Doomed by a tropical disease, Bill Harrington in his final years shared his gift for writing as ‘the poet of Saukville’ and the sports editor of Ozaukee Press
Saukville doesn’t have a poet laureate, but a strong case could be made that William Harrington deserves the unofficial title posthumously.
Harrington was a sports writer who nearly 70 years ago authored a 72-page volume of often folksy and sometimes moving poems titled “Whistle-Stop Poems” under the pen name Harrington Williams.
That book was published in 1947 by Ozaukee Press, just two years before Harrington died at the age of 46.
It took a bit of sleuthing by Oscar Grady Library Director Jen Gerber to thrust the largely forgotten poet back into the literary limelight.
Gerber studied history in college before settling into a career in library science. She has been the director of the Saukville library for six years.
Her link to the poet started with the donation historian Jim Peterson made to the library last year as a way of preserving a lifetime of collected local artifacts.
“There are literally thousands of items and files in the collection, and we have been slowly working our way through them piece by piece,” Gerber said.
While culling the collection and organizing the items by topic, Gerber came across a photocopy of Harrington’s book.
“I set it aside, but kept coming across references to Harrington among the many newspaper clippings Jim turned over,” she said.
“That’s when I decided to sit down and read his poems. Some of the poems are silly, but some are quite beautiful.”
To fully appreciate the significance of the written works, you have to know a little bit about Harrington’s background.
He was born in Milwaukee on March 23, 1903, and attended Marquette University before quitting school to enlist in the U.S. Navy in 1921.
Harrington spent most of his tour of duty in the Pacific. While doing rescue work in Japan following a severe earthquake, he contracted — and ultimately died from — what was reported as apoplexy, a paralyzing tropical disease also known as “sleeping sickness.”
After his discharge from the service, Harrington wrote for several national publications in New York for about a decade.
As his health began to wane, he moved to Saukville in 1936 to live with an aunt, Mayme Harrington. He spent the summers of his youth in what was at the time considered a quaint riverside community out in the country.
Harrington was hired as sports editor for Ozaukee Press. He quickly became known for his colorful prose and insightful personality profiles.
From time to time, then-editor William Schanen Jr. also published some of Harrington’s poetry.
Gerber said it was hard to ignore the humanity Harrington revealed in his poems.
“Here was this sports writer, but he wasn’t ashamed to show his sensitive side. There is a real innocence, a childlike nature that impressed me,” she said.
“He was apparently in a lot of pain all the time because of his condition, but he never let that suffering show in his writing. There was an appreciation for life.”
Much of the volume is a tribute to small-town life, including poems titled “Firemen’s Picnic,” “First Communion at St. Mary’s” and “Morning on the River.”
Harrington’s love of the outdoors is reflected in a poem titled “Lake Michigan Sailor,” while sports dominate another section of the book.
The poem “Home Town Hero” is an homage to legendary Saukville Saints baseball player Junie Dickmann — the namesake for the field in Grady Park.
Harrington also lauded the job done by his employer in the poem “Small Town Editor,” in which Bill Schanen Jr. — who founded Ozaukee Press — is described as “a modern Don Quixote … always tilting at windmills.”
That creative side was not wasted on his boss, who wrote a stirring obituary after Harrington died on April 1, 1949.
“His poems are good. His sportswriting is excellent,” Schanen wrote. “Beyond this he was an Irishman with his chin stuck way out. A man to admire because in the face of annoyance, pain and near immobility he chose to keep going.”
In the Press obituary, Schanen recalled the painful origins of the book of poetry.
“Look at him in the picture we made last year. Hardly able to walk, hardly able to write, hardly able to talk, he nevertheless smiles cheerfully,” Schanen wrote.
“The book he is holding is a collection of his poems which he laboriously typed out and which we printed just because we liked him.”
An obituary published in another newspaper called Harrington “The Poet of Saukville.”
Gerber said her favorite Harrington Williams poem is titled “Sentimental Ballad.”
It reads, in part,
“I’m tired of doing nothing in a genteel sort of way
I’m tired of being a puppet in a world of pomp and play
I’m tired of being a super in a world of sham and show
I’m tired of every blessed thing I know, you so and so:
Tonight I’ll take the long road to the land of dreams come true.”
Only two known volumes of “Whistle-Stop Poems” exist. One is owned by Ozaukee Press, the other by descendants of Junie Dickmann.
However, Gerber said the library hopes to reprint the book so the poems can be enjoyed by patrons.
“These are works that should be shared. They reflect what life was like here in the 1930s, a simpler time that so many people are looking for today,” Gerber said.
Photo Credit: Saukville library director Jen Gerber displayed one of only two copies of “Whistle-Stop Poems” known to exist.
Photo by Sam Arendt