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John Smalley: Destiny called early for sports columnist Tom Oates
John Smalley: Destiny called early for sports columnist Tom Oates
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John Smalley: Destiny called early for sports columnist Tom Oates

John Smalley

John Smalley

Sometimes destiny presents itself early on in a person’s life.

When a kid grows up in Appleton and starts attending Green Bay Packers games as a 9-year-old in 1961, the year the Pack won its first NFL title under Vince Lombardi, and then thanks to Dad’s season tickets has a ringside seat for the Glory Years, when Green Bay won five NFL titles in seven years, destiny starts to take over pretty quickly.

For Tom Oates, the Appleton kid who just retired from the Wisconsin State Journal last week, that destiny was to become a sportswriter in his home state. And, really, Oatesy became the sportswriter in his home state, thanks to a marvelous 40-year career in our newsroom that was preceded by two years on the Badger Herald staff and four years at the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson.

Tom, who graduated from Appleton Xavier High School in 1970 (he played basketball and ran track) and UW-Madison in ’74, is Wisconsin personified, so much so that on those online quizzes that start with “You must be from Wisconsin if ...” one of the choices should be “... if you know who Tom Oates is.”

It’s sad for us that Oatesy’s career as our sports columnist is over after a 25-year run as one of the State Journal’s most visible figures and one of the state’s most credible voices on all things Packers, Badgers, Brewers and Bucks, among other topics. Before he started writing columns, Tom ran our preps operation for a few years, then moved to a beat writer job covering both the Packers and the UW men’s basketball team. He left an assistant sports editor role to become a full-time columnist in 1995.

It’s also sad that Tom’s departure comes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, when nearly all sports events are shut down and our newsroom is mostly empty, as staff members work remotely. When Oatesy left the newsroom last week on his last day, maybe six of us were in the room. In typical times, the full staff would have gathered for what we refer to as “awkward cake,” along with sharing of memories and toasting one of the finest sports journalists in this state or any other.

So the virus cost us that celebration. But even COVID can’t stop a column that gives Oatesy a chance to share some memories. So here goes:

Q. What did your parents think of your columns?

A. My dad died in 2008. He was Chicago Irish with the gift of gab, so he was always bragging about me and making it sound like I was Grantland Rice, Red Smith and Jim Murray all rolled into one. My mom is still kicking at 91 and ticked at COVID because she can’t go out for dinner or get her hair done. She’s not internet savvy, so she can’t read my columns.

Q. What was the first lesson you learned at the State Journal?

A. Deadlines. It was before remote computers, so I learned that the longer the ride back to the office after covering a game, the shorter the time you had to write it. You learned quickly to compose a story, or at least a lead, in your head as you were driving.

Q. What’s the best and worst part about being a sports columnist?

A. The best part is that you can write exactly how you feel and put some of yourself into the piece. You don’t have to worry about trying to be a neutral observer. My least favorite part is reading missives from readers who didn’t get the point of the column. I always consider that a failure on my part.

Q. Looking for any do-overs on a past column?

A. There is no one particular column I would have taken back. But there was rarely a column that I didn’t reread and say, “I should have made this point,” or, “I could have written this better.” I’m very self-critical.

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Q. Not everyone in your, ahem, demographic has embraced social media. How about you?

A. I like social media — especially Twitter — because it allows for good, quick communication and feedback between writers and readers. I enjoyed criticism and subsequent debate. The only thing I couldn’t accept were personal attacks. That’s when I got my Irish up.

Q. What’s changed the most about Madison since you arrived in 1970?

A. With so much growth in the suburbs, Madison feels so much bigger than it did. It has lost all of its small-town charm.

Q. Any pieces of fan feedback — pro or con — that you especially recall?

A. I like it the most when I get a missive from a fan who recognizes and appreciates my rational, analytical approach to covering sports. I’m not a knee-jerk reaction guy, which made some fans happy and some fans angry. I was just being myself. As it should be. After all, it was my column and my opinion.

Q. Can you give us a quick-hit “most memorable” list by category?

A. Single game: Super Bowl XXXI between the Packers and Patriots. So many thought the Packers would never regain that kind of glory.

Single season: The 2014-15 UW men’s basketball season. I thought UW was the best team in the country and I still do.

Athlete: Brett Favre, because he was just as entertaining off the field as he was on it.

Coach: Dick Bennett, because he showed that you can be a gentleman and still win at the highest levels.

Co-worker: Tom Mulhern. We all miss Mully to this day.

Q. Anything you’d do different if you had the chance?

A. I wouldn’t change a thing. I love Wisconsin and Wisconsin people. Never wanted to live anywhere else.

No doubt Wisconsin people love Oatesy, too. Here’s to great things ahead for Tom as his destiny continues to unfold. For 40 years on our staff, he was the genuine article, with no fluff, or puff or a need to be anything other than exactly who he was — a commonsense kid from Appleton who loved to write about sports. Well done, Tom.


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Smalley is editor of the Wisconsin State Journal: and @WSJeditor.

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