Meet Ringo: The star, artist and friend of Bradford Beach
For this Bubbler Talk, we set out in search of a local celebrity.
If you’ve visited Milwaukee's Bradford Beach in the last 60 years, you’ve likely seen a man who goes by the name of Ringo. The 76-year-old has shoulder-length, blond, curly hair and can often be found sitting at the beach, swimming in the lake or picking up trash off the shore.
One listener hasn’t had a Ringo sighting in a while, so they asked: “What happened to Ringo from Bradford Beach?”
But after some more Google searching and emailing, I found the man himself.
We met, of course, at Bradford Beach. Despite the cold, snowy day, Ringo still looked at home along the shore — he calls this place his office.
“I used to collect a lot of fossils and rocks, but I kind of quit doing that because I got too much stuff,” Ringo says. “On days like this, I’d come down here and socialize, have some potato chips and listen to music and read a book.”
Ringo says he was born and raised in Milwaukee and has been coming to Bradford Beach since the early ’60s to swim and visit with his friends. One of his closest friends was another Milwaukee character, the late Dick Bacon.
“He was one of the most interesting guys around,” Ringo says. “He would sit on a day like this and put these reflectors up in the middle of winter. I used to go in there and play Scrabble with him a lot of time, but I’d usually wait till the snow was gone.”
Ringo says he appreciated Dick Bacon’s love for the limelight, but he prefers to stay low-key.
He says his real name is Mike White, but he received his famous nickname in 1963 when The Beatles were popular and his nose resembled that of Ringo Starr’s.
He also says he hasn’t driven a car since the ’80s and prefers to get around town by foot, bike or bus.
“People know me around the East Side and down on the South Sides, Ringo says. “There are quite a few people I know in West Allis. I bet I could take a walk on Greenfield Avenue and I'd run into some people I know.”
Still, Ringo spends a lot of time at Bradford Beach. But he’s not just a beachgoer — he’s an artist.
Debra Brehmer is the owner and director of the Portrait Society, a contemporary art gallery in the Third Ward. She helped me get in touch with Ringo after I noticed she held a showcase of Ringo’s artwork in 2009.
She doesn’t remember the first time she met Ringo but says that it feels like he’s always been a fixture in the community.
“At least twice a day, you could see Ringo either walking up North Avenue, riding his bike or getting on the bus headed to the lakefront,” Brehmer says. “It was like clockwork or something.”
She says Ringo would pick up trash to help keep the beach clean and often save some items for his artwork. He’d make collages of the objects he’d find and put them together in shadow box frames.
“Lots of BIC lighters are left on the beach,” Brehmer says as she points to one of Ringo’s pieces. “Broken glass, … you can see in this collage there's this pattern made out of cut-up flip flops.”
Brehmer says Ringo’s collages can almost be looked at as a diary entry of his daily routines and reflect some of the positive impacts he’s had on the beach.
“[The trash Ringo picks up] will end up lasting as long as thousands of years, probably, and become these ancient artifacts someday because they'll never biodegrade,” Brehmer says. “And he puts all of that together in a really meaningful way without judgment, without a message really, but just a fascination with the environment.”
Todd Gawronski echoes that. Gawronski helped lead the revitalization of Bradford Beach from the early 2000s until 2014.
He says Ringo helped him transform the popular beach into a family-friendly place with volleyball and tiki bars.
“I always refer to Ringo as my trusty viking,” Gawronski says. “He was with me almost every step of the way to do some of the most ridiculous things, like dig a hole and clean up a closet. He would help me with these big events I would have, like literally all of them, everything from pro beach volleyball to the strongman events to a music event — he was there.”
Gawronski, who’s also the creator of the 2012 Ringo Facebook page, first met Ringo in the early ’90s as a young up-and-coming volleyball player and has stayed friends with him over the years.
He says he caught up with Ringo and friends this summer at Bradford Beach after not visiting it for nearly a decade, and they reminisced over the memories they shared.
“The time I spent with guys like Ringo, Yanni and Barco are some of the best days of my life,” Gawronski says. “[Ringo] would bring up something about the depth of a lake, the water temperature or some fossil he’s found. So, not much has changed – he would bring up the same things today if you were at Bradford Beach.”
So, what’s Ringo up to now?
Over the last few years, he says he’s had some health issues that have stopped him from riding his bike around town. He hasn’t created any new artwork either, but he’s hoping to get inspired again as he continues to pick up objects washed ashore.
“If I can help it, I'd rather see it get a little more life and just wind up in the landfill, because that’s where most of that stuff winds up,” Ringo says.
Despite the setbacks, Ringo continues to regularly visit Bradford Beach. His friend, Debra Brehmer, hopes others appreciate the small ways people like Ringo care for their communities.
“I always feel like a Ringo sighting is a little blessing for that day,” Brehmer says. “He's this kind of beautiful human being who has carved his own existence in the world in a rather remarkable way.”
You can see Ringo’s artwork at the Portrait Society from November 17, 2023 through January 9, 2024.