Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Remembering Neil Shively

The longtime Milwaukee Sentinel Capitol bureau chief was a true character, and an inspiration to other journalists.

By - Oct 7th, 2014 01:13 pm
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A generation of former and current Capitol elected officials, aides, lobbyists and reporters buried The Chief last week.

Neil Shively, Capitol bureau chief for the Milwaukee Sentinel from 1967 to 1992, died at his Cambridge home surrounded by family members, memories and plenty of his legendary stories about how the Capitol and its press corps used to work.

For me, Neil was always The Chief because he was my boss, mentor and friend at the Sentinel’s Madison bureau between 1988, when the Sentinel reassigned me from covering Milwaukee City Hall and sent me to Madison, and Neil’s retirement. Neil loved covering the Capitol, roaming it with a balance of small talk and questions that teased out stories. Tie loosened, sleeves rolled up, smiling, notebooks and scraps of paper spilling out of every pocket, sipping on coffee or soda through a straw, he was always prowling.

The Chief had his quirks. His constant roaming meant he was never there when an editor called, demanding “Where’s Shively?” I never knew where he was. He never filed a story early. “Neil Shively never met a deadline he couldn’t miss,” our editor observed. And I never quite understood Neil’s fixation with reporting how many new cars state government bought every year, the exact models bought and what taxpayers paid for them.

It was a different time. There is no comparison between the Capitol, and its press corps, of 1988 and 2014. Then, newspapers set the Capitol agenda. And Neil, working for the morning Sentinel, loved to “scoop” the afternoon Milwaukee Journal. The two papers merged in 1995. Now, the Internet sets the agenda , and it’s a 24/7 feed-the-beast news cycle.

In 1988, between 15 and 20 reporters scrambled, clawed and fought with other to work out of the circular second-floor Capitol pressroom. It was firetrap of stacked papers, telephones you dialed that rang constantly, typewriters and old food wrappers. But on a weekday morning last week, there were eight reporters in the pressroom – two each from the Associated Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Wisconsin State Journal and one each from The Wheeler Report and a Milwaukee TV station.

In 1988, newspapers in Green Bay, Appleton and Janesville had their own Capitol reporters. They don’t now. Back then, Madison’s afternoon newspaper, The Capital Times, aggressively covered the Capitol, battling the morning State Journal. The Capital Tiimes is now an Internet news shop with a weekly tabloid. And two wires services – the Associated Press and United Press International – had Capitol reporters. UPI closed in the 1990s.

Since there were no cell phones in 1988, there were no pressroom secrets. Everyone knew whether you were talking to a source, or telling your spouse that another story popped up, so go ahead and feed yourself and the kids.

Reporters often held on- and off-record meets with governors and legislative leaders, who frankly shared their opinions on everything. Then, being a legislator wasn’t a full-time job, so there were no armies of young staffers determined to block access to their boss. And if you had a question for a cabinet secretary in 1988, that official would call you back the same day.

By 1988, one tradition had already died.  In the 1970s, Capitol reporters would often go for afternoon drinks at the Inn on the Park bar and, if one of them had too many, your fellow reporters would cover for you – even finish your story, if necessary.

For 25 years, Neil Shively thrived in that environment. And what a run of news he covered:  Five governors. Anti-Vietnam War campus riots. Father James Groppi and protesters taking over the Assembly chamber in 1969. Then-Republican Rep. Tommy Thompson (Assembly nickname: Dr. No) emerging as the state’s only four-term governor.

Neil also usually personally oversaw the Capitol reporters’ Special Edition spring banquet, which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for UW-Madison journalism students’ scholarships. It was a “must ” event for elected officials, reporters and influence-peddling lobbyists.

Although the banquets died after Neil retired, one other tradition continued:  Noon Friday beer-and-fish-fry luncheons at the Avenue Bar with two tables of retired Capitol reporters, ex-Capitol aides and former Democratic Gov. Tony Earl.

Tom Witosky, a former investigative reporter for the Des Moines Register who is now writing a book, told this story of how Shively made reporting so winsome that Witosky chose it as his career:

Back in 1972, I had become the Madison stringer for the Sentinel, but wanted more work. So one day I decided to go up to the Madison bureau to see if they needed any help covering the Legislature. I will never forget walking into that little office full of files, piles of newspapers and several desks. Shively, dressed in his usual white shirt with the sleeves rolled-up and a loosened tie, was at this desk, feet on his typewriter, reading a report. He looked at me with that mischievous grin and asked what I wanted.

After a brief explanation, he asked if I had had a summer internship anywhere. When I told him I’d spent in the summer in Waterloo, Iowa, he smiled. “I worked in Dubuque.”  Then he said, “There is always a committee hearing to cover. Let’s see how you do.”

For the next year, I probably spent as much time in the Sentinel bureau as in my UW classes. He took time to look over my copy before I sent it in and instructed me on how to ask the right question of the right person at the right time.  

 At the end of the summer in 1973, I remember walking in to the office to tell them I had landed a job in Chicago. He took me to a nearby bar and we drank beer for an hour. He asked me how much I was going to be paid. “I am going to get $140 to start.”  Neil replied: “You young guys got it easy. I started at $95 a week.”

Neil took more time to help me than he had to. He not only showed me how to fulfill a reporter’s responsibility to the public, but how to do it with a sense of humor. He showed me that a reporter’s life was too much fun to do anything else.

For decades, newspapers used a unique symbol to let editors know the story ends here. Let’s use it one last time to honor Neil Shively and his era of Capitol journalism.

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Steven Walters is a senior producer for the non-profit WisconsinEye public affairs channel. Contact him at stevenscwalters@gmail.com

2 thoughts on “The State of Politics: Remembering Neil Shively”

  1. Joe Wineke says:

    Well done Steve. You caught his essence well.

  2. John Birkholz says:

    What a neat guy. His spirit lives on in his son, Ralph.

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