You could say that social justice and journalism have played a huge role in Gaddi Ben Dan’s life. As the publisher of the newspapers The Westside Torch, The Chicago Chronicles, and The New York Chronicles, and the co-founder of the Wisconsin Free Press, The Madison Times, and VOICES newspaper here in Madison, Dan has spent decades working to bring a voice to voiceless and capturing the amazing and important people and topics that mainstream publications often miss.
Dan has also been a longtime promoter and producer, bringing many national acts to Madison, starting in the ‘80s. For WTDY 1670, Dan produced “Heart and Soul” and “Let’s Go To Church” radio programs that featured grassroots stories on inspiring Madison-area personalities. As the co-founder and senior executive producer of Club TNT, Dan and his lifelong friend, Betty Banks, have creatively worked with young people for more than a quarter century to educate them through entertainment on their Saturday morning show. TNT’s slogan is: “If you are going to do something positive, do it today; don’t wait until tomorrow.”
“My own personal motto has always been, ‘Lead, follow, or get out of the way.’ Just go on and sit down if you’re not going to do anything,” Dan tells Madison365. “Because talk is cheap.”
The 6’5” Dan is a large man with a booming voice who is always impeccably dressed. He’s up on all the latest news and remains extremely involved in Madison’s active community, so it’s hard to imagine that Dan will be celebrating his 70th birthday this May. Madison365 is curious to know how it feels to be on the cusp of 70 years old. Seven decades on this earth.
“Oooooh. Don’t tell anybody that. Why do we need to tell everybody that?” Dan laughs.
I point out to Dan that even a novice mathematician will be able to put together dates from this article to figure out his age, anyways.
“Haha. That’s true, sir,” Dan smiles. “It’s incredible to think about – being 70 years old. It’s amazing, though, to me … because a lot of my friends are gone. I mean a lot of them. They’ve passed on. Maybe I’ve done all I was supposed to do in life because 70 years – for all I’ve seen and been through – because I feel like I’ve been through a lot. I had a pretty wild youth. I used to be a drug addict. I’ve done some crazy things. But I’ve come through the fire without the smell of smoke, brother. I’m still here and I’m still working towards social justice and still doing my things in the community.”
Dan was born and raised in Chicago and attended the University of Illinois at Chicago, majoring in journalism and marketing.
“Chicago had a lot of different neighborhoods. We had our neighborhood – an African American neighborhood. There was a Hispanic neighborhood and an Italian neighborhood,” Dan remembers. “You could only go in certain parts of all of those neighborhoods if you were of a different ethnicity. If you did, you could have a problem. I was fortunate enough to have friends in all of those neighborhoods … guys I went to school with.”
A highlight of Dan’s young life was meeting and marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Chicago Freedom Movement, also known as the Chicago Open Housing Movement, in 1966. The movement included a large rally, marches, and demands to the City of Chicago for open housing, tenants rights, quality education, transportation and job access, community development and more.
“Chicago is a city of neighborhoods and there was tremendous redlining back then,” Dan remembers. “African Americans couldn’t move to certain places. It’s still that way, but more subtle.
“I’ll never forget getting to talk to Dr. King and Coretta [King]. I was 20 years old,” Dan continues. “Dr. King was a man of love. I remembered that he used to call everybody “Doctor.” He was a doctor of love. He was a peaceful brother. Being around him was like being around an angel.
“And Coretta was a very talkative woman,” he adds. “Definitely a woman in the forefront of women’s rights.”
At a young age, Dan published the newspapers The Westside Torch, The Chicago Chronicles, and The New York Chronicles. He was also caught up in the huge amount of activism that was going on at the time in The Windy City — from marches and demonstrations to the famous Democratic National Convention to the death of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. “Those were some really interesting times in Chicago in the ’60s,” he remembers. “It was exciting to be a part of it all. Ever since I can remember, I’ve always tried to involve all of the communities – black, Hispanic, Greek, Italian. Building bridges between communities is something that I’ve always worked hard to do.”
When Hampton, an American activist, revolutionary and chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, was murdered by police, Dan was here in Madison but heading back to Chicago. “It was Dec. 4, 1969…. It was on a Monday,” he says. “I remember that I left Madison to get to Chicago and I heard [about his death] on the radio and I went straight over there to his apartment where a large group was growing. I saw it firsthand.”
Dan has spent a considerable amount of time in both Chicago and Madison during his life. The social justice fight in Chicago has been a little different than the social justice in Madison. Yet, he says, they do have their similarities.
Many of Dan’s journalistic and social justice endeavors here in Madison have been orechestrated with his longtime friend Betty Banks, who were introduced to each other in 1983 by a mutual friend, Kwame Salter, the first African-American president of the Madison Metropolitan School District School Board. Banks, who graduated from Madison’s old Central High School in 1962 and earned a degree in sociology at Edgewood College, has been an outspoken advocate for social justice herself.
Soon the duo would collaborate on The Wisconsin Free Press, which was launched on April 4, 1984, to coincide with the 16th anniversary of the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn.
The Wisconsin Free Press, whose motto was “We are each other’s most valuable resource,” was the first community-based newspaper that contained serious advertising. In that paper, Banks and Dan tackled some taboo subjects in Madison like affirmative action, redlining, crime, drugs, teen pregnancy, alcoholism, and suicide.
Dan created a quarterly newspaper for the Urban League of Greater Madison with Betty Franklin-Hammonds called the Capital City Quarterly and then — with Banks — started The Madison Times which they passed onto Franklin-Hammonds, who left her job at the Madison Urban League to develop The Madison Times full-time.
Later, Banks and Dan would become active with Allied Dunn’s Marsh Neighborhood Association (ADMNA) and began to consult with that organization and turned the association newsletter into a monthly newspaper, VOICES.
Around the same time, Dan and Banks produced the “Heart and Soul” and “Let’s Go To Church” radio programs, which aired on 1670-AM WTDY The Pulse, and featured diverse and distinguished guests. Here, they would get to the heart of community issues, providing a venue for issues of concern and current news topics to be raised and discussed and celebrating the accomplishments and strength of the community.
During all of this time, Dan and Banks were and are perhaps best known as senior executive producers of Club TNT, an hour-long TV program on Saturdays to educate youth and help steer them towards positive life choices. Club TNT showcases the abilities of young people, using music, poetry and more, to “make responsible decisions today, without waiting for tomorrow.”
Banks and Dan started Club TNT, which first aired on Fox 47 in 1989, and first envisioned a music variety show which would use the medium of entertainment to inform and educate youths and their parents about the dangers of getting involved with risky behaviors.
“I was with Betty one morning watching Soul Train and I said to her, ‘We can do that!’” Dan remembers. “But instead of all the dancing, let’s get some information out there about drugs and gangs. That’s how we did it.”
Club TNT was recognized with Madison Magazine’s 2009 Editor’s Choice Award Winners for their BEST of Madison Celebration given to individuals or organizations that work passionately for and within the community and do so not seeking recognition.
Club TNT, whose third partner is Jeanne Erickson, director of public relations, is famous for presenting Waterbearer Awards to members of the community who do amazing things. Past recipients include mayors and alderpeople and CEOs and executive directors from around Dane County.
The latest media endeavor for Dan has been the Ambassador Journal, a new publication that promotes community engagement and awareness and to improve communications. Dan is the Editor-in-Chief.
“The beautiful thing about the Ambassador Journal is that we have the different communities involved and you get a chance to hear from the leaders and the community members that you don’t get to hear about in the mainstream media,” he says. “That’s real grassroots journalism. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s what I’ve been doing my whole life.
“I think it’s important that we learn more about each other’s cultures … we just don’t do that enough,” Dan adds. “I think when we start to learn about other people’s cultures, we have a better understanding of why people do certain things.”
Through a variety of mediums, Dan has helped shape and mold the minds of more than one generation of Madisonians. He has made his mark on Madison and built up quite the resume. For Dan, who has marched with MLK in Chicago in the ’60s for civil rights and marches in south Madison now for safer neighborhoods, he hopes people simply remember him as somebody always willing to help.
“All my life, they’ve said about me: ‘Gaddi, you can help anybody.’ I can and I will. That’s my life today,” he says. “If I can help a person, I’ll do it. I feel compelled. How can you see something and be able to do something about it, and not do anything? I’ve always been like that. That’s my personality.”