Gaddi Ben Dan is a name meaning “God is my fortune,” but is also the name of a great journalist and person who could be considered responsible for much of the minority press in Wisconsin.
“I was born in 1946, man, in Chicago, Illinois,” he says in an interview at East Madison Community Center. “I went to grade school in a school called Thomas Jefferson. I graduated from grade school, man, in 1961. I went to a high school called Crane, Richard T. Crane High School. From Richard T. Crane, I went to the University of Illinois in Chicago. As a matter of fact, I was one of the first minority students to attend the University of Illinois in Chicago.”
University of Illinois-Chicago is a a great school today but for Ben Dan in the 1960s, it was different.
“We had to fight for it,” he says. “As a matter of fact, when we first started they brought us in and called it the EAP program, Education Assistance Program, because they didn’t feel that the students were qualified to attend the university. They took us through this program … where all of us came through with flying colors man.”
At the time he was attending college, race was still a big thing and because of the he was seen as less qualified that his white peers, but it seems that all that hate has allowed him to become the person he is today. Thank to his time at the university studying journalism, he was able to create his own newspapers. He started his time in journalism by working with West Side Community Organization in Chicago but then moved to Madison where he kept it
going. “In Madison, way back in the early 80’s, at the Wisconsin Free press, I met a woman by the name of Betty Banks, who founded that paper. Then we founded the Madison Times. (Madison365’s) editor David Dahmer used to be the editor of that paper. That was my paper. Then I did a paper called The Voices, and then I did another paper called the Simpson Street Free Press.”
One problem Ben Dan faced when he was trying to create his newspaper was that he didn’t have any financing, so he had to put it together by himself. Another problem was that being a black man, it was assumed he was going make a “black newspaper.” According to him he made his newspaper to bring community together and to teach people the joy of acceptance of each other.
I asked Ben Dan what made him want to be a journalist. “I love to talk and ask a lot of questions,” he says. “I was always an inquisitive kind of person, man. I love that I learned. In journalism, in portions of it, I learned actually how to actually construct a newspaper. It’s sort of different now, you know we got desktop (publishing). Back then we used to cut and paste. But to me, it was more exciting cutting and pasting. Really you can get through the project much fast than you can now. We lined the pictures up, we typed up, we called it type setting. That was old school. Now, it’s just all computerized, man. I like the cut and paste better than this desktop thing.”
Even though times have changed, Ben Dan’s heart still belongs to ways he grow up with. Although things have changed in how newspapers have worked Ben Dan still has a lot to teach. Ben Dan didn’t only live his life in Madison — he also told me about how he met Martin Luther King.
“1966, he came to Chicago to do a march for open housing,” he recalls. “Okay, and we hung out a lot man. You know, it was just crazy. He was magical, he really was. That spirit, he had a halo over his head. He was so at peace and content with himself. You could see that spirit, that light. There was a light on him, he really did. He was a powerful brother, powerful brother. Liked to joke around. I told a story about one of my friends, his friend was William Darsey, rest his soul. But we called him Thirsty, and the reason why was that he was relentless in everything that he did. He Thirsty. You know what I mean, it’s a slang. But when Dr. King came to Chicago talking about non violence, he didn’t think he’d like that man. He’d say, ‘I don’t know about this non-violence.’ And Dr. King would say to him, ‘Doctor, doctor.’ Dr. King called everyone doctor. He said, ‘Doctor, calm down, doctor, doctor.’ He said that so much, when Dr. King left Chicago, we started calling his nickname, Doc, from then on. We called him Doc. Yeah, so it was interesting man.”
At the same time he has witnessed some horrible thing in his life. I asked Mr.Dan if he has ever meet another civil rights leaders from the 60s like Malcolm X.
“No, I didn’t meet Malcolm. No, but I’ll tell you who I met who had some power in the Black Panther Party — Fred Hampton,” he says. “They assassinated him. He was assassinated December the 9th, 1969. I was up there visiting him, in ’69. December the 9th was a Monday. On my way back to Chicago, early Monday morning I hear the news man, the Black Panthers’ headquarters, I went straight over there because I knew the brothers man. I went in there and saw it, man, it was horrible to see. What they did to that brother.”
Gaddi Ben Dan has lived an interesting life and I believe all that meet him and learn his story will come to respect him for all he has done. He is also a very fun dude. He’s like the funny black man in the 90s movies — and when they said black don’t crack they were looking at him.