Business & Entrepreneurship

WAA News: Wisconsin Storytellers

WAA honors outstanding alumni at 73rd annual awards program.

Five UW-Madison alumni were honored in April with the 2009 Distinguished Alumni Awards, the highest honor bestowed by the Wisconsin Alumni Association (WAA). “We couldn’t be prouder to recognize these outstanding UW alumni,” says Paula Bonner MS’78, WAA’s president and CEO. “Whether through their successful careers or their work in promoting the university, they are all storytellers in their own way.”

The award celebrates outstanding UW-Madison graduates whose professional achievements, contributions to society, and support of the university exemplify the Wisconsin Idea.

Walt Bogdanich’s investigative reports helped expose the dark side of the cigarette industry. Noting that the UW turned him into a journalist, he said in his acceptance remarks, “I can’t help but think the tobacco companies wish I’d gone to Michigan.” Photo by Brent Nicastro.

Walt Bogdanich ’75 earned his bachelor of arts degree in political science from UW-Madison, and is now the assistant editor on the investigative desk for the New York Times. He has also worked in television journalism for 60 Minutes and the ABC news magazine Day One, where his exposé of the tobacco industry led to congressional hearings and changed the way society looks at cigarettes.

Bogdanich also sounded the alarm on issues ranging from substandard medical laboratories to toxic drugs imported from China. His hard-hitting journalism has earned him the distinction of being one of only a handful of people to win three Pulitzer Prizes, as well as four George Polk Awards, an IRE Award, and an Overseas Press Club award.

Bogdanich remains connected to campus and recently returned as a writer-in-residence in 2006, which he described as “a great opportunity for me to come back as an adult and see this campus that has meant so much to me.”

Susan and Peter Straub focused their careers on literature. Susan’s Read to Me program encourages parents to read to young children, and Peter’s horror stories scare the daylights out of grown-ups. Photo by Brent Nicastro.

Peter ’65 and Susan Bitker ’66 Straub, both graduates of the UW-Madison English department, have dedicated their lives to the importance of good literature.

As the author of eighteen novels and eight-time recipient of the Bram Stoker Award for horror fiction, Peter is one of America’s leading figures in gothic literature. His titles include Koko, Julia, Marriages, and Ghost Story, as well as The Talisman, which he co-wrote with Stephen King.

“Stories tell us how the world works,” says Peter. “They don’t just distract us, they inform and lead us. They help us organize experience. I think they are necessary to human life. Above all, you can always count on stories to tell you the truth.”

After earning her master’s in clinical social work from New York University, Susan pioneered her own award-winning program, Read to Me, which encourages parents to spend more time reading with their young children to enhance academic success later in life.

“Our society, starting with individual lives, is improved through stories and art,” says Susan. “We need a literate society, people who enjoy books, stories, and art, and it all starts with picture books.”

The Straubs are also founding members of the board of visitors for UW-Madison’s English department, and they provide support for the department’s Peter Straub Distinguished Writer-in-Residence series.

Los Angeles real estate attorney Peter Weil is a tireless advocate on behalf of the UW, both in Madison and in California. Photo by Brent Nicastro.

Soon after graduating from the UW Law School, Peter Weil ’70, JD’74 moved to Los Angeles, where he is a managing partner of Glaser, Weil, Fink, Jacobs & Shapiro, LLP, and a widely recognized expert in real estate law. Most recently, Weil became head of the legal team working on one of the largest environmentally sustainable real estate developments in history, a Las Vegas project known as CityCenter.

A tireless and driven advocate on behalf of the university, Weil and his wife, Julie, host an annual reception in Los Angeles for prospective UW-Madison students. Weil also serves on the University of Wisconsin Foundation board of directors and has lent his support to the departments of political science and history, as well as the UW Law School, the Center for Jewish Studies, the College of Letters and Science, and the American Family Children’s Hospital.

“L.A. is an interesting place: it’s still a meritocracy, the climate is great, and there are a lot of Midwesterners here — a lot of good people,” Weil says. “But my heart is still in Madison.”

An eyewitness to four decades of U.S. foreign-policy, Jean Wilkowski made some history of her own, as the first woman to head an American diplomatic mission to an African nation. Photo by Brent Nicastro.

After earning her master’s degree in journalism from UW-Madison, Jean Wilkowski MA’44 went into a career with the U.S. Foreign Service, where she developed an expertise in commercial affairs and helped negotiate the expansion of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which led to the creation of the World Trade Organization.

From 1972 to 1979, she served as ambassador to Zambia, making her the first woman to serve as a U.S. ambassador to an African nation. There, she helped change U.S. policy in southern Africa. In later years, Wilkowski continued to serve the State Department through an assignment at the United Nations, helping to organize the U.S. policy position for a world conference on science and technology. She has received six honorary degrees and published her autobiography, Abroad for Her Country, in April 2008.

“When I speak with students today,” Wilkowski says, noting the long path that took her away from classic journalism, “I often tell them: don’t expect to do what you’ve got your heart set on. I was much better prepared for journalism than I was for foreign service. But life gives you things you aren’t prepared for, and you must learn along the way.”

More information about the 2009 recipients and a video of the awards ceremony are available at

Published in the Summer 2009 issue


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