed down on an important issue.
No editor served longer under Betty than John Fennell, who was editor of Milwaukee Magazine for 13 years. Fennell served on the board of the national City and Regional Magazine Association and got to know many editors and publishers. “From that vantage point,” he once told Milwaukee Magazine, “I learned that Betty is, by far, one of the boldest and most fearless publishers in the city and regional magazine industry.”
It was Milwaukee Magazine whose reporting triggered the state lobbying scandal, with an August 1987 feature story by Paul Rix which proved that lobbyists were paying for meals, lodging and travel for legislators. Ten legislators and several lobbyists paid civil forfeitures, and one legislator and one lobbyist were convicted of multiple felonies.
Milwaukee Magazine also led the way on the Milwaukee County Pension scandal. It was first reported by me at the now defunct milwaukeeworld.com, but got little attention. My feature length story on the county pension plan in the January 2002 issue of Milwaukee Magazine soon created a media frenzy that resulted in the resignation of County Executive Tom Ament and the recall of seven supervisors.
When the issue of public funding of a new baseball stadium for the Milwaukee Brewers came up, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and its predecessor papers were hopelessly compromised, as the company had a lobbyist working the legislature to pass the bill. (The Brewers generate readership and ads for the newspaper.) People looked to Milwaukee Magazine for more critical coverage of the issue and the magazine delivered, with stories delving into the Brewer’s finances and a memorable cover story with the tagline “Take a Hike, Bud,” arguing that Bud Selig, then the Brewers’ owner, should build the new the stadium downtown.
The magazine was nominated for a national magazine award for an April 1992 story, “Bad Medicine,” by Mary Van de Kamp Nohl, exposing negligent doctors and the state’s lax oversight of them. Nohl’s January 2009 expose of puppy mill operators led to state legislation to provide tougher oversight. And the magazine’s Pressroom Confidential column reported frankly on the media in town, often driving the city’s newspaper editors crazy. It gave readers a different vantage point from which to view the news. The columnist who handled this, Jim Romenesko, went on to do a kind of pressroom confidential for the nation.
To understand Betty and Harry’s impact on local philanthropy, you need to know the history of this city. Milwaukee was always a tight-fisted town, where the wealthy did not donate much to charity and major institutions had little or no endowment money. Betty and Harry were part of a new generation of wealthy people in Milwaukee who wanted this to be a great city.
The money raised to build the Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum — some $125 million — was on a scale never before imagined, and almost none of the money came from the city’s older wealthy families. It came largely from the newly wealthy, people like venture capitalist Sheldon Lubar or Kohls Department Store executive Jay Baker and his wife, Donna Baker.
They were led by Betty and Harry, who made lead donations to both the Calatrava addition and the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s new complex of theaters built in 1987.
Betty could be outspoken, and sometimes rubbed people the wrong way. As Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele put it, “She was also never afraid to speak out when she thought something was unfair or unjust.”
The future of Milwaukee Magazine has yet to be written. Its past accomplishments and frank style of reporting are by now a matter of record, and are clearly the legacy of Betty Quadracci.
More About Community Advocates
Some readers complained that my reporting on the non-profit agency Community Advocates was incomplete and I’m inclined to agree.
I should have noted that an audit of Community Advocates by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office found some financial irregularities which Community Advocates executive director Joe Volk acknowledged and says have since been cleared up.
Community Advocates also lost a contract with Milwaukee County to run a North Side Crisis Resource Center. County audits found organizational problems, while Volk claims the issue was more about philosophical disagreements over how to run the center.
And some time after Community Advocates took over Justice 2000, some of the employees broke away to start a competitive group, Justice Point, which won funding from Milwaukee County. Volk notes that Community Advocates and Justice 2000 lost the competition for that grant but did win funding from the city for a program at the Milwaukee Municipal Court.
Finally, Volk says, while David Riemer no longer serves as executive director of Community Advocates’ Public Policy Institute, he is still on staff as a full-time senior fellow.
All of which suggests that the “growing pains” experienced by Community Advocates and alluded to in my story went considerably deeper than I suggested. But the fact remains that its budget and operations have grown remarkably in the last six years. It has suddenly become a very big player in town, and that’s newsworthy.