Best of 2022: “He made a real difference in this community.” Madison remembers Gaddi Ben Dan, civil rights activist and pioneer in community journalism

    Gaddi Ben Dan (Photo by Marcus Miles)

    The greater Madison community is mourning the loss of Gaddi Ben Dan, a longtime publisher, civil rights activist, producer, father figure, innovator, promoter, reporter, photographer, mentor, “crackerjack marketing man” and much more who recently passed away on May 11 at the age of 76. Dan, a longtime Madison civil rights activist and a pioneer in community journalism, made an incredible mark on Madison, the city he loved, and the many people he met.

    “Gaddi was an original. That’s for sure. Nobody else like him. He was a community man and the brother was uber-talented,” Kaleem Caire, founder and CEO of One City Schools, tells Madison365. “He made you feel comfortable. He listened to what you had to say. He brought so many skills. He was the full package. And the man knew everybody. I never sensed any pretentiousness in him at all – and he had every right to be – because the brother accomplished a lot.”

    Dan was a pioneer in community journalism co-founding the Wisconsin Free Press, a community-based publication that pioneered the first-ever Black-owned newspaper in Madison to solicit and receive mainstream advertising. He also co-founded The Ambassador Times Journal, The Madison Times (before handing the keys to Betty Franklin-Hammonds), and VOICES newspaper. Dan spent almost four decades in Madison working to bring a voice to the voiceless and capturing the amazing and important people and topics that mainstream publications often miss.

    Gaddi Ben Dan (left) with son Seth Yosef

    Dan also was a promoter and producer, bringing many national musical 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.

    Dan’s youngest son, Seth Yosef, who now lives in Austin, Texas, tells Madison365 that his father “represented many things to many people.”

    “But mostly, he was a man of the people. He was fiercely determined to support all members of the community, from the youth to the elderly,” Yosef says. “His enormous presence, laughter, and engulfing smile will never be forgotten. We can all honor his memory by working harder to become better citizens, neighbors, and friends, and by continuously representing the best in our hearts.

    “The race is not given to the swiftest or the fastest, but to those that endure,” he adds. “Rest in Paradise. I love you. We love you.”

    Dan is perhaps best-known in Madison as the co-founder and senior executive producer of Club Today Not Tomorrow (Club TNT), where he creatively worked with young people for more than nearly three decades to educate them through entertainment on his Saturday morning show. Young, up-and-coming Madison talent was often showcased on the show, which included poets, dancers, rappers, musicians and singers.

    Most if not all of the ventures listed above were done in partnership with his dear friend Betty Banks, a south Madison matriarch and community activist who first met Dan 39 years ago. They were introduced by former MMSD School Board President Kwame Salter.

    “Kwame and Gaddi were friends from Chicago. Gaddi had told him that he wanted to get involved in some things in Madison and Kwame said, ‘I know the perfect person.’ And, lo, and behold, it was me,” Banks tells Madison365.

    Gaddi Dan and Betty Banks
    (Photo by David Dahmer)

    Banks and Dan first met at the Fess Hotel on E. Doty Street in downtown Madison on Sept. 8, 1983.

    “So, we met there and he talked about the things he eventually went on to do,” Banks remembers. “The first thing he talked about was how we should publish a newspaper and I said to him, ‘I don’t know anything about publishing a newspaper!’  And, obviously, it didn’t matter to him. We decided to meet again, and then we decided to actually do it. So then we started planning it. I would say we started talking about the newspaper in November [of 1983], we really started working at it.

    Gaddi Ben Dan leads the production of a Club TNT television show.
    (Photo by David Dahmer)

    The first edition of the Wisconsin Free Press hit the streets on April 4, 1984. “We did that on the anniversary of Dr. King’s death. Then from there, every time he had an idea, I didn’t have sense enough to say no,” Banks laughs. “And he had lots of ideas.”

    Dan and Banks founded Club Today Not Tomorrow (Club TNT) in the late ’80s after they published a series about drugs in Madison in Wisconsin Free Press. The programming was designed to encourage young people to make positive choices and encouraged staying away from risky behaviors and continues to be broadcast Saturdays on TVW14, the sister cable station of WISC-TV/Channel 3 in Madison.

    “We had interviewed kids and we were so astonished that they were talking about sneaking in their parents’ liquor cabinets and smoking cigarettes,” Banks remembers. “And then it was more about smoking cigarettes, and some marijuana use. So then we decided to create a show modeled after ‘Soul Train’ where kids would dance on the show, but they would also create messages for their peers about staying away from risky behaviors.”

    Additionally, Dan produced two huge outdoor concerts, one in 1985 at Breese Stevens Field (featuring Ready for the World) and the other in the 90’s at Warner Park (featuring Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam).

    “We looked up to him because of the music he would bring to South Madison and to the city,” Caire remembers. Caire adds that he knew Dan since he was kid growing up in South Madison. “I remember going to Lisa Lisa and The Cult Jam and going to Ready for the World. Those are two of the bigger ones. It was cool to see Johnny Winston and them perform and to see Gaddi getting up there before the show talking about why he was bringing bands to Madison. He was very entrepreneurial. We just knew him as that guy who was bringing the acts and stuff to the community and was really creative.”

    Winston, a member of Fresh Force who opened shows and performed with such artists as Speech, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, Ready for the World, EPMD, and more, fondly remembered Dan on a recent Facebook post:

    “Heaven gained an angel today! Thank you Gaddi Ben Dan for believing in Fresh Force and for letting us open the shows for Ready for the World and Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam. In the ’80s and ’90s, you brought Hip Hop, R&B and dancing to Madison via community events, local television shows and concerts.”


    Marching with MLK

    All of these innovations and accomplishments happened in the ’80s and beyond after Dan arrived in Madison, but his activist and entrepreneurial spirit was alive and well as a young man growing up in Chicago where he was born and raised and attended the University of Illinois at Chicago, majoring in journalism and marketing.

    “Little” Gaddi Ben Dan, top left, in 1961 at his 8th Grade Graduation picture from Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Chicago.

    “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 told Madison365 in a feature article back in 2016. “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 MLK during the Chicago Freedom Movement, also known as the Chicago Open Housing Movement, in 1966.

    “Chicago is a city of neighborhoods and there was tremendous redlining back then. African Americans couldn’t move to certain places. It’s still that way, but more subtle,” Dan remembered in that Madison365 article. “I’ll never forget getting to talk to Dr. King and Coretta [King]. I was 20 years old. 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.

    Old-school photo of Gaddi Ben Dan
    (Photo supplied)

    “And Coretta was a very talkative woman,” he adds. “Definitely a woman in the forefront of women’s rights.”

    Dan’s early activism also included being a staff member of Chicago’s Westside Organization widely known for their spirited demonstrations and community organizing.  His first newspaper, published in the early 1970s, was the “Chicago Chronicles.”  

    In Chicago, he established the grassroots community journalism that he would bring to Madison a decade later. Jeanne Erickson, who first met Dan in 2003 and soon became part of the inseparable team of Club TNT and a dear friend, says that the early activism and community journalism roots were important to who Dan would become.

    “One of the things today that has jumped out at me as I’m reading all the beautiful tributes to him on Facebook right now, and seeing the different pictures of Gaddi, is that the majority of them have him with his camera in his hand,” Erickson tells Madison365. “And I had kind of forgotten about that. But everywhere he went, he had his camera. He was always working and doing what he loved and capturing those beautiful moments.”

    Gaddi Ben Dan with his fellow Club TNTers Jeanne Erickson (left) and Betty Banks  (Photo by David Dahmer)



    “The memories that have been going through my mind, especially the last couple of days, have just been the community events that we were at and, of course, during the filming for club TNT,” Erickson continues. “So I was there as a colleague, but also as a dear friend of him and Betty and Club TNT and watching how much he cared for the people that he was speaking with and interviewing. He often did the [television] interviews of people, even though he says he didn’t like to be on camera. But he really loved interviewing people and he always had a presence. The interactions were so unique from the littlest of littles, to the oldest of seniors … just how much respect was shown between the two people.”

    Banks says that Dan always referred to himself as a “crackerjack marketing man” and is amazed at all of the endeavors they were able to pull off “on a shoestring budget.”

    “All the papers we ever started, we didn’t have any money. But we’d put together a prototype and I’d go out and sell it,” she remembers. 

    They never really even had an office, she remembers. They did most everything out of Banks’ apartment.

    “We never did it for fame or fortune. We always did it because it was for the love of the community,” Banks says. “We published newspapers and planned and created everything because our heart was in it. We both always really loved people. Gaddi really loved his family. I’d say that the two things that we had in common were our love for community and our love for our families.

    “People are really surprised that everything that we did, we started out with little or no money and then we’d create what we needed to create and then we would raise the money,” Banks adds. “We did concerts. We did safety parades. We did a parade down Park Street that was designed to bring awareness for kids about staying away from risky behaviors.”

    Gaddi Ben Dan with Marcus Miles at Celebrate South Madison
    (Photo by David Dahmer)

    JustDane Executive Director Linda Ketcham first met Dan when she started her position at JustDane 16 years ago, which back then was called Madison-area Urban Ministry.

    “I had heard of Gaddi in the context of a community organizer and someone committed to supporting children and youth.  But I think you’d agree that hearing about Gaddi didn’t really prepare you to meet Gaddi Ben Dan, force of nature,” Ketcham tells Madison365. “I met Gaddi when he came into the MUM [Madison-area Urban Ministry] office one day to introduce himself and to talk about the work of Club TNT, his work in the Allied Neighborhood and Let’s Go to Church radio show. I just remember being amazed by his passion, energy, vision and as part of his vision, his imagination – to first imagine what could be and then use his creativity to figure out how to make it happen. 

    “Gaddi helped organize peace marches, offer youth outlets for their creativity and talent through local talent shows, through Club TNT, he built relationships with people to build bridges and close divides,” Ketcham adds. “I respected Gaddi’s work in our community, while he was seemingly everywhere it was never about him, it was always about others and our community. Gaddi was a friend. I loved his spirit, his humor, his commitment to the people he loved. I loved him.”

    In his later years, Dan was one of the driving forces for the formation and subsequent charter of the NAACP of Dane County 36AB. The Peacemakers, one of the first efforts locally to bring residents and police officers together for dialogue, happened because of Dan’s work with Madison’s Police Department about their trust-based policing philosophy. And, most recently, Dan would become active in “We Are Many United Against Hate” a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization of common people—urban and rural, spiritual and secular—seeking equal protection for all, united against hate, bigotry and racism.


    Gaddi Ben Dan speaks after he has been honored with the 2018 MLK Humanitarian Award by the City-County Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commission









    MLK Humanitarian Award

    One of Dan’s career highlights came in 2018 when he was honored with the MLK Humanitarian Award by the City-County Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commission.

    “I am truly grateful and humbled by my nomination,” Dan told Madison365 at the time. “I have always advocated for the health, interest, needs and rights of our multi-ethnic communities. One of Dr. Martin Luther King’s most endearing qualities is that he regularly called the brothers ‘Doctor’ I guess it was because he was the Doctor of Love.”

    Accepting that 2018 City-County MLK Humanitarian Award gave Dan a legitimate reason to really dress up, but he didn’t need one. Anybody that knew Dan over the course of his life knew that he was usually one of the best-dressed people in the room … no matter which room.

    “He loved to dress up. He always shined his shoes and always had a crease in his pants. His clothes were always admired. He loved to iron … his grandmother taught him how to iron and he was just meticulous about his appearance,” Banks says. “And he had that infectious smile to go with it.” 

    “The thing I remember about Gaddi was was that he was always Africa-ed up,” smiles Caire. “I’ve seen that brother in a suit maybe two or three times and each time I saw him in a suit, like a regular suit, I laughed, man. I joked with him because I think all those three times were when I saw him since [returning to Madison in] 2010. Because all the other times he always had his Bashikis and necklaces and the different amazing hats he would wear. He was so smooth. He always looked like he was about the culture.”

    And he was a large man – 6’5″ — with a booming voice.

    “But he was a tender man,” Erickson remembers. “People found him to be maybe intimidating because of his height. But he was a very gentle, tender man.”

    Dan would regularly entertain people at events big and small by singing The Drifters’ “This Magic Moment” or Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ “The ABCs of Love.”

    Gaddi sings ABCs of Love at “Southside Night Out” at Penn Park.
    (Photo by David Dahmer)

    He was a regular at Dane Dances, one of his favorite Madison events, because he believed strongly in its mission of bringing people together across racial, economic and religious lines.

    “He had a long history of community journalism and he brought that thinking to the community and it has evolved,” Caire says. “We stand on the shoulders of people like Gaddi and others. When people see all of the stuff going on now with me and Alex [Gee] and Ruben [Anthony]… we’ve been around a long time, but all of the work is an extension of what the people did before us.”

    Banks says that she learned a lot from Dan over their nearly four decades together.

    “He had so much confidence in me and he built up my confidence and we built each other’s confidence,” she says. “Gaddi was very insightful about people. And one of the things that I always felt good about was that he really believed in me and he was always supportive of me. And whenever I got an award or anything, he was my biggest cheerleader. I always appreciated that he was always there to cheer me on and remind me ‘you deserve this!’  

    “He made a real difference in this community and he’s leaving a lasting legacy. There’s a lot to learn from how he did things.”