Persons, places and things: A conversation with a renaissance man


By Barb Arland-Fye


Don Wooten, who worked years ago for The Catholic Messenger as a side gig, called to invite me to be a guest on his “Saturday Morning Live!” radio show. I accepted, recognizing the potential for promoting the Messenger to listeners of WVIK (90.3 FM), a National Public Radio station owned by Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. The station’s broadcasts span the Quad-Cities region of eastern Iowa and northwestern Illinois.
Curiosity also played a factor in my decision. Don, who turned 85 on March 16, has packed a lot of life into his years while engaging in the arts, journalism, education and politics. As a journalist, I wanted to ask questions about what makes this talented man tick!
Don, a native of Memphis, Tenn., arrived in Davenport in 1946 at the behest of the Memphis Diocese’s bishop, who thought Don would make a good priest and sent him to St. Ambrose College. But the aspiring thespian recognized within two years that he had another calling. He remained at St. Ambrose to earn a biology degree and then married his beloved Bernadette in 1950 (she died three years ago). Don entered broadcast journalism, and along the way became acquainted with Donald McDonald, then-editor of The Catholic Messenger, who asked him to write a classical music column. Soon, Don found himself writing a farm column for the Messenger (even though he had no previous knowledge of farming) and editing the paper, too.
He wrote columns for other publications, including Commonweal, and taught at Alleman High School in Rock Island. His love for theater inspired him to found the Genesius Guild, which provides free, classic Greek theater and opera in Rock Island’s Lincoln Park. He chose the guild’s name because he thought St. Genesius was the patron saint of the theater. But he later learned that saint never existed!
Whatever paid work he accepted, Don said he did to support his wife and five children.  I get the impression, though, that Don simply couldn’t resist one more challenge, one more opportunity, to expand his mind and satisfy his creativity.
I’m not sure about the impetus for his entrance into politics (he reminded me that he was the interviewer!), but he did serve two terms in the Illinois State Senate before being defeated. At that point, he fulfilled a desire to create a National Public Radio station for the Quad-Cities region. With the support of Augustana College, the station signed on in 1981.
Don’s retired, sort of, but continues his radio programs, newspaper columns for The Dispatch (Moline, Ill.) and the Rock Island Argus, and still selects and adapts plays for the Genesius Guild to perform.
My experience on Don’s “Saturday Morning Live!” wasn’t so much an interview as a conversation between two journalists who have experienced the joys and agonies of producing a newspaper.
Don recalled one memorable press day when he had to get The Catholic Messenger to press almost single-handedly. He joked about bringing in his family to help him. When the first six papers came off the press, a female staffer noticed that the photo images on the front page had been inverted. Don told the pressmen to stop the press! The front page (this was back in the 1950s or so) had to be re-plated before the presses could start rolling again. Don is still thankful to that female staffer’s attention to detail all these years later.
Yes, I promoted The Catholic Messenger through Don’s show, and enjoyed every minute of the conversation that made it possible.

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