AJR  Columns
From AJR,   July/August 2000

The Milwaukee Angle   

Washington honors a journalist who steered clear of its worst aspects.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

OK, MAYBE IT WASN'T quite as grandiose as the Julius Erving Victory Tour. But it wasn't too shabby. And, anyway, I don't think Frank Aukofer can dunk.
Back when Doctor J ended his marvelous career in 1987, he didn't exit the stage quietly. As he played his final game in each city, the local basketball arena would be transformed into a shrine as fans paid tribute to perhaps the classiest person to ever play the sport.
In June, Frank Aukofer retired after reporting for 40 years for the same paper, the Milwaukee Journal and its later incarnation, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He spent 30 of those years in the paper's Washington bureau. And when he called it quits, the nation's capital took notice.
First he was honored by Wisconsin's congressional delegation. Then he got his own night at the Freedom Forum, which hosted "A Conversation with Frank Aukofer." Then it was the Senate Press Gallery's turn. Finally, Frank was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Washington chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Pretty heady stuff for a Milwaukee guy who started out working as a pressman while he was going to Marquette.
Unlike the Doc, Frank Aukofer was never a superstar. And that's the beauty part of the big sendoff.
In a city with a press corps full of Big Feet and Big Mouths, Frank was a working stiff‹and that's meant as a compliment. Frank didn't cover the White House or run a major bureau or write a column or brawl in the TV pundit melees. He was a generalist for a regional paper. Sure, he covered a war and a couple of impeachment efforts along the way, but he spent a lot of time pursuing the local angle, tailoring Washington news for a local audience.
I got to know Frank in 1988, when I became the Journal's assistant managing editor for news. My main mission was overseeing the Sunday paper, which was the company's cash cow, and the front page during the week. But I also handled the Washington bureau.
Frank and I clicked from the start. I loved his savvy and his enthusiasm. Pretty soon we settled into a rhythm: Each week we'd come up with a subject with a strong Milwaukee angle or a Wisconsin angle or a Midwest angle or something we just thought was cool, and by the time the dust settled, Frank's takeout would be on page one on Sunday.
What I particularly liked was when I called him on Saturday afternoon--to update the story or pursue something I hadn't thought of until then--there was never a minute's hesitation. If there was something that would make the story better, no problem. Let's do it.
Part of Frank's charm is that he is completely grounded. He reminded me so much of some of the reporters I met when I broke into the business in the mid-'60s. They didn't see themselves as players, as people whose role was to change the world. They told stories.
Make no mistake: Frank is a world-class schmoozer (if there were such a thing, he doubtless would have been inducted into the Schmooze Hall of Fame years before he made it into the SPJ pantheon), and he has been an active participant on the Washington scene. He served as president of the National Press Club and the National Press Foundation, and he was a member of the Gridiron Club, the ultimate sign of Washington insiderness.
And it affected him not at all. He was the same guy who had operated a Linotype machine in Milwaukee.
All of the Aukofer aspects (except for the retro jokes) were on display at the Freedom Forum event. Frank the family guy: There were Aukofers everywhere, children, grandchildren, sisters, you name it. Frank the Washington guy: Bob Novak, former Rep. Robert Kastenmeier, newspaper lawyer to the stars Dick Schmidt, Hearst D.C. Bureau Chief Chuck Lewis were on hand. Frank the Milwaukee guy: The Journal Sentinel brass was out in force.
During the Conversation--Frank was interviewed by Freedom Forum Chairman Charles Overby and Journal Editor Marty Kaiser--the Aukofer persona was evident. No pompous pronouncements, no self-importance, just smart, solid, sensible answers. And what was best was a very non-Washington characteristic: When asked a question that he didn't feel fully qualified to respond to, as when he was asked to rate the presidents who had served during the Aukofer era, Frank gently demurred.
Near the end, Frank was asked how he managed to remain so energized after all the years in the business. Simple, he answered. There's nothing quite like the good story.