Wednesday evening, at the Sa-Bai Thong restaurant on Odana Road, a distinguished-looking visitor from Thailand eased into a booth and smiled broadly as he was handed a copy of a newspaper story four decades old.
Pongsak Payakvichien is a legend in journalism in Thailand. When the Wisconsin Alumni Association (WAA) presented him with its Distinguished Alumni Award in 2000, they noted that he had “almost single-handedly brought about Thai journalism’s coming-of-age.”
The announcement continued: “After graduating from the UW in 1971 with a master’s degree in journalism, he pursued a career in his native country, eventually becoming assistant executive editor for the Daily News, the second-largest circulation Thai newspaper. In 1973, he joined the daily newspaper Prachathipatai (Democracy) , as managing editor, and turned the conventional afternoon ‘sensation’ newspaper into Thailand’s first active ‘hard news’ morning publication. The publication became a prototype for quality newspapers in Thailand.”
But for a moment Wednesday night, as Pongsak sat in the booth and looked at the old newspaper story, he was a young graduate student again, nervous and excited on his wedding day.
It’s funny how yellowed news clips can sometimes jump to life.
It was a month or so ago that I was handling a dusty one from May 1968 that was in the clip file of Wilmott Ragsdale, a beloved journalism professor at UW-Madison who had recently died.
Ragsdale was 97 when he died, and just a few months earlier, he’d been passing out literature for Barack Obama on a street in his native Washington state.
As I was fretting about how to do justice to such a marvelous man in 800 words, the clip from 1968 presented itself.
It was a front-page, above-the-fold article from the State Journal of May 25, 1968.
The headline read: “Bureaucracy Bows for a Thailand Bride.”
There was a secondary headline: “Wedding Written in Stars — and Judge’s Book.”
It was such an interesting tale that I wound up leading my Ragsdale column with it.
Ragsdale’s adventurous life had included time spent teaching in Thailand. In May 1968, teaching journalism on the Madison campus, it made sense for him to be faculty adviser to a journalism graduate student from Bangkok.
The student, of course, was Pongsak Payakvichien, though last month, when I wrote the Ragsdale piece, I had no idea of his subsequent prominence.
“One of my journalism professors in Thailand had graduated from UW,” Pongsak told me Wednesday night. “He recommended I come here.”
He started working on newspapers in Thailand when he was 16 and fell in love with the craft. “It is my life,” he said.
Pongsak said he struggled for a time in Madison. When he first arrived, alone, a little scared, on a cold and rainy night, he stayed at the YMCA. The next day he went to the journalism school office and met Ragsdale, whom he came to revere. “I modeled my life on him.”
Pongsak’s tentative English hindered him a bit and this week he recalled having to talk one of his professors, Bill Hachten, into letting him retake a crucial exam.
But that paled against what happened when his wife-to-be, Kamoltip Wattanasak, known as Au, flew to Madison just a few days before their scheduled wedding in May 1968. Au had planned the date and time carefully, based on ancient Thai tradition and astrology, but she hadn’t realized that blood tests, a waiting period for a marriage license, and other red tape made the prescribed date impossible.
Pongsak went to Ragsdale. “What can I do?”
“Leaping into battle,” the State Journal later reported, Ragsdale “slashed away at the red tape.” The wedding, in front of Judge William Buenzli, was performed on time.
Pongsak and Au — who earned a degree here in anthropology — celebrated their 40th anniversary last May.
It was Kim Santiago de Madera, Asia Coordinator for UW-Madison, who sent me a note saying that the young man in the original story had distinguished himself in the years since.
Pongsak, who is president of the WAA’s Thailand Foundation, was in Madison this week as part of a delegation of Thai UW-Madison graduates. They remain highly committed to the university and the city, having in 2001 spearheaded the donation of the beautiful Thai Pavilion in Olbrich Gardens.
The delegation and many from UW-Madison’s Asia community gathered for dinner Wednesday at Sa-Bai Thong.
“This is our second home,” Pongsak said. “This is our second family.”