For all of our rural landscapes and lack of opportunity, it’s easy to forget that northern Wisconsin has produced some pretty amazing people. Brain drain is real, yes. But we celebrate those who somehow, despite the odds, make it past the state line and into the limelight. Here, in a far-from-complete list, are a few slightly famous faces who at one time or another called northern Wisconsin home:
1. Gaylord Nelson
Gaylord Nelson (1916 to 2005) was a prominent Wisconsin state senator, governor, and Wisconsin U.S. Senator from 1948 to 1981. Born and raised in the Village of Clear Lake in Polk County, Nelson’s work included his calling for congressional hearings on the safety of oral contraception. You have Nelson to thank for the required side-effect disclosures provided with your next prescription medication. But his most notorious claim to fame? Environmental activism. Nelson founded Earth Day on April 22, 1970, an annual holiday that is still celebrated nearly fifty years later, and recognized worldwide as a day for environmentalism.
2. Henry Ellenson
Over the past century there have literally been dozens of nationally accomplished Olympians, athletes and coaches to call northern Wisconsin home. But perhaps the youngest and most recent addition to that list is basketball standout Henry Ellenson of Rice Lake. The 6’11”, 21-year-old Ellenson gave rise to a lot of excitement in his hometown when his high school career earned him a spot competing against China on the U.S. National Team in 2014. He went on to play for one year at Marquette University averaging 17 points and 9.7 rebounds per game before catching the eye of the NBA. Ellenson was selected by the Detroit Pistons with the 18th overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft. Most likely we haven’t heard the last of Ellenson, but he’ll always call Rice Lake home.
3. Chris Farley
Ok, you called our bluff. Comedian Chris Farley (1964-1997) isn’t really a northern Wisconsin native. He was actually born in Madison, but he did have a strong “up north” connection. It was in the Chequamegon woods that Farley would spend summers as a camp counselor at Red Arrow Camp near Minocqua. Like most people who spend time in the northwoods, those formative years were a big influence on his sense of humor, which later took him to Marquette University, then to Second City Theater in Chicago, and eventually to the set of Saturday Night Live in 1990. Farley later went on to star in movies like Tommy Boy, Black Sheep, and Beverly Hills Ninja, before dying tragically of a drug overdose 1997.
4. Tony Shalhoub
Actor Tony Shalhoub’s career has spanned decades, and it all started in northern Wisconsin. He was born and raised in Green Bay, and is the ninth of ten children born to Lebanese descendants. He got his start in acting as an extra in a production of “The King and I” at Green Bay East High School. He attended the University of Green Bay for a bit, before moving on and graduating from University of Southern Maine and then the Yale School of Drama. The now 64-year-old Shalhoub has had extensive acting career, from broadway and television, to voiceover and the big screen. His more infamous roles include the voice of Luigi in Disney Pixar’s “Cars” series, the obsessive-compulsive detective Adrian Monk in the Emmy-award winning TV series “Monk,” and Antonio Scarpacci in the 1990s NBC sitcom Wings.
5. Justin Vernon
While the name Justin Vernon may not ring a bell, chances are better that you’ve heard of the Indie-folk band Bon-Iver. Vernon, who hails from Eau Claire, is the talented front
man for the group. Bon Iver rose to international acclaim in 2008 from a debut album that Vernon is said to have recorded “while isolated in a remote cabin in the northwoods.” Most of us living even further into the woods probably didn’t hear of him until 2012, when the relatively unknown Bon Iver won Best New Artist and Best Alternative Album at the 2012 Grammy Awards. Since then Vernon has collaborated most notably with Kanye West. Vernon still resides in Eau Claire where he continues his music career.
6. Sean Duffy
Love him or hate him, congressman Sean Duffy could be one of the most notable names to ever hale from Hayward, Wisconsin. Although he now calls Wausau home, Duffy reportedly started log rolling at age five, and in fact, holds several speed climbing records. It all started when somewhere amidst earning his law degree in St. Paul, Duffy managed to squeeze in a season as a cast member of MTV’s “The Real World: Boston.” Duffy has also been on ESPN on multiple occasions, both as a participant and commentator. But Duffy seems to be settling down a bit with age. A stint as Ashland County District Attorney launched a now active political career for the 46-year-old Republican, who is now serving as northern Wisconsin’s U.S. congressional representative.
7. Mary Mack
What’s the funniest thing to ever come out of northern Wisconsin? The punch lines are endless, but for these purposes let’s just say it’s one of the few women on the list—comedian and “folk humorist” Mary Mack. Mikelle Budge, who now goes by her stage name “Mary Mack,” graduated from the tiny town of Webster in Burnett County. It’s places like Webster where one can really develop a sense of humor. Mack’s roots are a constant source of inspiration for her comedy. How could they not be? She still performs locally from time to time, but has been seen nationally on such T.V. shows as NBC’s Last Comic Standing, and Comedy Central’s Live at Gotham. Recently Mack has lent her classic ‘sconnie accent to the voice of Dylan in Fox’s new late night cartoon Golan the Insatiable. The 46-year-old Mack routinely does acts throughout the country, and currently lives near Minneapolis with her comedian husband Tim Harmston.
Other noteworthy names (by city/town):
Fuzzy Thurston—Former NFL player
Dan Devine—AFL Player, college/NFL coach
Morgan Davis—Former NFL player
Andy Pafko—Former MLB player
Stuart E. Barstad—U.S. Air Force Chief of Chaplains
Pete Banaszak—Former AFL/NFL player
Eau Claire, Wis.
John Menard Jr.—Founder and Owner of Menards
Lemoine Batson—Olympic Ski Jumper
Cub Buck—Former NFL player
Jake Dowell—NHL player
Paul Menard—NASCAR driver
Brad Radke—Former MLB player
Bill Schroeder—Former NFL player
Burleigh Grimes—Pro baseball pitcher, last to throw the “spitball”
Carole Landis—Actress: “A Star is Born,” “Moon Over Miami”
Carol (Hiller) Merrill—Model on “Let’s make a Deal,” 1963-77
Dom Moselle—Former NFL player
Green Bay, Wis.
Zack Snyder—Film Director, producer, screenwriter
Lawrence J. Fleming—U.S. Air Force Major General
Jason Bergen—MLB player
Dick Campbell—Former NFL player
Jay DeMerit—Pro soccer player
Ted Fritsch Jr.—Former NFL player
Bill Miller—Native American musician
New Auburn, Wis.
Michael Perry, Author
Dan Plante—Former NHL player
Lac Du Flambeau, Wis.
Bobby Bullet—Native American musician
Ron Kovic—Author of “Born on the Fourth of July”
Bob Galvin —Former CEO of Motorola
Wayne Kreklow—Former NBA player
New Richmond, Wis.
Johnny “Blood” McNally—Pro football player
Esther Bubley—American Photographer
Joe Pavelski—NHL player
Richard Bong—WWII Fighter Pilot, and the country’s top flying ace in WWII
Rice Lake, Wis.
Foster Friess—Businessman & philanthropist, former candidate for Gov. of Wyoming
Ralph Davis—Former NFL player
Molly Engstrom—Olympic medalist hockey player
Stevens Point, Wis.
Peter Weller—Actor: Robocop, Star Trek
Joel Hodgson—Actor, creator of Mystery Science Theater 3000
Albert W. Grant—U.S. Navy Admiral (born in Maine, raised in S.P.)
Suzy Favor Hamilton—Olympic Runner
Daniel R. Fitzpatrick—Pulitzer prize winning cartoonist
Eastman Johnson—Painter, co-founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
David L. Bazelon—U.S. Appeals Court Judge, Washington D.C.
C.A. Bottolfsen—Former Governor of Idaho
Bud Grant—Former NBA player, AFL player, coach
Scott O’Brien—Former NFL player
Tuffy Leemans—Former Pro Football player
Ernie Nevers—Former Pro Football/baseball player
Gordon MacQuarrie—Writer and journalist
Doug Sutherland—Former NFL player
Andy North—Former PGA golfer, broadcaster
Merton W. Baker—U.S. Air Force Major General
Jim Leonhard—Former NFL player
Marissa Mayer—Former CEO of YAHOO
Dean G. Witter—Co-founder of Dean Witter Investments
John Altenburgh—Jazz Musician
Bill Fischer—MLB pitcher
Elroy Hirsch—Former NFL player
Jim Otto—Former AFL/NFL player
Jarrod Washburn—Former MLB player