Milly Babcock is the former Director of Catering and Banquet Sales for The Hoffman House; former co-owner of Babcock Outdoor Advertising, Inc.; former President of Janesville Noon Rotary Club; a YWCA Woman of Distinction recipient; and a lifelong community supporter and volunteer.
Interview by Teresa Nguyen
Where did you grow up?
I grew up on our family’s dairy farm south of Ridgeway, the fifth of 12 children born to my parents, John and Kay (Brunker) McGraw. Yes, we’re Catholic and Irish! For almost 50 years, we’ve had a very close connection to many relatives who are still in Ireland.
A number of them have visited family in Wisconsin, and many of my family and cousins here have been to Ireland, several of us more than once. We normally stay at one another’s homes and make our way through County Antrim in order to see the various families.
My dad’s father, Dan McGraw, immigrated from Northern Ireland in 1900 at the age of 18 with little education and less money. He, along with many other immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island in New York, heard there was factory work available in Beloit, WI. So, they made their way to Beloit.
About 15 years ago, Ken and Diane Hendricks invited several hundred people from Rock County to the “Unveiling of the Iron Works” on a beautiful fall evening in Beloit. The late Josh Burton, formerly an actor in NY, portrayed the Irishman, complete with the brogue and clothing. He relayed the history of the Beloit immigrants from numerous countries. They worked harmoniously together and even shared their ethnic lunches they took to work in metal lunch boxes. I’ll never forget my reaction, realizing that one of those men would have been my own grandfather!
A few years later, Grandpa moved to Mineral Point, Wisconsin after hearing there was a need for masonry. He had done brick work in Ireland, so he was quickly hired and settled in the area the remainder of his life. After meeting my grandmother, Mary Laverty, they were married and had 10 children, one being my father.
To this day, I find it amazing that my grandparents ended up owning three farms in Iowa County, despite such a frugal beginning. Eventually, when their children were raised and married, three of their sons bought those farms, two of which are still in the family today.
Tell me about your family growing up.
When my father was home from service, he met my mother at a dance in Ridgeway. My mom taught school in a one-room school house prior to their marriage. Once she was pregnant with her first child, she had to resign. In those days, a woman wasn’t allowed to teach if it was evident that she was expecting.
My parents, like my grandparents, eventually owned three farms, all which are currently owned by three of my siblings.
In 1960, my parents bought their second farm and they had the large house renovated before we moved in. It was built in the late 1800’s and is still a beautifully constructed home. It was a dream come true for my mother to have such a large, modern home, especially with a huge kitchen where she prepared many, many delicious meals. She was well known for her homemade bread, cookies and pies all her life.
Her own mother died in their house fire when she was 6 years old, so she started baking for her father and four siblings at a very young age. She was very close to her siblings, being the oldest daughter. Consequently, I grew up with LOTS of cousins on both sides of the family.
Around 1962, my parents bought an adjoining farm because my oldest brother was going to work with my father after graduating high school. Being a farm kid, Bobby and several of his teammates were natural football players and the team was undefeated in 1963-’64. Sadly, he was diagnosed with cancer very soon after his graduation, in 1964, and died about six months later. I was in sixth grade, but I vividly remember what a devastating time it was for my parents.
I recall at that age taking turns with my siblings getting up early in the morning before school and going to the barn to help with chores. My dad milked the cows and we would carry the pails of milk from the barn to the milk house then pour the pails into the large bulk coolers. It wasn’t unusual for farm kids to help with chores morning and evening.
When I was 11 or 12, I started baking and helping my mother with meals for our family. We always had desserts with our noon and evening meal. To this day, I have a passion for baking!
I realized many years ago my strong work ethic is due to my upbringing and it has served me well over the years.
Where did you go to school?
Ridgeway and Dodgeville. All 12 of us graduated from Dodgeville High School. I graduated in 1971.
Were you involved in activities in high school?
Not at all. With the farm and large family, after school activities weren’t an option, especially for the girls in our family. My sisters and I all shared working after school either in the house or at the barn.
What did you do after high school?
I moved to Madison and attended MATC, receiving an associate’s degree. It was a major change leaving the farm that fall, going to school in Madison. But it was a great time. I’m still very close to one of my roommates but, sadly, another one died very young of cancer.
What happened after college?
I got married and moved to Janesville in 1973. My husband, who was from my hometown, worked at Chrysler. A couple months later, my father was diagnosed with cancer and died the following year.
I had six younger siblings in grade school and high school. Unfortunately, my dad had very little life insurance so it was very difficult financially for my mother. My brother who was a freshman in high school basically took over the farm work along with two sisters who were in high school. They would take turns getting up at 4:30 in the morning to help my brother with chores. They would then go to school all day and repeat the process at night.
My mother never worked outside doing the farm work, but she kept things going financially. I’ve always been amazed by how they managed!
Years later, I found out one of my older sisters, who was working and living in Madison, deposited her paycheck in Mom’s account. She worked a part-time job on weekends and lived with an older couple for room and board. After my dad’s death, Dianne devoted her life to helping keep the farm together.
Tell me about your career with the Hoffman House.
There were three individuals who gave me an opportunity at the Hoffman House and I’ll always be grateful to them: Terry Siebert, Mark Otis and Dick Seal.
When Shawn and Ryan were young, I answered an ad in the Janesville Gazette for a temporary position for an advertising agency doing sales promotions at the Hoffman House Restaurant.
It was commissioned based and because I was always quite competitive, I did okay. Months later, Terry, who worked out of the corporate office in Madison, called and asked if I would meet with him. He was considering bypassing the ad agency and offered me the position.
Even though it was part time, I traveled to various Hoffman Houses interviewing, hiring and training applicants for Sales Promotions. At that time, the corporation owned Hoffman Houses in Rockford, Madison, Dubuque, Eau Claire as well as Warren, Michigan, just outside of Detroit. I would drive to the various locations with the exception of Detroit, which required flying for the first time in my life!
After a few years, Terry was changing companies so my part time job was coming to an end. However, he told Mark Otis, General Manager at the Hoffman House in Janesville, that if he ever decided to hire someone for outside sales to contact me. So, I began working full time which worked out fine because my sons were in school by that time. Mark hired me as Director of Catering and Banquet Sales, again working 100 % commission.
I absolutely loved my job because I was out making sales calls to every company in the entire area and I met wonderful employees as well as owners of businesses on a daily basis, many with whom I’m still friends. I’m a people person and had the Irish gift to gab, so it wasn’t difficult to book banquets and catered events.
Thankfully, we had wonderful chefs and the Hoffman House had an outstanding reputation for excellent food and service. The entire staff was top notch so they made me look good!
Soon after, Mark left the Hoffman House to buy the Milwaukee Grill, which he and his wife Andy still own today. At that time, Dick Seal, who was already with the corporation, bought three of the restaurants, Ishnala at Wisconsin Dells, Rockford and Janesville. Dick lived in Madison but made the drive to Janesville daily, becoming the third wonderful boss I was so fortunate to have.
By then, I was no longer married but I took my position with the company very seriously and never wanted to let my bosses down. I worked really hard to make enough money to provide a good life for my sons and myself. I had the flexibility with my job that I could pick up my sons from school when necessary and they could hang out in my office, do homework and eat the delicious Hoffman House food. For that reason alone, I was very grateful.
Often on weekends, our routine was to go to mass at St. John Vianney Church on Saturday nights, then I would stop at work to check on the banquets or wedding reception. It was totally PR, because the staff was doing the work but I wanted the person who was paying for it to understand how appreciative I was of their business.
In December and January, most events were Christmas parties and because several could be held in the various banquet rooms, it would take me a while to contact clients. Shawn and Ryan would swim in the Ramada Inn pool while waiting for me. They have special memories of their time at work with me. It truly was a wonderful arrangement for a single mom.
I think the main reason I’ve always been so involved in our community and felt the need to ‘give back’ is because I’ve never forgotten how much the companies and individuals supported me all those years by having their events at the Hoffman House. Even though no one realized I worked on commission, I truly appreciated their business and did what I could to make their experience the best possible. I never took their business for granted and personally felt their loyalty to the Hoffman House.
Tell me about your own family.
I have two wonderful sons, Shawn and Ryan Murphy. Ryan will turn 40 in a few months and Shawn is 41. They are both married and have children of their own. My sons have always been my greatest joy in life. However, I must admit that once I became a grandma, my love for grandchildren is undeniable!
It basically was just the three of us for many years, so we’ve always been very close. After going through a divorce, I bought the house I still live in 27 years later! It is out in the country on Trescher Road, north of Milton.
The outdoors provided healthy entertainment for my sons growing up. When the pond froze in the winter, they had fun playing hockey. They had a snowmobile and a 4-wheeler, typical country enjoyment. Fairly often we would go up to the farm on weekends, where Shawn and Ryan’s cousins also gathered. The many nephews were able to help my brothers on the farm, especially in the summer when extra helpers were always needed for baling hay, daily farm chores and milking cows morning and night.
Working on a farm teaches kids responsibility and develops work ethic, which was a bonus. The farm house was built on a big hill and provided the best sledding fun ever! My sons had great times with their many cousins on that sledding hill.
In 1992, when we were looking at houses to buy and saw the house on Trescher Road, I recall telling my sons that if I bought it, I would need them to mow the very large lawn and do the snow removal in the winter. They definitely wanted me to buy it, they kept their promise and rarely complained. Each fall, I would plant hundreds and hundreds of tulip bulbs which required digging deep holes. I remember them helping me dig!
Even though we lived a distance away, Shawn and Ryan’s cousins spent time at our house and they all share those special memories. It was a good place for my sons to live and they always knew they were my priority.
About four years ago, Shawn and Sarah and their two children moved to North Carolina, which is still difficult, because I was accustomed to often having all the grandkids at our house. Ryan, Nicole and their three children live outside Barneveld, so I see them frequently because of closer proximity. In addition, Ryan has two older stepsons who are still a part of our lives, plus I have a nephew the same age as my grandsons. He has spent a lot of time at our house with his cousins, ever since they were toddlers.
How did you meet Dave?
Dave had breakfast with the owner and manager of the Hoffman House almost every morning. He had been married very young and they had a son, but when Dave Jr. was a couple years old, they divorced. Dave’s lifestyle was different from mine so I didn’t take him seriously for quite some time. In fact, the first time he asked me for a date, I asked him if he expected me to go out in public with him, considering his reputation!
Because Dave didn’t have experience raising kids, I felt it would be a good idea waiting until my sons were raised before getting married, which was one of the wisest things I’ve ever done. Dave hung in there, and about eight years later we were married!
Dave Jr. is 49. He and his wife, Heather, live in Janesville and have four children. All three of our sons and their wives are wonderful parents to our grandchildren.
Did you quit working at the Hoffman House?
Yes, soon before Dave and I were married, I resigned. By that time, my beloved boss retired, so the timing was perfect. Dave had started his own billboard company, Babcock Signs. I became the PR Director which was basically name only. Even though I was on the payroll, I always told people that Dave ran the company and I ran around attending meetings, because I was quite involved in the community.
What became of your mom?
Mom found out she needed heart bypass surgery. It truly was perfect timing for me to resign from the Hoffman House because, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t working and my sons were grown and out of the house. I was the obvious person in my family to help care for her because everyone else was employed full time.
By then, only one brother was still living at the home farm where mom still lived. He owned the farm and another brother had purchased the farm over the hill and both brothers farmed together.
Soon after mom was discharged from the hospital, I would make the 70-minute drive to the farm, stay a few days, then pack up and drive home. An advantage to having lots of kids is having them help care for parents as they age, and it was certainly true in this case. Most of my siblings lived in the area and someone was always there to help out as needed.
Even after mom’s health was restored, I continued the routine for a long, long time. By then I would only stay a day or two. Even though I worked like a maniac, I truly enjoyed what I was doing. It was very gratifying to spend so much time with my mom, as well as my brothers, who came to the house for daily lunch.
It’s typical for farmers to have big meals, so I was in my glory cooking and baking. I’ve always been fascinated with recipes and read cookbooks like novels. I tried new recipes nonstop.
I also cleaned and did laundry, which is never ending on a farm. Eventually, I decided they needed a cleaning lady. I contacted someone who had an ad in the local paper and hired her! It made my life much easier and I could spend time doing the things I really enjoyed.
One of my passions in life is nature and wildlife, so soon after we moved to Trescher Road, I put up lots of bird feeders as well as bluebird houses. Around that time, someone told me there were wood ducks on our pond, which I had never seen. I bought a couple wood duck houses and the following year they were occupied! I continued each year and have at least three dozen wood duck houses yet. We have beautiful birds at the feeders all year and normally have nesting bluebirds, chickadees and tree swallows in the houses.
I took the same feeders and houses to the farm, which my brothers helped me put up so mom was able to enjoy the same birds year-round. Even though it took several years for wood ducks to occupy the houses at the farm, each March they return. It’s been a source of enjoyment all these years. In addition, I plant lots of flowers and tulip bulbs so I did the same for mom. She enjoyed it immensely.
The last year of mom’s life, she went to a wonderful rehab facility in Dodgeville to recover from a bronchial infection. A couple days later she announced she would like to stay on a permanent basis! She loved all the activities and socialization and had lots of visitors. Her memory was incredible till the day she died, surrounded by her many children. That was just before her 92nd birthday.
Dave is very self-sufficient because he lived alone for 28 years before we got married, plus when he wasn’t working he was golfing. Because of this, me being away didn’t really interfere with his schedule. He actually gave me the best gift possible; time with my mom and brothers. For that, I will be eternally grateful to him.
Tell me about your community involvement.
Because of my position at the Hoffman House, PR was part of that role. So, in the early 80’s, I became a Goodwill Ambassador during Marv Roth’s many years leading the Chamber of Commerce, later Forward Janesville. Later, I became an ambassador for the Milton Chamber of Commerce as well.
In 1992, I joined the Janesville Noon Rotary Club and I’m still a member. I was elected president in ’97 which made me our club’s first female president since Rotary was formed in Janesville in 1918. I didn’t think much of it at the time but it really was an honor to serve in that capacity.
The members were incredibly supportive and never once did they criticize me for stepping into a male-dominated position. Rotary Clubs throughout the world have made eradicating polio our mission and it’s extremely close. A few countries still need the vaccine.
About that time, I joined the Bower City Garden Club and am still involved. I was a long-time board member at UW-Rock County’s Foundation, and served on the board at Rotary Gardens. I’m also a long-time member of the Lake Koshkonong Wetlands Association, an active group nearby of likeminded people who appreciate nature and wildlife preservation.
I’ve been involved with United Way for many years and led the campaign along with Kim Hendricks a few years ago. When Agrace Hospice Care was building the new facility, I was on the fundraising committee. I was also on the board of the Janesville Performing Art Center.
The YWCA is another cause dear to my heart so I’ve assisted with fundraising and continue to support their projects.
Have you been involved in your hometown, as well?
About 20 years ago, I was asked to join the Dodgeville High School Scholarship Board. I attended the monthly meetings for about six years. Each September, about 140 alumni take part in a golf outing and auction which has been a successful fundraiser. Even though I’m not on the committee, I attend annually.
My mother was well known in the area for her homemade apple pies and she offered to donate three pies for the auction. Her pies became the highest bidding item every year, always going for at least a few hundred dollars each. They often went for much more, sometimes over a thousand per pie!
Since Mom died, my adult niece in Dodgeville took over the pie project, so the bidding continues. The guys from the class of ’65 were friends with my oldest brother who died shortly after his graduation. Each year they pool their money and they are the highest bidders. They are an amazing group and they helped keep Bobby’s memory alive for Mom.
She received much joy each September hearing how much money her pies generated. Because of her loyalty, one of the many scholarships was formed in her name, the Kay McGraw Scholarship. The event normally nets around $40 grand, all which goes to scholarships.
What are your thoughts on our community today and with the revitalization of downtown Janesville?
All the organizations I mentioned previously, and many more, do amazing things for Rock County. Each group is so fortunate to have outstanding staff, the best of the best as leaders. In addition, the many amazing volunteers make these groups so successful.
Numerous individuals involved with Arise Now are to be applauded for their vision, dedication and generosity, transforming downtown Janesville into an entirely new hub. It’s staggering what has been accomplished. I give so much credit to Forward Janesville, the City leaders as well as loyal volunteers for working together for the benefit of Janesville.
How did you start your “Girls Night Out”?
Ha! My claim to fame was originating GNO about 25 years ago! A couple years prior to that time, John Rodgers was transferred to Janesville with Heritage Bank, now Johnson Bank. He joined our Noon Rotary Club. Soon after I became friends with his wife, Mary (now Chickering). Sadly, John unexpectedly died of a heart attack at the bank, and Mary was left alone in a new town and didn’t really know that many people yet.
To help Mary through her grief, I would meet her for lunch periodically along with other friends who had also lost their spouses. Eventually, I was out of widows so we would meet with various ‘girlfriends.’ The saying “friends are meant to be shared” came to mind, so the list kept growing as I became aware of friends who were struggling in various capacities. I knew women who were the type to support Mary and one another. At some point, the lunches changed to meeting in the evening, so we referred to ourselves as the GNO’s and we’re still going strong to this day!
Where is Mary now?
After a year or two, I told Mary we were on to ’Plan B’ and introduced her to eligible men! I was already referred to as “Milly the Matchmaker” and it was a fun to set Mary up with nice guys. She worked for Peg Eckdahl, Superintendent of Milton Schools, and it was Peg who introduced Mary to Doug Chickering. They married a number of years ago and moved to Madison to live happily ever after!
What happened to the company, Babcock Outdoor Signs?
Just over four years ago, Lamar Advertising approached us about buying the company so we sold out to them. The timing was perfect because of our ages.
Now that you are both retired, what are some of your activities?
Since we retired, we’re snowbirds. We bought our first condo in southern Florida about 15 years ago. By the time the company sold, we no longer had the condos, but had recently bought our house. We love having family and friends visit in Florida. With my large family, it’s a busy place during the winter months!
Because I love spring in Wisconsin, I normally fly home by mid-April, three or four weeks before Dave. His passion in life is golfing, so he golfs very often and won’t fly home for the season till the weather is much warmer.
I’m always anxious to get home to get at yard work and landscaping. Plus, I’ll never tire of the returning migratory birds, especially orioles, grosbeaks, purple martins, and hummingbirds. By then the bluebirds are back and the early wood ducks have returned and are nesting. It’s a perfect time of year to have grandkids at our house to enjoy and observe nature.
We have lots of large windows that allow great views of the pond and wood duck houses. All the grandkids have seen the ducklings in their wooden boxes and watched them jump out the following day, which is a glorious sight! I monitor all the bird houses and duck houses and the kids love to climb up my step ladder to peek at the baby birds and ducklings.
The grandkids have always been intrigued by the many small tree frogs and love to hold them and witness their changing color. We have a waterfall and small pond in our yard where large frogs have made their home. All the kids have nets, and another great source of enjoyment is capturing those frogs. The large pond down the hill is well stocked with fish, so fishing is a favorite past time for the children of all ages in our large, extended family.
A favorite tradition for the children is making ‘a gingerbread boy’ and finding him when he escapes outside! Years ago, I found a large cookie sheet in the shape of a gingerbread boy and countless times since, the kids help shape the dough in the pan. Then, while he’s baking, they sit in front of the oven with arms outstretched ready to catch him when we open the oven door, according to the story I read to them.
As he’s cooling in the pan on the counter, the kids begin to lose interest and wander away, providing me time to slip him out one of several doors in our house. Once they discover he’s gone, the excitement and the search begins! He’s been known to hide on the deck behind the hot tub, on one of the nearby trails in the woods, on the trampoline, in the kids cabin or even in a tree.
Years ago, we found an old tire in the woods which soon became a game of rolling it down the hill with the hopes of making a big splash when it hit the water. As the grandkids increased in numbers, so did the tires. I drive an SUV and if we’re driving on a country road and spot a tire, I pull over and throw it in the back, much to their delight. It’s the silliest thing, but much joy has been derived from rolling tires down the hill. If you ever see a couple dozen tires neatly stacked next to our storage shed, no explanation needed!
One of my other hobbies is taking photos of all gatherings with family and friends. Even though it’s extremely time consuming, I always develop photos, so subsequently I have many, many albums. Plus, I try to share those photos of the various people in the photos. Even though it’s a pain-in-the-neck job, I find it gratifying to see how much the recipients appreciate receiving their photos.
Do you plan to stay in this community?
Oh yes. Even though we’ve lived in the Milton School District for many years, it was Janesville where I first lived and worked and made many connections. I would never want to leave the community that was so good to me. Although I’m out of town often, I still belong to St. John Vianney Parish where I was very active over the years. It’s comforting seeing so many familiar faces at church. And I want to be here for all the various community events that I really enjoy.
In addition, I would never want to be away from friends whom I truly cherish. I’ve always considered myself very fortunate to have such wonderful friends, who have been there for me through the good times and bad. I have different ‘groups’ of friends and I cherish all of them.
I truly love where we live because of the outdoors, and I enjoy entertaining and sharing the beauty of nature.
Another reason I’ll never live in Florida full-time is because I’m so close to my family. Even though I talk daily to some of my siblings, I want to be there for family. Because I came from very humble beginnings, one of my greatest pleasures in life is helping others. Most of my siblings are also generous and I believe we learned that trait as young children from our parents.
It was evident last year when one of my brothers was dying of liver failure (no fault of his own). One of us was at the hospital with Mike on a daily basis. He never had much in life, so when it was time for his funeral, everyone just pitched in to cover expenses with no complaints whatsoever.
Both my grandmothers were deceased before I was born, it’s important to me to be part of my grandchildren’s lives. I’m so thankful I’m healthy enough that I can do so many physical things with my grandchildren.
I truly have been very blessed. Often times I wondered how a farm girl like me got so lucky in life.