Summer is the favorite time of year for most beach-goers. But Milwaukee once was home to a unique fellow who tanned year-round at the lakefront. Our Bubbler Talk questioner wanted to know: Who was that guy?
Many people who lived in Milwaukee before 2000, like Cynthia Hoffman, know the answer. The man was the late Dick Bacon.
"During those years, everybody knew who Dick Bacon was," Hoffman says. "The first thing I think of is this ultra, ultra-crispy tan body. And he would have this sort of tinfoil or metal contraption that he would sit in down by the lake and crisp himself."
In the colder months – no matter how cold – drivers along Lincoln Memorial Drive would see Bacon, reclining in his silver, reflective enclosure. It was an eye-catching sight and many people would honk and wave. Bacon would smile and wave back.
But he wasn’t just known for the wintertime tanning. "I became aware of him in the '60s when I was a child, and my friends and I sort of knew of him as 'Mr. Bradford,'" says Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Jim Stingl.
Stingl recalls Bacon practically inhabiting Bradford Beach in the summer, typically wearing a Speedo swimsuit or something else skimpy.
"Most of the time that I was aware of him here, he was a middle-aged man. He wasn't like a 22-year-old or something. But he had a fantastic physique, which he had won awards for. He had been involved in Mr. Nude Universe kind of things."
For Bacon, it wasn’t just about showing off his body. The time at the beach was a way of life.
"He was a character in so many ways," Stingl says. "He was a nudist, he was a brewery worker, which made him very Milwaukee. His whole life was devoted to leisure and he was very unashamed about that."
Stingl became a columnist at the newspaper in 2000. He had been so intrigued by Bacon that he reached out to him in the early days on the job.
"One of the first things I wanted to do was call Dick Bacon and set up a meeting with him where he and I would get together and hang out in his aluminum foil tanning booth... He claimed it was 80 degrees inside all that reflective aluminum foil. And he was very nice and he said, 'Yeah, sure -- why don't we wait when it gets cold again and we'll get together,' and then he died."
Bacon died at the age of 67 of a heart attack -- not skin cancer, as people might assume. Stingl covered Bacon's memorial service and says Bacon would have loved the tributes shared, but not the fact that the service was held indoors, with everyone clothed.
Dick Bacon lived on for a time in art that had been commissioned by the former Alterra Coffee, which has since become Colectivo. The art was a drawing for the label of one of Alterra's coffee blends. Co-founder Lincoln Fowler says the Alterra team was attracted to Bacon and his unabashed approach to life.
"I think he was ahead of his time in the fact that I think back then it was kind of scandalous, and now it's kind of an arm shrug, no big deal. He was an individual. He, I don't think, paid a lot of regard for what people thought of how he conducted his life, and there's something really attractive about that," he shares.
But Fowler says more importantly, Bacon was a good fit for the label, because Alterra’s motto was “Strong Coffee Since 1993" and Bacon was known for his strong body. Fowler says he began thinking about coffee and the strength it took to handle it when he was listening to an interview with a stevedore on Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
"He said that the most difficult load in any ship's hold was coffee because it was just difficult to handle, it was heavy, it was obviously dead weight. We connected Dick with loading coffee in kind of the context of exporting or importing coffee and there you had it, he was there on the label, gripping a bag by two ends and either swinging it onto a pallet or out of a hold."
In the drawing Bacon is depicted as a working man, wearing a white, sleeveless t-shirt as opposed to the swimsuit that he donned so often. Even so, Fowler says many people could tell Bacon was the model, and Bacon got a kick out of the recognition.
And that wasn’t the only way Bacon’s world intersected with art or being the center of attention. He also posed nude for art classes, including a drawing class that Cynthia Hoffman took at UW-Milwaukee in the 1980s.
She recounts the class' reaction to Bacon's appearance: "So on this particular day, we're all waiting and the model was somewhat late, so we're waiting, waiting, waiting, and you can hear back behind the screen, you know, someone's arrived and someone's disrobing. And he strolls out from behind the screen and the room went silent. It went silent like someone had turned off the volume in a second."
Hoffman says the students were shocked to see such a tan body up close -- and so much of it. "He certainly sunbathed in the nude is what I learned that day," she laughs.
What broke the ice, Hoffman recalls, was when a student commented that he'd have to dig around in his paints to find just the right hue to capture Bacon's tan skin tone.
"You know what, I have no memory of his modeling ability. I don’t think I have any drawings from that day, I don’t think I have anything left over. It was just sort of this general 'oh my god' when he walked out. And you know, for an old guy, he was in pretty good shape."
Hoffman says there's something special about people everyone just seems to know, like Bacon. "I think it's the kind of story that would come up in a bar as you age. It becomes part of our collective culture, and you might run into someone that you knew in Milwaukee at a certain time and you'd be sitting around and you'd say, 'Oh god -- do you remember Dick Bacon? Remember the time he was the model in our art class? Oh my god!' I love it that there's characters like that in the city, and for the life of me I don't know how they get to be so widely known."
In more recent years, social media has made celebrities of sorts out of some local "characters." Take the muscular guy who walks briskly -- and shirtless -- throughout neighborhoods near downtown. He bears a slight resemblance to Wolverine from the X-Men movies, earning him the nickname "Milverine."
But columnist Jim Stingl says there’ll never be anyone quite like Dick Bacon.
"He wasn't bothering anybody or hurting anybody. And he must have played a million games of volleyball on this beach, because when you'd come down here -- I don't care, it could be a nothing Tuesday -- he'd be down here playing volleyball. He was just a single guy who became famous for tanning and he's really still the only person in Milwaukee that's famous for tanning, I think. And nobody else has stepped in to do it, and maybe that would be lame. But he was truly one of a kind here while he was doing it and has remained that way. And I was thinking about it the other day, if he were alive today he would turn 86 this year. And my guess is he would still be out there."
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