Milk, yogurt and Olympian Beth Heiden: A true story

John Oncken

It was a sad occasion: the memory reception for Dr. Jack Heiden, well known Madison orthopedic surgeon and father of Olympic skaters Eric and Beth Heiden, who died Feb. 28. 

On the other hand it was a rather festive event as visitors related stories of the man, a surgeon, who himself was a masters national champion in road bike racing and one of the best master skiers in the Midwest — both sports which he learned from his son and daughter.

It was also a time for the Heiden family to meet old friends and share stories about growing up in Wisconsin, competing in sports at the highest level and raising families.  You will remember Eric Heiden as the winner of five gold medals for speed skating at the 1980 Olympics and his sister Beth, many time world champion and Olympic bronze medal winner that same year. What was generally little known was that Beth was also the national and international women's bike racing champion.

"Milk’s An Easy Choice,” Heiden said then and still in 2018.

Dairy promoter

You may also remember that Beth Heiden played an important role in Wisconsin dairying as the voice, face, personality and image of Wisconsin dairy products in the early 1980’s when she worked with the American Dairy Association of Wisconsin (ADA of W).  

During her two-year stint advertising dairy products she may have had a major influence on the growth of yogurt and the national dairy promotion program. It all started with a  bike race in Madison: the story.

A bike race

In 1979 I was recruited from ABS to manage the ADA of Wisconsin, the state dairy advertising and promotion program supported by a voluntary checkoff from state dairy farmers. The program was failing and funds dropping dangerously.

By 1981 the organization had been righted, new people and programs installed and farmers were joining the organization at a record pace. Membership manager, John Frizzell, had added new field reps and new programs and dairy farmers where aware (sort of) of what was happening.

Beth Heiden , champion  speed skater and bike racer in 1981 at her ADA of Wisconsin welcome event.

For some reason, I went to Madison on a Saturday and found the Capitol Square blocked to car traffic. I parked and went to see what was going on and found out there was a bicycle race in progress. I was curious never having seen such an event up close and stood on a corner to watch.

A crash

As a pack of cyclists came around the corner, there was a crash and a women racer slid across the asphalt and brick street and landed at my feet.

I helped her up, she was unhurt except for a bit of road rash, and we got to talking. The cyclist, Mary Doctor, who I had read about as a rather famed speed skater and cyclist from Madison, said, “You know, Beth Heiden is in the next race and she’s the world champion women cyclist. You could probably get to meet her—she’ll be near the starting line at Martin Luther King Drive."

All the sudden it dawned on me, wouldn’t this world famed speed skater/cyclist make a great person to advertise dairy products and at the same time get every one to hear about the ADA of Wisconsin? Off I went at a trot, got to the race starting line and with a bit of help found Beth Heiden straddling her bike ready to start the race in a few minutes.

Strangers meet

I introduced myself with some trepidation and told her about what we we doing at the ADA of Wisconsin and would she consider working for the dairy farmers of Wisconsin?  (I knew it was much reported that Beth was not interested in signing with any of the many major advertisers that were courting her, but...)

Yogurt was mostly unknown when Beth Heiden promoted it in 1983.

To my surprise and shock, she said, “That sounds like a great idea, I’ll give you my agent’s name and phone number and you can call him and make arrangements. Now this race is about to start, so you’d better leave.”

And, I did. The next day I talked to Vernon Schultz, Two Rivers dairyman and president of ADA who thought it was great idea and that I should work out the details. So, I called Art Kaminski, a well-known New York lawyer and sports agent for many cyclists and hockey players and worked out an arrangement for Beth and ADA of Wisconsin.

The ADA hosted an introductory event at the Concourse Hotel in Madison for Beth, her parents and the ADA delegates, board and employees. I remember Beth was wearing the red, white and blue U.S. cycling outfit she had worn in her international cycling competition.

Needless to say, the event was a huge success. Remember, Beth Heiden was without doubt the most popular women in the country at the time because of her and brother, Eric’s Olympic fame, their journey from Madison to the top of the sports world and their likable personalities.

Speedskater Eric Heiden is shown in action during the 5000 meter race in the World Cup Speedskating tournament, Feb. 25, 1979 in Alkmaar, the Netherlands.

Milk and yogurt

At the time 1982-83, ADA owned CreatiCom, an advertising agency, that developed and produced the dairy product advertising. Among the campaigns created featuring Beth Heiden was one called “Milk’s An Easy Choice.” She was on her bike wearing a small leather head protector (this was before bike helmets were invented). The words said “A quality beverage must deliver good taste and nutrition. That’s why Beth chooses milk every day.” Delicious taste and solid nutrition make Milk An Easy Choice.

Interestingly, Beth’s brother Eric (five gold medals) and now orthopedic surgeon in Utah, commented to me last Saturday that “there should be more advertising of dairy products aimed at their health benefits. Athletes know how true that is.”  Thanks Eric, that’s what Beth said in that advertising 37 years ago!

Another popular ADA ad campaign featuring Beth was called 'Yogurt goes with you'. It extolled the taste, versatility and nutrition of yogurt. Beth appeared in ads of many types including billboards—even in Chicago. I guess we were advertising the right thing, at the right time. There’s been a yogurt boom ever since.

Garrett Reid, center, smiles after winning the overall 20-kilometer Alpenglow cross country ski race at Tahoe Cross Country, while his mother, former Olympian Beth Reid, right, won the woman's division. His sister, Joanne Reid, left, won the 5-kilometer race.

I attended the wedding of Beth Heiden and Russell Reid who now live in Palo Alto and work for Apple Computer as does their oldest son, Garrett. Second son, Carl works at IBM and daughter, Joanne competed in the biathlon at the recent Olympics.                   

Hard to believe

I can hardly believe that I walked (unannounced) up to this young women perched on a  bicycle and asked her to work for ADA promoting dairy products. (Could I do that today? Doubtful.)  And, even more amazed that she accepted. Eric commented that (ADA of Wisconsin) was the only advertising organization that Beth ever worked for. 

Beth Heiden and writer John Oncken together after meeting at a bike race 37 year ago.

Great!  And subsequently the ADA grew bigger by the day and ultimately (through legislative action) morphed into what is today Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin (WMMB).

ADA of Wisconsin was indeed one of the countries' best dairy promotion groups ever: great people with great talent. i’m proud! Perhaps more of the story later. Maybe. 

Rest in well deserved peace Jack. And best of luck to the rest of the Heiden family.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or e-mail him at