Meet the Unoffical Mayor of Mazo’s Nude Beach
By George Hesselberg, The Wisconsin State Journal
Nov. 14–MAZOMANIE — It’s the slow season for the mayor of the clothes-optional beach here, so Charlie Wise was not on duty Thursday morning. That’s hardly surprising, considering naked recreation along a river bank is not a popular November pastime in Wisconsin.
But Wise, declared unofficial mayor of the popular nude beach in the late 1990s, is no longer living the dream.
Now it’s a nightmare, and Wise has awakened to the reality of being cold, broke, depressed, jobless, mentally and physically ill, in child-support debt to two ex-wives, and heading into another winter while living in a 1989 Dodge van with a broken heater, down by the Wisconsin River.
It gets a little complicated after that.
“I guess I am at the end of my rope,” the former lawyer said, describing a lot in life that is both familiar and unique.
That is why Charles H. Wise, 55, drove his van into Madison last week to, as he described, “sell myself.”
He got a room at the Super 8, dry-cleaned his only suit snazzy, black, pinstriped — and shined his black wingtips. Only a few deep scabs remained on the side of his forehead from a decade-long skin affliction. So he presented a natty image, so long as he didn’t open his mouth; his teeth and gums are a mess that he calculates would cost $8,000 to fix.
With his lanky, suited frame and trimmed beard and hair, he looked Lincolnesque, not like a man who had spent a good deal of the past 12 years naked, living in vehicles and tents and patrolling one of the Midwest’s premier naturist destinations.
Wise drove to Mazomanie in 1996 following the dissolution of his second marriage and a dive into a deep depression, a bipolar disorder, that left him on disability and unable to continue as a lawyer in the Twin Cities.
“I found this nice beach and thought I would stick around about a year,” he said, declining a cup of coffee as he chatted during a meeting at the Park Street Burger King.
“I didn’t understand it was going to be a dead end.”
He became a Wisconsin River beach bum, unofficial caretaker of the nude beach that draws naturists from near and far to the state wildlife refuge between Highway Y and the east side of the Wisconsin River north of Mazomanie.
“I was just living, nothing more,” he said.
Life on ‘Charlie’s Island’
In the ensuing years, he not only became the de facto mayor — before the authorities cracked down, people would set up tents for the whole summer near the beach — but also had an island named after him. He spent a lot of time on Charlie’s Island, which is actually a sandbar.
He picked up trash, kept some order, reminded people about the rules. He was arrested twice for smoking marijuana. He also retreated to that little island more and more as “all this physical stuff started taking a toll. I looked pretty scary, so I just kind of slid away from contact with people.”
Allen Jacobs befriended Wise that first year and remains in intermittent contact.
“He developed a ghastly skin disease at that time,” said Jacobs, of Green Bay. “He had open lesions all over his body, so he became further ostracized. He was pushed into a very peculiar state of not just homelessness, but was a walking bundle of disease.”
Wise gets a disability payment of $866 monthly. After child support deductions, he is left with $299.60.
Jacobs describes his friend as a “phenomenal chess player” and “a law-abiding person, almost to the point of being puritanical.”
Eric Flansburgh patrolled the Mazomanie refuge and beach this past summer for the Department of Natural Resources.
“He’s an ordinary guy trying to enjoy his life,” said Flansburgh, who talked with Wise on Charlie’s Island regularly as he relaxed with a beach umbrella and lawn chair.
“He is one of the nicest guys I have ever met, would help anyone out who needed it,” said Flansburgh.
Dealing with the cold
Dane County Sheriff’s Deputy Todd Dosher, based in Mazomanie, has had regular contact with Wise for the past five years.
“Typically in the winter he takes off and goes to Florida, and he’ll check back in with us when he gets back in the spring,” Dosher said. “He has never been a problem for us, never asked for any assistance, a very intelligent, pleasant guy.”
Wise fills his water jugs at a local store, buys gas at the Shell station and food at Wal-mart, “mostly noodles is what I can afford.”
This year Wise has neither the vehicle nor the money to head south for the winter. He has spent a couple of winters in his vehicle in Wisconsin, and one autumn he tried to set up a tent, hoping to winter on his island.
“The DNR got into a panic and thought I would die on their property so they rousted me out of there,” he said.
DNR warden and area supervisor Steve Colden saw that act as a rescue mission and noted he and others tried to get Wise help from different agencies. But Wise wasn’t interested.
“He stayed out there all winter in his vehicle,” said Colden. Because the refuge area is closed between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m., Wise had to leave every evening, Colden said.
“I think he has decided not to be a productive person in society,” said Colden.
Promising start, then illness
Wise, who earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Cloud State University and, in 1986, a law degree from William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn., said he knows others may have that opinion of him.
“I have found that I can’t change anyone’s perception of how I run my life,” said Wise.
After college, he worked as a commercial painter for a friend’s company before starting law school. By the time he quit being a lawyer — his license was pulled in 1996 for non-payment and failure to keep up with education requirements — he had also acquired two former wives, a child from each, and had started a support group for lawyers dealing with depression. His way of dealing with it, ultimately, was to sit on a beach along the Wisconsin River.
He also, along the way, made a video journal of his time in Mazomanie, a collection of videotapes he hopes to edit into a program about his life there.
He has received some help from others, strangers, friends, family members. He says he has never contacted his former wives or their children, and they have never contacted him. (Efforts to reach his family in Minnesota were unsuccessful.)
“I know that’s what people are thinking. ‘Why doesn’t Charlie just get up and get a job and get to it?’” he said.
“It’s not that easy,” he said. For a long time, he was in “blinding pain” because of the skin disease, which was examined but never diagnosed. He is also, despite prescription drugs and formal therapy and no small amount of respite, still clinically depressed.
“I’m in a spot where my vehicle gets 10 miles to the gallon, and the blower in my heater went out. Not a big deal to most people, but it is virtually life and death to me.”
Ready for the ‘next step’
He has a plan. He wants a lawyer to help him decrease the child support payments so he can afford a place to live. And he wants some money to get started. That’s what the clean suit and wingtips and “selling himself” was all about last week.
Among those he met with was the Rev. Rob Nelson, an enthusiastic clergyman who leads the New Heights Lutheran Parish, which combines two churches in Mazomanie and Black Earth.
Wise has over the past few months popped up in the pews of the Mazomanie church, and he joined a 17-member mission last month to the Biloxi, Miss., area to provide hurricane-related help.
“He came with us and related well with the group, fit right in, he could tell and take jokes,” said Nelson.
He believes part of Wise’s problem is an inability to physically accomplish certain paperwork requirements that may lessen his financial burden. Legal help in Minnesota is under consideration.
“I think that because surviving has always been his immediate concern, it is very difficult to take that next step,” said Nelson.
“Whatever it is he had to go through, it may finally be coming to an end. It needed to come to an end and he actually believes it is time for it to come to an end,” said Nelson.
Charlie Wise can be contacted via mail in care of general delivery, Mazomanie, WI 53560.
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