You may think you attended the best party in Madison last weekend — a graduation gathering, perhaps — but unless you were at John Montzingo’s wake, you may want to think again.
It was Saturday night at the Hilton Garden Inn in Middleton. There were drinks, of course, and then the pallbearers wheeled the casket into the ballroom. The obituary was written by Cathy Hurless and read by master of ceremonies John Porter, both old friends of Montzingo.
“He was preceded in death,” Porter read, “by his contemporaries Billy the Kid, Father Time and Alexander Graham Bell.”
Some eight or 10 eulogies followed.
After which, Montzingo climbed out of the casket, and walked to the podium with his ukulele.
This week, Montzingo — a longtime Madison advertising executive — explained that he got the idea to host his own wake about three years ago, when he left money in his will for a party for friends and family after his death.
Montzingo, 80, thought, “This is stupid. If I’m going to have a wake and pay for it, I want to be there.”
The hall was booked back in November 2012. The invites were sent this March, not without incident. One of Montzingo’s neighbors went out for the mail, read the first page of the card with the wake invitation, and began weeping. She called her husband at work and said, “John’s dead!”
Even among those who understood the premise, there were initially a few doubters. “Some people were put off by it,” Montzingo said.
But after Saturday’s event, a rollicking good time much in keeping with Montzingo’s irreverent personality, all were won over. As the evening wore on — food and a live bluegrass band followed the eulogies — people kept coming up to Montzingo and saying, “This is the greatest idea you’ve ever had.” Others said, “This is the best party I’ve ever attended.”
Guests — some 180 in all — came from across the country, Pennsylvania to Arizona.
Porter, the wake’s master of ceremonies, was in from Colorado. He and Montzingo were best man in each other’s weddings.
“We’re still trying to decide who is the best man,” Montzingo said.
Colorado is where Montzingo would fly a plane to obtain Coors beer in those distant days when it was unavailable in the East. Others made the trip for the same purpose, but Montzingo was likely the only one to do it in a military plane. He spent years in the Air Force and Air Force reserves, retiring in 1976 as a colonel.
“I hold the record for the most cases of beer aboard an F-102,” Montzingo said. “Thirty-two.”
He’d enlisted in the Air Force in 1953 after getting his draft notice. Montzingo was born in Nebraska, and moved early with his family to upstate New York. His dad was a minister.
“I don’t think he’s smiling,” Montzingo said.
Montzingo graduated from the Rome Free Academy high school in New York, got his draft notice, and joined the Air Force. “The next thing I knew I was in pre-flight in San Antonio,” he said.
Out of active service, Montzingo earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, followed by a masters in personnel management from UW-Madison. In the “obituary” read Saturday night, it was noted that during his last year at UW-Madison, Montzingo also received “a Man of the Year award from the Chadbourne women’s dorm.”
In any case, he liked the city enough to stay. Montzingo’s first thought was to remain in academia, but he quickly grew restless, leaving prior to writing his doctoral dissertation to start a consulting firm specializing in airport-related enterprises.
Before too long, “I stumbled into the advertising business,” Montzingo said.
He worked first for Marsh Smith, a colorful local ad man whose gifts were on the creative rather than the business side. Montzingo next ran the Madison office of a Milwaukee agency, and then, in 1972, Anchor Savings executive Harold Scales talked him into starting his own agency, John Montzingo Associates.
“I had the Anchor account for 20 years,” Montzingo said.
It seems fair to say that Montzingo, who has been known on occasion to take a second drink, would not have been uncomfortable in an episode of “Mad Men.”
The “obituary” read Saturday night included this: “John pursued many hobbies, all of which, with the exception of tennis, could be performed while having a drink. Wine for bridge, rum for boating, beer for golf, scotch for reading. Truly a renaissance man. He discovered a love of music, albeit with questionable lyrics, and was known to perform on his trusty ukulele for unsuspecting audiences across America.”
Montzingo and his wife, Betsy, have been married nearly 30 years. They winter in Florida. If Montzingo is known for anything more than his appreciation of a good time — many of his sentences are punctuated by laughter — it might be his luxuriant handlebar mustache. He’s had it since 1980.
As Montzingo’s casket was wheeled in Saturday night, the band played “My Way.” Someone was overheard to say, “You don’t think he’s really inside?”
Sure he was, but not for long. After the eulogies, Montzingo hopped out, grabbed his ukulele, and launched into a favorite number: “I Want to Play the Piano In a Whorehouse.”