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Wisconsin State Farmer's Bill Beckman passes away

Jan Shepel
World Dairy Expo 2014 was a milestone for Wisconsin State Farmer’s man in the booth, Bill Beckman. That fall he marked 20 years of working the booth for the newspaper and he retired soon after. He died last week, at age 87, and will be sorely missed by the newspaper’s family.

LAKE MILLS - For two decades, Wisconsin State Farmer subscribers were greeted at farm shows by Bill Beckman. They were familiar with his hearty laugh, his quips and jokes and call of “How ya doin? Grab a paper.” He was a friend to all he met and claimed to never forget a face.

This week, we bid farewell to Bill, 87, who died on April 19, after a hard-fought battle with pancreatic cancer. He was laid to rest April 22 with military graveside rites and bagpipe music.

In the fall of 2014, Bill marked his 20th year of attending shows and encouraging farmers to sign up for (or renew) their subscription to the paper. He figured he had handed out as many as 100,000 copies of the farm weekly at shows.

Beckman got started as the booth representative right after he had been an advertising sales representative for another agricultural weekly newspaper The Country Today. Bill and I got to be good friends during that time when we both worked there. That friendship continued when he began as the “booth ambassador” for Wisconsin State Farmer. He cared about the paper and its people long after he had retired from the booth.

He kept in touch frequently, wanting to know how the farm shows had gone, forwarding ideas on how the paper looked and asking about the changes at the newspaper over the past few years.

Goodwill ambassador

Despite the fact that Beckman had been in competition for advertisers those many years ago, he had gotten to be good friends with Tom Barton, who was a sales representative and then sales manager for Wisconsin State Farmer. When Bill retired from working for the competition, he and his wife Marianne began handling the booth at nine farm shows a year.

When I interviewed him on his 20th anniversary as “the man in the booth” for this newspaper, he said he had jumped at the opportunity to get out and meet people – especially farm people.

“I have always been really impressed with them,” he said of the salt-of-the-earth farmers. “If they tell you it’s going to snow on Aug. 1 you’d better get out your long underwear.”

Together Bill and Marianne worked the booth for years, going to shows in Eau Claire, DeKalb, IL, La Crosse and in all parts of the state where the Farm Progress shows and Farm Technology Days were held.

They manned the booth at the Power and Electric Farm Show in Madison for years and the Green Bay Farm Show until it was moved to Oshkosh. He represented the paper at the Corn-Soy Expo in Wisconsin Dells and of course World Dairy Expo – a huge event that each year brings in tens of thousands of attendees, including thousands of international guests from as many as 94 countries.

At the end of what would turn out to be his last World Dairy Expo in the booth he said, “I always get a kick out of talking to the international guests. I ask them if they want a paper. They’ll say they don’t read English and I tell them the pictures are in German or Spanish or the language from whatever country they’re from and they always laugh.”

He considered the interaction with subscribers -- and potential subscribers – an opportunity to bond as a representative of the state’s oldest weekly farm newspaper. Bill listened if they had complaints, asked for suggestions and gracefully accepted their compliments. Quite often he encouraged other commercial exhibitors, not familiar with the paper, to take out an ad to promote their service or product.

Over the decades Beckman wrote subscription renewals for thousands of subscribers -- many choosing to renew at certain shows, like World Dairy Expo, so he saw them year after year and formed friendships.

“I’m not so great with names, but I never forget a face and I’ll remember where they live or the family members that were at the last show with them,” he said.

Bill had the ability to talk to those who were unhappy with something in the paper. After an angry conversation, he’d listen, later they’d stop by and “chew the fat” in his words, like old friends.

“I think of myself as an ambassador of goodwill for the newspaper,” he said.

Personal touch

At what turned out to be his last Dairy Expo, Beckman had a visit from a couple whose wedding photos he had shot 25 years earlier, when he had run his own advertising agency and photography business. They were celebrating their silver anniversary and stopped by to visit.

For years the Wisconsin State Farmer booth was at the top of the stairs in the coliseum, above the west lobby. That made Bill and Marianne the unofficial information booth as well, directing visitors to things they wanted to find. As he chewed the fat, he also helped people out with things like locating hotel rooms. Many came back grateful for his help.

That was just Bill’s nature -- building relationships was part of his DNA. He felt that kind of attitude built goodwill for him and for the newspaper.

“People remember things like that and appreciate it. It’s a win-win all around,” he told me a few years back.

He admitted he wasn’t bashful. He liked teasing children and joshing with farmers and their wives.

Bill and Marianne had been married 55 years and three months when he lost her to cancer in 2006 after a year-and-a-half battle with the disease. But he didn’t give up the booth after he lost his wife. He had decided he’d miss talking to his many “farm show friends” too much.

Tough childhood

Beckman was born Kenneth Leroy Roderick MacLeod in 1929 in Indiana – the seventh of seven children. Two of the kids died in infancy and when his mother could no longer care for the rest, four were placed in an orphanage.

Little Kenneth, only three months old, went to live with his father’s sister Jessie who with her husband Bill Beckman raised him as their own.

They officially adopted him when he turned 10 years old. The papers were signed by his birth father only a few days before the elder MacLeod died of pneumonia.

“Ever since I was a baby everyone called me little Billy Beckman and the papers made it official,” Bill had recalled for an interview.

His adoptive father and namesake had a stroke later that year and Jessie contracted cancer. He lost two sets of parents by the time he was 17.

He finished high school and then went on to college, the Air Force and new career opportunities. While on a bus going to work, he met a friend from high school who was taking singing lessons who dragged Bill along. The vocal coach played matchmaker, putting him and another student Marianne Borg, together for a duet.

Both were immediately smitten and soon married and moved to his military posting. After that, the couple moved back to the Midwest where Bill worked in industrial engineering, in radio and eventually started his own advertising agency.

After retiring from the booth a couple years ago, he spent his time helping veterans and others get to doctor’s appointments and delivering meals to elder residents in Lake Mills, which has been his home since 1966.

He was active in church and community groups – American Legion, Republican Party of Jefferson County, Lions and Masons. He is survived by four children, nine grandchildren, 12 great grandchildren and many other relatives and many friends who remember him as part of this newspaper.