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Wedeward: Admiring, remembering Marty Deignan
Martin John "Marty" Deignan Jr.
Martin John "Marty" Deignan Jr.

Editor’s note:

Dave Wedeward is the retired Janesville Gazette sports editor, who grew up in Edgerton and passionately followed Marty Deignan and the Badger Conference. In 46 years at The Gazette, before retiring in 2011, Dave wrote many memorable stories about Monroe, Lee and Shirley Mitchell, and the stars who made the Cheesemakers great.

By Dave Wedeward

For the Times

When it comes to all-time heroes, whether it be in sports or beyond, Marty Deignan would be near or at the top of the list in Edgerton and Monroe.

Marty, a 1955 Edgerton High graduate, passed away Sunday, May 1, at age 85 and will be missed by many people in many places, present company included.

It starts with this writer. Marty and the late Dick Hartzell (EHS Class of 1952) deeply inspired my lifelong passion for high school sports. Heroes, for sure.

This is a time, however, to remember Marty. Admiration for him goes far beyond this writer, starting with high school teammates Jack Anderson, Don Wilcox, Dick Wilcox and certainly all of his other teammates. From there, it goes to Monroe, where Marty and Mary spent their married life, while he taught school for 35 years, raised 10 kids, coached high school baseball for 10 years and helped coach numerous boys’ and girls’ basketball standouts, including Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association hall of fame stars Tom Mitchell and Keith Burington of the 1965 open-class state championship team.

Marty became a household name and hero in Edgerton while earning 12 letters in four sports — football, basketball, baseball and tennis. It may be debatable which was his best, but he was outstanding in all four, making him an obvious choice for induction into the Edgerton Area Athletic Hall of Fame in 1999.    

“He was a tremendous athlete, the best in our class, by far,” Don Wilcox said of the 1955 seniors, who included a wide array of talent. “He was all-conference in every sport.”

Dick Wilcox, a 1957 EHS grad and still an Edgerton resident, shared those thoughts after teaming up with Marty, even as a sophomore in 1955.

“Marty was a great friend and teammate,” Dick said. “He was good at all sports, even croquet golf, plus being a marbles champion!

“He also was an outstanding tennis player. We practiced and learned the sport at Central Park in Edgerton.”

One thing many don’t often associate with Marty was his role as senior quarterback for the Crimson Tide football team. He left his mark there, however, in going 99 yards for a touchdown on a quarterback sneak in a 26-6 win over Milton Union on the Milton College field in the fall of 1954. That’s a run from scrimmage that stands as a Badger Conference record that has never been duplicated.

Tom Mitchell’s first memories of Marty came later that school year, when Coach Lee Mitchell’s son was an 8-year-old mascot for the second-ranked, eventually state-bound Cheesemakers. Monroe visited Edgerton for the final regular-season game and escaped with a pulsating 74-68 victory over the second-place Crimson Tide. 

“As a kid in 1955, I watched Marty play against a powerful Monroe team,” Tom said of the tension in a jam-packed Edgerton gym that February night. “He was a fierce competitor (at 6-foot-1) who battled our bigger players, Bob Anderegg and Herb Ableman, and nearly beat them.”

That sport is where Marty was at his best, said Anderson, a teammate in basketball and baseball, who lives in Edina, Minnesota.

“Marty was the big star and a hell of a basketball player,” Anderson said. “He had the best two-handed set shot I’ve ever seen in my life — something you don’t see much anymore.”

Buried in the archives was Edgerton’s 65-63 home victory over Fort Atkinson in 1954, when Marty, as a junior, drilled one of shots from somewhere near midcourt to win the game. A instant hero, for sure.

“Marty was a great scorer with that outside shot,” Anderson said, “while I was a forward and played more around the rim. Together, it was a good combination.

“I always liked and respected Marty,” Anderson added. “We didn’t do much together socially, but he was a great teammate in whatever sport we were playing.”

In the spring of 1955, the locally famous Edgerton High baseball team brought out the best in Deignan, Anderson and many of the school’s other top athletes. Don Wilcox was the ace pitcher and Marty the catcher to form the battery, and Anderson was the star shortstop for a team that went untouched through the regular season and in reaching the open-class WIAA state semifinals.

The rest of lineup included Dick “Saucer” Heller, first base; John Zepke, second base; Dick Wilcox, third base; Ron “Rabbit” Hartzell, left field; Wally Steindl, center field; and Don Amundson, right field.

That team was so special that the administrators (saying, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime team.”) dismissed school early each time so everyone could attend the early-afternoon WIAA tournament games. The Crimson Tide answered the call by beating four Big Eight teams — Janesville, Beloit, Madison West and Racine Horlick (a memorable Memorial Day sectional final at Central Park) — to advance to the state tournament in Menasha.

“We grew up together and played a lot together,” said Don Wilcox, a longtime California resident. “Ken Kirby coached us in a very successful Legion season in 1954 and a good high school season followed.”

Edgerton opened the 1955 WIAA state tournament with a blowout of Tomah, then suffered its only defeat of the season in a 2-1 semifinal loss to Watertown, which then blew out Cuba City in the state title game.

“I have great memories of that but felt bad for a long, long time after that last game,” said Anderson, who went on to win the Gazette Silver Sluggers award, sponsored by the Milwaukee Braves, and then sign with the Braves. “My mom started scrapbooks, which I’ve been looking through since I heard about Marty, and a lot of it brought tears (often of joy) to my eyes.”

The most tearful time for Marty came when he lost Mary, his wife of almost 26 years, in 1986 at age 47. Marty went on from her passing with the remarkable accomplishment of putting all 10 of their kids — Annmarie, Patrick, Teresa, Michael, John, Colleen, Maureen, Katy, Joseph, Sara — through college.

Without question, one of countless reasons why those accomplished and married kids would call their father a hero.

Monroe adopted Marty as one of its own a long time ago. Before that, his high school alma mater came back to bite him after he graduated from Notre Dame in 1959 and soon joined the Monroe school district.

Don Trolliet was the key player there. With Marty as Monroe’s head baseball coach, the Edgerton High senior, who later signed with the New York Mets, pitched a no-hitter against the Cheesemakers at Recreation Park on the Crimson Tide’s way to the Badger Conference championship.

A month later. Marty was drafted into the U.S. Army. After two years of serving Uncle Sam, he returned to become a complete Monroe man in every respect. Along with his high school coaching, he served a long term on the park board, led the way in expanding Little League baseball from 40 to some 400 participants and developed his own summer Monroe Sports School, which made all aspects of sportsmanship the top priority.

It would be no exaggeration to say more a few of those young participants and their parents regarded Marty as their hero.

After his retirement, Marty became a world traveler, especially to beloved Ireland in celebration of his proud Irish heritage. All the while, he remained close to sports, working as a basketball game official, entering adult competition, and attending Monroe basketball reunions and Edgerton hall-of-fame inductions.

Through it all, Tom Mitchell was monitoring it on close to a daily basis.

“I followed Marty’s sports career — I confess I’ve read sports pages of newspapers every day of my life — to Notre Dame, when he was a catcher on the baseball team,” Tom wrote in an email. “After he and Mary moved to Monroe, he coached all sports and played a good game of tennis.  

“He was the sponsor for my confirmation at St. Victor’s Catholic Church, and he was part of our state championship season in 1965. He was a friend of our family for many years, and I will miss our visits at our basketball reunions.”

The kind of things heroes are made of, wouldn’t you say?