John Roach: Roasts and Toasts

John Roach has been writing “Out There”—Madison Magazine’s back page column—for two decades. That’s a cause to celebrate (and roast)!

Jump to Roasts by:

The Kids | The Brother | Mary Erpenbach | Vince Sweeney | Scott Klug | Judd Schemmel | Kaleem CaireJacqueline Mitchard

John Roach's familyDear Dad,

There’s no one who loves Madison quite like you do. We three in particular appreciate your love of this city, as it brought you and Mom back here to raise us. We are very thankful to have grown up in this open-minded, intelligent and beautiful town.

Over the last twenty years, your column has given you the opportunity to highlight what exactly makes Madison so great. We want to take this opportunity to detail what makes you so great.

You’ve taught us to speak our minds, and that a healthy debate is a good thing. You’ve taught us the importance of books, music, culture and history. The value of a degree from UW–Madison … even if does take seven years.

You’ve taught us the value of writing short. Incomplete. Sentences. In trying to emphasize. Your point.

We’ve also learned that when people approach us to chat about your latest controversial column—the Catholic Church, “Nails Tails,” or red flags to cross the street—it’s best to plead the fifth.

That being said, there are certain stories that we most love hearing you tell.


The story of Grandma and Grandpa Roach winning Prom King and Queen at Edgewood almost seventy years ago. Stories of you growing up on Norwood Place with five rowdy siblings. Of breaking Mom’s heart in college when you tried to make it as a rock star in Michigan. And how you came back to the city you love to marry her.

Thanks for passing down your love of this city. We are proud to call it home.

Most of all, thanks for twenty years of being a great writer. And thirty years of being a great dad.

Love,
Kate, Mags and JT

Dear John,John roach and brother james

I must admit I had my doubts. It was the ’70s, and you skipped town 
to join a rock supergroup in East Lansing. As your much younger brother, I stayed at home with my ear glued to
the transistor radio waiting for The Woolies to crack the pop charts 
and beam your music back home to Madison on WIZM-AM.

After a year or 
so, it appeared Dad was right: you needed a haircut and a real job. But you refused to get discouraged, and pursued a different artistic endeavor, writing, for which you actually had a talent. And now, for 
twenty years, you’ve been bringing a smile to the faces of those 
awaiting a root canal.


Keep on rockin’!



Brother James

mary erpenbachJohn Roach and I are going to write something together someday. Maybe a book. Maybe a script. Heck, it could be the next great feature published in this very magazine. And why are we going to do this, John and me? Because I am a glutton for punishment. For twenty years he has tortured me by scoffing at the sacred cows—my sacred cows—that roam Madison. Yet the few times that I edited his columns, I couldn’t find a single word to strike. The man is not right as often as he thinks he is. But, man, can he write.

Mary Erpenbach, writer

John, Don’t let this go to your head, but …
You’re special because you inspire and you challenge and you are not afraid to make your opinion known. You not only see things differently, but you arevince sweeny able to articulate that viewpoint in a vastly more creative and entertaining manner than most of us. That’s as true on this twentieth anniversary of writing columns for Madison Magazine as it was on the playgrounds at Blessed Sacrament or the football practice fields at Edgewood High School many decades ago. Whether we agree with you or not, we value your opinions—and we thank you for making humor part of that delivery. Don’t stop, John. Now more than ever, your beloved hometown needs that voice.

Vince Sweeney, UW–Madison

John Roach’s mailing address growing up said Madison, but I’ve always thought it should have read Killarney. John may officially be a west side Madison kid, but his essence is pure Irish. He carries the contradictions of his ancestors deep within him. If you’ve ever met John out in public you know he comes across like a force of nature with a booming personality. But his close friends know he is a shy, wild-eyed poet who loves being alone up north on the lake. And here the contradictions continue at his deliberately rustic cabin that is loaded with every new gadget hot off the Apple website. He hates to travel but he raves about his favorite overseas vacation to a rain-soaked golf course in the old sod with his dad and brothers in tow. At night the one-time frontman of a local rock band felt at home in a pub filled with fellow tenors and tall glasses of dark Guinness. John holds his kids and extended family close.

I’ve found over the years that the best way to read John’s column is to crank up a little Van Morrison, another tortured Irish writer.  I always think of John when I hear the line, “From the dark end of the street to the bright side of the road.” He sees Wisconsin and life from both sides. The struggles of a city so much more complicated than when he walked to Edgewood High School, but a place still burning bright with promise. Throughout the years John’s columns have provided us with a jaundiced, yet loving view of all things Madison, a town that often takes itself way too seriously. His address may say Dane County, but in many ways he’s much more County Cork.

Scott Klug, Foley & Lardner

judd schemmel

I first came to know John when he was my sophomore football coach at Edgewood High School. That was thirty-four years ago, and I can say without hesitation John brings the same passion to life today as he did in 1978. I’ve never known anyone as clear in his opinions and as courageous in sharing them. I admire that. Edgewood is better for John’s magnanimous contributions of time and talent as alumnus, parent and board chair. He’ll always be my coach and I’ll always be his quarterback. 

Judd Schemmel, Edgewood High School

What can I say about John Roach, my big brother from another mother; the man with the Clark Gable smile, Sammy Davis cool and George Carlin vocab;
the man who earned mad “street cred” and his “brother card” faster than Eminem and Kid Rock combined during his advocacy for the Madison Prep charter Kaleem Claireschool; the man with extraordinary insight and vast knowledge of past and current events; and Madison’s white guy who can’t jump but who I would want on my team any day of the week? John and I have great fun. He’s a man who will make you think, reflect, laugh and flip the bird at the same time. He makes us all better people. Congratulations on twenty years, my brother! Love ya.

Kaleem Caire, Urban League of Greater Madison

jacqueline michard

There are many stories I could tell about Johnny Roach, who has been my friend for a very long time. There was the time we all watched as he serenaded his wife Diane with the sweetest rendition of the old Neil Young song “Harvest Moon,” afterward commenting that one of his friends had said, “Diane’s so pretty she could be your second wife.” There was the time he helped me celebrate finding out that I didn’t have cancer by spending the middle of the day drinking whiskey sours and singing Patsy Cline songs at that hub of urban sophistication, the Echo Tap. But all those stories speak to the essential thing to me about John, more important even than how smart and successful and talented he is: he’s simply a very good man, and every day he tries anew to be a good man, a better man than he was the day before.

Jacqueline Mitchard, author

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