Anyone doubting that Marc Eisen has been an inquisitive witness to recent Madison history need only note that Marshall Erdman once saved Eisen from an angry Pleasant Rowland, who noticed Eisen taking notes and wanted him thrown out of a meeting.
"She was advancing on me," Eisen was recalling Tuesday, with a chuckle.
Madison players don't get much bigger than Erdman, the late builder and developer, and Rowland, the American Girl entrepreneur.
"Both brilliant in their own way," Eisen said.
Much the same might be said of Eisen, who is leaving Isthmus this week after nearly three decades as a writer and editor at Madison's alternative weekly. He will be missed.
Eisen's longtime Isthmus colleague, Bill Lueders, had this to say: "I think Marc is responsible, more than anyone, for the credibility that Isthmus has built up with readers over the years. He's a non-ideological, no-nonsense news guy. He's not in anyone's camp, and he's not impressed by platitudes. He's genuinely curious, and he cares deeply about the community."
I go back with Eisen to 1979, when, fresh out of UW-Madison, I wrote a review of Norman Mailer's "The Executioner's Song" for Isthmus.
I got a nice note from Marc and a check for $14. "I mentioned you wouldn't get rich writing for Isthmus," he wrote.
Which was true, but credit Isthmus founder Vince O'Hern for his unblinking recognition of the fiscal realities of publishing. Many publications have come and gone in Madison over the last three decades, while Isthmus has endured and, for the most part, prospered.
But it is those fiscal realities, as newspapers struggle to identify themselves in the Internet age, that led Eisen, at 58, to "put my head on the chopping block," as he phrased it this week.
Isthmus faced staff cuts that included the editorial department. "Who is more expendable than the executive editor?" Eisen said.
Writers who appreciated the time, close attention and intelligence Eisen brought to their pieces might argue the point. I know he made me better. Isthmus' weekly deadlines provide at least a little time for editor and writer to talk about why a story works or doesn't. Marc would point out flaws in structure or pacing and do it in a way that did not leave the writer demoralized.
Maybe he learned it from being on the other end of those discussions. Born in Chicago to a working-class family, Eisen grew up in Kenosha and began his newspaper career on a small daily in West Bend.
When Eisen and his new wife, Connie Kinsella (today a top administrator at UW Health), moved to Madison in 1977, Marc took a job covering cops and courts with the Janesville Gazette. After three months, the paper asked Eisen to move to Janesville.
It was, in hindsight, a critical moment in his career. Had he moved, Eisen would likely have proceeded up the ladder of daily journalism, moving to bigger papers every few years.
Instead - because he was wild about neither the cops/court beat nor Janesville - Eisen left the Gazette and asked Fred Milverstedt, who co-founded Isthmus with O'Hern, if there might be a spot for him at the Madison weekly. Eisen had been contributing to Isthmus as a freelancer.
He was hired, and almost immediately began writing about the 1978 Wisconsin gubernatorial campaign, which included outsize personalities like David Carley and Lee Dreyfus. Eisen's writing was never flashy, but it was always well-sourced, savvy and just punchy enough. I still remember Marc's great line dispatching Bob Kasten (Dreyfus' primary opponent) by pointing out Kasten was so unaware he was having yard signs made for the general election on the day he was clobbered in the primary.
Isthmus began to grow and Eisen soon became an editor, working beside a talented staff that included Joanne Weintraub (longtime Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writer) and Bruce Murphy (editor of Milwaukee Magazine). Eisen recalls Murphy's last Isthmus piece as one of the gutsiest the paper has ever run - a skeptical look at Joel Gersmann and the finances of the Broom Street Theater, which might well have been sacred cows in the Isthmus universe, but weren't.
In the mid-1980s, Eisen left Isthmus and spent two and a half years writing for The Capital Times. O'Hern lured him back in August 1988, and Eisen has been there ever since. Friday is his last day and he is at peace with his decision: "Time to turn the page."
Isthmus will survive, in part, as Lueders notes, because of Eisen's example: "His presence at the paper has become a voice in our heads: 'Is this fair?' 'Are you sure of this?'"
Eisen's fundamental fairness might have been on Marshall Erdman's mind back in the 1990s, when he stepped between Eisen and Pleasant Rowland, when Rowland wanted to bounce Eisen from a meeting on Erdman's Middleton Hills development.
"He's OK," Erdman said.
It remains one of the few times Erdman could be accused of an understatement.
Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or firstname.lastname@example.org.