If Bill Foy were writing this article, it’d be a better article. He’s had a lot more practice at it.
For 38 years, Leader-Telegram (and Country Today) readers have been the beneficiaries of Bill’s writing and editing. Since September of 1983 he’s served in various roles with the paper, from copy editor to entertainment editor. Tens of thousands of editions later, Bill’s filing his final story.
In about 1979, while Bill was attending Marquette University and working part time as an editorial assistant (aka copy kid) at The Milwaukee Sentinel, the paper assigned him to cover legendary blues duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Terry and McGhee had been touring together since 1942, McGhee’s guitar playing and vocal style a perfect fit for Terry’s rhapsodic harmonica work and singing.
Twenty-two-year-old Bill watched their jaw-dropping performance from the back of a Milwaukee club, and at the show’s conclusion, approached the duo for a few quotes for his article.
“I was a nervous kid, and I didn’t quite know what to do,” Bill said. He spoke briefly to Terry and had a more extended conversation with McGhee, though after asking a rather convoluted question, the imposing musician lifted an eyebrow toward the greenhorn reporter and said, “You’re gonna have to offer me some kind of explanation for that.”
Nevertheless, the interview proceeded. At its conclusion, Bill asked, “Can I help you carry your gear?”
McGhee smiled. Now he was speaking his language.
Bill and McGhee descended into the night, the former lugging the latter’s guitar to the parking garage across the street.
“You better be careful with that,” McGhee warned, nodding toward the guitar. “That’s how I make my living.”
Bill’s interaction with McGhee stuck with him throughout his career.
“It taught me to make sure I always come prepared with questions,” Bill said. But it also taught him that musicians, and all artists, are just people. People who, on occasion, need a little help carrying their guitars.
Over the years Bill has landed interviews with any number of major entertainers (comedians Louie Anderson and Paula Poundstone, among them), though his most memorable experiences (and best-read stories) often feature artists closer to home.
In the mid-1990s, renowned jazz musician and UW-Eau Claire music professor Bob Baca invited Bill to join him in the pit orchestra at St. Paul’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts for a touring production of Broadway’s “Show Boat.” Seated alongside the musicians in the dark, Bill listened as the show burst to life by way of the music. No matter that he couldn’t see the action on the stage, Bob and the other musicians helped Bill hear the show in full.
That magical evening has long stayed with Bill, and it’s stayed with Bob also.
“I was so proud to have a person from our hometown community wanting to feel the same musical electricity as I did while performing in a 2,600 sold out crowd [at] the Ordway theater,” Baca recently shared.
Bill and Bob Baca became fast friends; their friendship forged in mutual admiration for one another’s artistry. Bill considers Baca an “inspiration,” while Baca considers Bill a “humble servant of the Eau Claire arts community.”
Bill’s humility — both in life and on the page — deserves its own headline above the fold. In the era of self-aggrandizement, Bill has always preferred to shine the spotlight on others rather than seek it out himself. It’s a lesson he learned during his early years at the Milwaukee Sentinel, when, while recounting his memorable guitar-lugging experience with Brownie McGhee, a senior editor remarked, “Don’t pontificate. Get out of the way and let [McGhee] tell the story.”
The advice stuck and proved a centerpiece throughout Bill’s career.
While his writing has long elevated artists throughout the region, his mentorship has proven equally valuable for fellow writers. Eau Claire writer-in-residence Ken Szymanski credits Bill for his first professional writing opportunities twenty-five years ago.
“I had a blast helping Bill cover Rock Fest and Country Fest. It was fun to interview some of the stars, but I appreciated how he treated local artists with just as much care and importance. And I admire how Bill never became the clichéd ‘crabby critic.’ His enthusiasm for the arts always shined through.”
After decades of writing about entertainment, Bill’s learned a few lessons about what entertains his own readers.
“They want to read about themselves,” he said. “They want to read about their friends and neighbors.” While we readers appreciate the wider world of arts, the artists we’re most excited to support are those we might run into at the gas station or the grocery store. This seems a logical conclusion given the Chippewa Valley’s uniquely collaborative spirit.
“Everybody gets along here,” Bill said, “everybody collaborates.”
Such a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats approach has served our city well, and it’s provided Bill plenty of copy over the years.
Reflecting on his career, Bill leaves the Leader-Telegram knowing that he was always in the right place, particularly behind the entertainment desk.
“I’m not someone who hunts, or fishes, or golfs,” Bill said, “I simply love the arts. And what an incredible privilege it’s been writing about them.”
But the true privilege is ours. Especially those of us who for years have been fortunate enough to read the articles beneath Bill’s byline.
If Bill Foy were writing this article, it’d be a better article. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t tried to incorporate a few of Bill’s tricks here. Most notably, by proceeding humbly in the service of celebrating a great artist. No one deserves that treatment more than Bill. And no one does it better.