MILWAUKEE — Frank Aukofer retired after 40 years with the Milwaukee Journal in 2000, but said he had so much fun as a newspaper reporter in the last half of the 20th century that he wanted to share the experiences.
“Never a Slow Day,” documenting his life as a reporter and since 1989, Washington bureau chief of the Milwaukee Journal and its successor, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, was published this year by Marquette University Press.
A graduate of Messmer High School and Marquette University, Milwaukee, Aukofer, 74, a member of St. Anthony of Padua, in Falls Church, Va., covered events such as the civil rights movement, and the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., always striving for accuracy and fairness.
“I think that if I made a contribution, it was that I always tried to be as down the middle and fair and accurate as possible,” he said. “… I always thought that the real ideal for me as a reporter was to get the story right and to represent accurately the viewpoints or what the people that I was covering tried to do.”
Aukofer’s favorite time as a reporter was covering the civil rights beat from 1964 to 1969 because the issues were black and white.
“There was just no question that this was a movement that was right and long overdue,” he said.
The civil rights stories also made Aukofer feel involved. “You felt as if you were part of the movement, but you never had to compromise a journalistic principle,” he said, adding, “… there were a lot of times when it was really scary covering it, but it was also, you knew you had the best story going in the country.”
And that coverage is where Aukofer made his name, according to Howard Fibich, a former news editor and deputy managing editor of the Milwaukee Journal who retired in 1993.
Fibich knew Aukofer before Aukofer was hired as a Journal reporter and worked as a typesetter in the composing room, until Fibich’s own retirement.
“To be perfectly honest, Frank is not short of ego,” Fibich said. “He was a very competent reporter, but he wasn’t always right and there were times when we crossed swords, and when he crossed swords with other people, but I think he took his job very seriously and performed, generally, at a very high level. I have nothing but respect for Frank Aukofer.”
And Fibich’s respect was for not only Aukofer and his reporting in Milwaukee, but also for his Washington reporting.
“I think he was one of the very best people we ever had in Washington for his energy and the stories he covered,” Fibich said, describing Aukofer as “Johnny on the spot” when it came to Supreme Court cases with a Wisconsin or Milwaukee angle.
Ed and Vicky Hinshaw, both 69, of Milwaukee, who attended Aukofer’s July 27 book talk at Marquette University, miss his reporting. Ed, who worked for WTMJ radio and television, has known Aukofer since the late ‘60s through their work and involvement in the Milwaukee Press Club. To him, Aukofer’s greatest contribution was his reporting of civil rights, especially the open housing marches in Milwaukee.
“(He) was a great contributor to people understanding what was going on and beginning to get a grasp on those very complicated issues,” Ed said, adding that Aukofer’s rising to the top of the National Press Club was a remarkable achievement as well.
Vicky, who knows Aukofer through her husband, describes herself as a political junkie who misses Aukofer’s Washington, D.C. coverage.
“I always felt very safe in trusting what he was saying as being the closest anyone could possibly come to being objective,” she said. “That’s always difficult, but the best reporters are very good at it and he was always very good at it.”
Aukofer’s contributions spread across the generations, according to Richard Foster, 70, an editorial writer in the Washington bureau from 1982 to the mid-90s when Aukofer was a reporter there, since 1970, and, eventually, chief in 1989.
“He’s been an exemplary role model not only for young reporters but for all journalists,” he said. “He is hardworking. He is unflinchingly honest and honorable and that’s a terrific thing to be.”
Today, Aukofer writes a weekly automobile column called, “DriveWays,” that goes to 400 papers each week on the Scripps Howard News Service wire. It’s a job that requires a few hours of writing in exchange for free traveling in new vehicles and all expenses paid stays in five-star hotels. The itch to write the news articles he did for 40 years has disappeared, but Aukofer still loves to write and knows that his Catholic roots have had an impact on his life.
“I wouldn’t argue that my Catholic faith overtly guided anything I ever did, I mean, but I think that the principles that I learned over the years, just being a Catholic – of empathy toward others and no racism, and not judging people until you know who they are, looking at people as individuals and the whole love your neighbor thing – I guess. I think that all of that stuff must have had an influence on me,” Aukofer said. “I couldn’t point to it and I couldn’t say that I am what I am because I’m Catholic – I think that would be silly – but at the same time I think that these things influence people in very subtle ways and makes you who you are.”
His Catholic faith surfaces in the book when Aukofer describes the baptism of his grandchildren.
Aukofer and his wife, Sharlene, who will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary next year, raised four children: Juliann, 48; Matthew Patrick, 46; Mary Elizabeth (Becky), 45; and Joseph John, 42. Becky and Joseph left the Catholic faith and are evangelical Christians.
Yet, Aukofer said he could not condemn their decisions.
“As I say in the book, I’m not 100 percent convinced that the Catholics have got all the truth,” Aukofer said. “I suspect that we have pieces of it, whether you’re, again, Shinto, or whatever maybe even an atheist, maybe they have a piece of something, a piece of truth…. I’m convinced there is such a thing as an absolute truth in the universe, I just don’t know who’s got it. I suspect we all have pieces of it.”
Who can baptize?
Section 1256 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The ordinary ministers of baptism are the bishop and priest and, in the Latin Church, also the deacon. In case of necessity, anyone, even a non-baptized person, with the required intention (emphasis added), can baptize, by using the Trinitarian baptismal formula. The intention required is to will to do what the church does when she baptizes. The church finds the reason for this possibility in the universal saving will of God and the necessity of baptism for salvation.” This is based upon 1 Tm 2:4.
Because of this doubt, Aukofer baptized four of his grandchildren because he was discomforted knowing that born-again Christians don’t baptize babies. Aukofer’s parish priest, Fr. Horace Grinnell (Fr. Tuck), explained that a priest could baptize children in the Catholic church only if the parents promised to raise them Catholic, but that if Aukofer baptized his grandchildren, the baptisms would be as good as if they were done by the pope.
“So, I did it four times and it was a very meaningful, fun thing with the whole family,” Aukofer said, describing the baptisms as “cheap insurance” that protected the children just in case Catholics were right.
“…It was kind of a comfort to a grandfather, but I’m not sitting here telling you that I’m the greatest Catholic in the world, because I’m not,” Aukofer said. “…I’m that way because that’s the way I was born and so forth, but I also realize that there are tons of other people out there with different kinds of religions and I think they all got a shot.”
While Aukofer views his ability to separate beliefs from his work as a Milwaukee Journal reporter as one of his biggest contributions, he also hopes that a few articles made statements.
He wrote about his youngest son, Joseph, and his wife, Joanne, who learned halfway through their first pregnancy that the baby was most likely going to be born deformed and with health problems. There was no question that the baby would be born.
“I might disagree with the church on some things, but I don’t disagree on abortion, and I just think it’s horrible,” Aukofer said.
But the pregnancy ended in a miscarriage.
“The kids debated about what to do,” said Aukofer, grandfather of 10 grandchildren. “The hospital would take it and toss it away someplace and they said, ‘Oh, we can’t do that,’ so they bought a little, tiny coffin,” which was then shipped from Joseph and Joanne’s home in Georgia to Falls Church, where Aukofer and his wife and Joanne’s parents live.
In his article, Aukofer said he explained the order of events that celebrated the life of Baby A, whose name came from the inability to determine the baby’s sex: They had an 11-13 car funeral procession, held a burial ceremony and laid Baby A to rest on a plot owned by Joanne’s parents in a Falls Church cemetery.
“I was writing a straight story about what we did and it’s perfectly accurate,” he said, explaining that he didn’t compromise objectivity. “It’s exactly what happened but in the back of my head, I thought, ‘This will be a very good anti-abortion statement.’”