Twenty Years of the Roach Approach

This month marks the 20th anniversary of John Roach’s “Out There” column. We celebrate his tenure with a roast and toast from his colleagues, friends and family.

When I called John’s bride Diane to ask her if she had any favorite “Out There” columns from the last two decades, she said she did, and that many were housed in a collection of them John had gathered into a book and published back in 2003 called Way Out Here in the Middle.

A few days later, she dropped a copy off at my office with a note: “Dear Brennan, I flagged the special columns!” Six in all, some of the stories Diane loves most are filled with raw emotion. And they are a perfect portrait of the native son, writer, agitator, television producer, husband, father and friend we have come to know and vigorously agree or disagree with since his column debuted in the July 1992 issue. 

“The Sun Also Rises” (May 1994) shares intimate, heartbreaking details of the death of Diane and John’s nephew followed ten years later by the joyous announcement of a very unexpected new baby on the way to the same family that suffered the tragic loss. A parable of hope.



“Songs in the Key of Life” (May 1996) tackles death and dying through the relationship of daughter Maggie and her piano teacher, Sister Donna Kucenski, who was fighting cancer when she took Maggie on as pupil. In hindsight, John wondered whether Sister Donna knew on some level that Maggie would be her last student, and “sometimes felt she was pouring all she knew about music into Mags.” 

I’d never read “Athletes and Brothers” (May 1998), and in it, after I wept a little, I discovered some of the seeds of social justice that John has sowed into many of his more recent columns on the topic of race and in particular the school achievement gap. In this tale of a Wisconsin State High School Basketball tournament’s final match-up between predominantly white Middleton and mostly black Milwaukee Vincent, Milwaukee wins in the last second of the game, and in a beautifully spontaneous moment …

“The entire Milwaukee Vincent team moves now to center court. They hold aloft the golden trophy that signifies their Wisconsin schoolboy championship. And they kneel in reflection. And then one by one, the Milwaukee kids look to the Middleton kids. And they beckon them to join them.”

Diane flagged a few more columns for me, including the whirlwind and hilarious trip to Cannes for the debut of The Straight Story, the movie John co-wrote with fellow Madison native Mary Sweeney (October 1999). We’ll run all these online, along with a few of my personal favorites, those I’ve had both the pleasure amd pain of editing over the last twelve years.

As one might imagine, being John Roach’s editor does not come without its challenges. More than once I’ve called to make sure he really wanted to say that. (Usually he’s sure.) And when he sends me fan mail that begins with, “Dear John, you are the only reason I read Madison Magazine,” I am not amused. (And so he sends me more just to poke at me.)

Despite all that, or perhaps because of it, I can’t imagine publishing anyone else’s opinions and reflections on the back page of this publication.

So John, from all of us at Mad Mag, thank you for your insatiable appetite for humor and discourse, and for using your gifts to deconstruct this weird, wonderful city in the pages of your hometown mag. Write on.

– Brennan Nardi
Editor, Madison Magazine

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