Surprise gift from estate of ‘safecracker’ and editor to fuel investigative reporting in Wisconsin

Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism launches $50,000 campaign to match gift funded by sharp-tongued former convict who became UW-Madison honors grad

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Roger Bruesewitz was passionate about investigative journalism. His friends Ken and Mary Rouse directed $50,000 from his estate to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism after his death last March at age 82. He is pictured here at the Oshkosh Correctional Institution library in the 1970s.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism is stronger today because of Roger “Whitey” Bruesewitz — a man we never knew.

Bruesewitz was a self-described safecracker, dirty bookstore owner and former heroin addict. He spent more than a dozen years behind bars before earning a journalism degree with honors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1975. One of his friends, Ron Deprey of Madison, described Bruesewitz as “the most interesting character I ever met in my life.”

After turning away from a life of crime and addiction, Bruesewitz had a long career as a copy editor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, where he corrected spelling and grammar for books including Wisconsin Real Estate Law.

“He had a sharp tongue — and a sharp pen,” friend Mary Rouse said.

On Nov. 9, about two dozen friends gathered at his favorite hangout, the Ideal Bar in Madison, to remember Bruesewitz, who died last March at age 82. 

Rouse met Bruesewitz in 1973 when he was an inmate on study release, leaving prison to attend classes at UW-Madison. At the time, Rouse was the assistant dean of students. She later served as the university’s dean of students from 1987 to 2000. Rouse served as his adviser and mentor, and Bruesewitz became a lifelong friend of the Rouse family.

When Bruesewitz died, Rouse and her husband, Ken, were put in charge of his estate. Bruesewitz was passionate about investigative journalism, Mary Rouse said, so they chose to direct $50,000 from his estate to the Center, which informs the public to strengthen our democracy.

Andy Hall / Wisconsin Watch

Mary Rouse, left, served as an adviser and mentor to Roger Bruesewitz. Here, she gathers with his friends to pay honor to him at the Ideal Bar in Madison, Wis., on Nov. 9, 2019.

Executive Director Andy Hall told the gathering at the Ideal Bar that the Center’s guiding values — protect the vulnerable, expose wrongdoing and explore solutions — seem to fit the man described by nephew Jim Bruesewitz as a “true underdog.” 

“Although we never knew Roger,” Hall said, “we’d like to think that that’s well-aligned with Roger’s approach toward life.”

Roger Bruesewitz spent more than a dozen years behind bars before earning a journalism degree with honors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1975.

Rouse said she hopes the donation will inspire others to support the Center’s news outlet, Wisconsin Watch, which investigates issues important to Wisconsin residents and distributes those stories for free to news organizations across the state and nation. The Center also trains current and future investigative journalists. 

To leverage the gift, the Center is launching a challenge campaign beginning today. All gifts and pledges received by May 1 will count toward the total. The support may be spread over multiple years. The goal: $50,000, to match the gift that Rouse has provided to the Center from the Bruesewitz estate.

That amount, in turn, will be used as evidence of local support in hopes of inspiring additional funders to sustain the Center.

Said Hall: “The truth matters. And it’s going to matter even long after all of us are gone. We pledge that we’ll put Roger’s gift to work here, to help sustain this type of truth-telling.”

Want to help? Just make a donation, or tell us about your pledge, which may be spread over multiple years, by May 1. Questions? Contact Andy Hall, the Center’s executive director, at ahall@wisconsinwatch.org. Thanks for supporting fearless truth-telling and the training of the next generation!

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