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Farewell, Roger Axtell

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Frank Schultz
February 27, 2012

You meet a lot of people if you cover news in a small town for more than 20 years. One of the nicest people I have met in my time in Janesville was Roger Axtell. He could do what Rudyard Kipling once advised in his poem “If.” He could “walk with kings—nor lose the common touch.”

Roger was a smart guy and an accomplished guy, who spent a career expanding the global reach of the Parker Pen Company. He later wrote books to advise international business travelers how to stay away from cultural blunders. The books made headlines and landed him spots on TV shows. But Roger never made a big deal out of all that, even though he was proud of it and would tell you about it if you asked. Somehow, he remained humble, and he treated me and so many others with a profound respect.

Roger walked with a lot of bigwigs, from Wisconsin governors to an astronaut. He shared stages with Merv Griffin, Nancy Sinatra, John Major when he was the former prime minister of Great Britain and Alexander Haig when he was the former U.S. secretary of state. He once was in the green room of David Letterman’s show, waiting to go on. Connie Chung, the TV newswoman, was on before him. Letterman and Chung had so much fun as they competed to crack two walnuts in their fists that they used up all the time that was supposed to be Roger’s.

The producer apologized and said he would have Roger back another time, but he never did, Roger reports.

I know this story because Roger wrote it for me. Last August, he sent me a fat envelope full of details about himself. “… I wanted to give you some boring and certainly immodest information about my life for your obit file,” he wrote.

“Obit” is newspaper talk (and probably funeral director talk) for obituary. Roger was 80, and like most people of that age, he had contemplated his own demise, which occurred, unexpectedly, this past Sunday.

I was lucky enough to be chosen to write Roger’s obituary story. You can read in Tuesday’s Gazette. Roger’s notes came in handy, but like all the obituary stories I have ever written, it couldn’t do its subject justice. It’s a sketch of a life, an outline for what could have been a book, and not a complete outline, at that.

Roger wrote about his accomplishments and awards, and there were many. He also included a couple of anecdotes about his life as a public speaker and author. Newspaper reporters, he knew, consider a pithy anecdote akin to gold.

Here’s one more anecdote. This is in his own words. It’s about one of the times he appeared on “Good Morning America”:

“I checked into their designated hotel, the Riga Royale, the night before, where the desk clerk greeted me with enthusiasm, saying, ‘Oh, you’re booked in the Good Morning America Suite! While you’re here, you’re supposed to just sign for anything you want. And your chauffer will be picking you up at 5:45 a.m. tomorrow.’

“Impressed, I said, ‘Very nice. Thank you.’ I turned away and heard the other clerk whisper, ‘Who was that?’ The first one replied, ‘Oh, that was nobody.’”

That was typical Roger, with the self-deprecating humor. But Roger, you were somebody. Thanks for the memories, and all the stories. I wish I had spent more time with you.



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