Wayne Otto (Inducted 1992)

Middleton, WI, USA
Professor Emeritus, University of Wisconsin, Madison


Biographical Statement

Wayne R. Otto, 86, of Middleton, Wis. died at home on Wednesday, November 8, 2017. Wayne grew up in Fremont, Wisconsin, above the Farmers' Store on the banks of the Wolf River. He graduated from UW River Falls then volunteered for the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves and served for two years, attaining the rank of sergeant. He taught high school English for three years before completing masters and PhD degrees at UW Madison. He held faculty positions at both the University of Oregon and the University of Georgia before returning to Madison. Wayne was Professor and two-time Chairman of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, specializing in reading education. He retired in 1995 as Emeritus Professor after 30 years at UW Madison. Wayne will be remembered by friends and neighbors as a great gardener and an avid reader, and by colleagues as a notable figure in education research and development, an author, and particularly as a teacher, mentor and friend to countless graduate students.


Meeting Wayne, Fats and Evelyn at the Old Style Place


As a doctoral student and early in my career as an assistant professor, Wayne Otto was something of a legend for me and others in the field of Reading. He was highly productive as a researcher and theorist, but never seemed to become disconnected from the practical issues related to teaching young kids to read and older kids to read better. At the time beginning reading instruction was going through highly controversial debates. Scripted Basal Reading instruction predominated, the Whole Language method was gaining steam and behaviorist approaches advocating direct instruction competed for attention. Wayne’s Wisconsin Reading Design, co-developed with Eunice Askov, presented a thoughtful, evidence-based alternative.


In the mid-1980s Wayne began to be a regular columnist for The Journal of Reading. Initially the columns appeared under the titles Research or Commentary. These were highly creative pieces of writing. The titles, such as Microbrews and Subarus, Getting Inserviced at the Old Style Place, The Return of Fats Grobnik, and We Read Books So We Won’t Cry, give you a flavor for how unusual the columns were for a professional journal.  Beginning in 1991 his column was named Views and Reviews. The odd titles and creativity continued and, in my opinion became more refined. The beginnings were usually humorous and a bit off the wall. Take, for example, this one from The Agony of da Effete (Journal of Reading, March, 1992):


Would I lie to you, I told Jimmy over at the Old Style place across the street; a full 16 ounces every day of the week including Saturday when there's live entertainment... My Sister Jane and her all girl band when we were there. ..it's the Happy Hour Pounder and it only costs a buck. At the Rio Colorado they call it a draw, you call it a draft, I call it a tap; but it comes down to the same thing- 16 ounces of cool, clear domestic beer for a buck. I slid my diet Dr. Pepper empty across the bar and added, for emphasis, Uno dinero.


But, lest you think the content isn’t serious, here’s a paragraph from later in the column:


The scene is befogged, of course, by our tendency to say class when we mean race or, more often, race when we mean class. Of course saying class when we mean race may spare us from being called racist when we make certain claims; but saying race when we ought to be saying class obscures- or denies- an array of social, cultural, and economic realities that are tough to face as teachers. We distance ourselves from people and problems with the words we choose. (Have a look at J. Elspeth Stuckey's The Violence of Literacy- published by Boynton/Cook, 1991- for a new and, I think, insightful look at the issues involved here.) 


These regular columns were the first thing I would read when the Journal of Reading would arrive (by regular mail in those days!). They were delightfully funny. There were odd characters, like Fats Grobnik and Evelyn the Story Lady. There were interesting settings, particularly the Old Style place that seemed to be Wayne’s favorite bar (although Wayne seldom drank, at least around me). His stories often took place during his travels; the Rio Colorado mentioned in the above quote is a bar in Moab, Utah. But as far as I could ever tell, the places and characters that wandered through Wayne’s columns were fictional and only loosely based on real people and locations. They simply served the creative purpose of drawing the reader into the more serious content that followed. Rereading these columns has been a real pleasure, and I highly recommend them both for their humor and still relevant professional insight.


Over the years I had the great opportunity to develop a relationship with Wayne that was both personal and professional. Our interactions generally mirrored the columns. Starting with humorous and often rambling conversations with little to do with professional topics, then segueing into more serious discussions about our work. Wayne valued my ideas while gently guiding me toward more substantive insights. As I interacted with young colleagues at professional conferences I became increasingly aware of how many were graduates of Wayne’s doctoral program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They all held him in highest esteem. This along with my own experiences has led me to conclude that although he was a great researcher, theorist and practitioner, Wayne’s greatest contributions were as a mentor. He will be missed.


Gary Moorman

Professor Emeritus

Appalachian State University