Mark Anthony Rolo, award-winning journalist and educator, died May 30 at Saint Clare Hospice House in Baraboo, Wisconsin, after a long illness. He was 57.
A graduate of the University of Minnesota Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, he later earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Chatham University.
Rolo worked for the Native American Journalists Association from 1997 to 2003 in a variety of roles including executive director and coordinator for the organization’s college and youth journalism projects.
A citizen of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Wisconsin, he began his journalism career in the early 1990s at The Circle newspaper at the Minneapolis American Indian Center in Minnesota according to former Circle editor Joe Allen.
“I assigned him a story and within a month or two, he took over as editor,” Allen recalls.
Rolo was hired in 1999 as the Washington bureau chief for Indian Country Today. The Oneida Nation in New York owned Indian Country Today at the time. He later resigned. Rolo also contributed as a columnist for The Progressive Media Project. His work appeared in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Denver Post and others. Rolo won several awards from the Native American Journalists Association for his journalism.
Rolo also authored several books and plays including the award winning “My Mother is Now Earth,” published in 2012 by the Minnesota Historical Society’s publishing imprint, Borealis Press. A memoir, the book details his family’s hardscrabble life in Northern Wisconsin and the death of his mother who died when he was 10 years old. He was awarded the 2013 Northeastern Minnesota Book award for best memoir.
In the early 2000s, Rolo began writing plays that charmed Native audiences with his journalistic eye and biting wit, such as “Mother Earth Loves Lace,” which premiered in Minneapolis and also played to Native audiences in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Rolo’s book fans include Ada Deer, retired director of the American Indian studies program at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
Deer, a citizen of the Menominee tribe, said, “I was impressed by his stellar writing. To me, he was just so Indian, so humble, such a beautiful writer.”
Rolo was also a passionate journalism and writing educator for Native Americans. In addition to coordinating student newspaper projects for the Native American Journalists Association, he taught news and creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Human Ecology, Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Community College, White Earth Tribal and Community College, the University of Minnesota and others.
“I knew (Rolo) in many contexts. He was first and foremost a journalist with a strong sense of social justice and a pen that could be withering at times. He was a playwright and author, who could be poignant and fiercely loyal, as he was in sheltering and playing dad to his teenage nephew. I advised him as a graduate student, an experience that was both exhilarating and exasperating. He could be acerbic and suffered no fools, as his cohorts sometimes complained, and as his own students learned when he became a UW-Madison lecturer. What I’ll remember most is his humor. Oh, he could be funny! As executive director of the Native American Journalists Association, he scheduled joke nights and irreverent poetry slams,” recalls Patty Loew.
Loew is a citizen of Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians. She is currently the co-director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research and Professor at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
Because of restrictions on gatherings due to COVID-19, Rolo’s family is postponing memorial services. They will share information later via My Keeper. Friends and colleagues can post memories and photos on My Keeper.
In lieu of flowers, Rolo’s family requests that donations be sent to the Native American Journalists Association scholarship fund. Choose “NAJA Scholarships” from the dropdown menu.
This story has been reflected to show that Mark Anthony Rolo was 57 when he died. Not 58.