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Former Gov. Tony Earl

Former Gov. Tony Earl and Jane Nemke Earl smile on their wedding day last October.

The thing you notice is that they can't seem to stop smiling.

Maybe it's that way with most newlyweds. But it must be more true when it happens later in life, out of nowhere, when it's least expected.

"I never thought I'd have another serious relationship," Tony Earl was saying. "Much less get married."

"We know we're lucky," Jane Nemke Earl said. "What are the odds of finding this connection? One that has brought such joy? What a gift."

They were having lunch Tuesday at the Avenue Bar on East Washington Avenue, and why not? The Avenue is where it all started for Tony, 75, best known for his four years as Wisconsin governor in the 1980s, and Jane, 59, a native of tiny Hatley in Marathon County.

For that beginning, we return to late summer 2010. At that point Tony was a decade retired from the Quarles & Brady law firm but staying as busy as he cared to be, involved as always with groups like the Joyce Foundation and the Center for Clean Air Policy.

One of Tony's buddies, Denny Caneff of the River Alliance of Wisconsin, asked if he could list dinner with the former governor as an auction item to benefit the alliance. Tony agreed, and dinner at the Avenue with Tony Earl took its place in the online auction.

Jane Nemke was also friendly with Caneff. She got her undergraduate degree at UW-Madison, but apart from that had never lived in the area until 2006, when she moved here from Seattle.

She had gone to Seattle to clear her head after her long marriage ended in 2004. Jane's career was in marketing and business development, and when she came to Madison two years later, it was to work with nonprofits.

Jane wanted to support the alliance auction, but when she looked online, nothing really grabbed her. She has muscular dystrophy and walks with a cane, so some of the more rigorous outdoor items weren't feasible.

Then she spotted dinner with Tony Earl. Jane didn't know a great deal about him other than he had once been governor. But she thought, "I can eat. I can talk. I'll bid on this."

The bidding actually got a little heated, but Jane won the dinner. They met at the Avenue the night of Oct. 14, 2010. Jane asked Caneff to come along, in case it turned out she and the former governor had nothing to talk about.

They were given the prized table at the Avenue, the raised one off the bar in back. Conversation was not a problem. Denny may not have said 10 words.

"We had so much in common," Jane said.

It was true. Jane and the former Democratic governor found they had similar value systems, and both liked to laugh. They knew the back roads of Marathon County and had shared acquaintances.

"I was in law enforcement up there," Tony said, grinning. "And her uncle ran a very disreputable bar."

At the end of the night, there was a sense something out of the ordinary had happened.

Jane thought, "What a nice man."

Tony was equally smitten. Today he likes to bring up the fact that Jane is a former Marathon County Dairy Princess.

But as they left the Avenue, each wondered: What next?

Jane left a voice mail saying that if Tony ever wanted to have lunch with someone at the Avenue other than his usual cronies, he should let her know.

Before he heard that, Tony left Jane a voice mail saying that since she was from Marathon County, she must like fish fries, and he knew some good ones in Madison.

They agreed on a date, but before it happened, Jane called Tony. At their first dinner together, at the Avenue, she had arrived first and remained seated throughout dinner. Now she wanted to make sure that he understood she had a disability, that she walked with a cane.

Tony didn't hesitate. "That's something else we have in common," he said.

They did the Friday fish fry at the Stable at Quivey's Grove, and the Oakcrest on Old Middleton, and then last winter Tony invited Jane up to his childhood home of St. Ignace, Mich. She met his oldest friends and it couldn't have taken more than an hour for one of them to raise his glass and declare Jane an honorary citizen of the Upper Peninsula.

That's where they were married, Oct. 14, 2011, one year to the day after that first dinner at the Avenue.

Later this week they're headed for Florida, where Tony has season tickets for spring training. He'll be the guy with the silver beard — and the grin.

"We're giddy," Jane said.

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

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