The Unsinkable Gail Selk

Breaking through barriers just came naturally.

In spite of … Three words that may one day footnote the career of longtime Madisonian Gail Selk.

Selk, president of The Selk Co., LLC and former owner and publisher of Madison Magazine, broke through her first barrier in 1961 as the first female account rep for Madison Newspapers, in spite of a lack of experience. “I had no idea what I was doing,” she laughs, “but I was really good at it!”

Her first day on the job, she sold more than a page of ads for a National Realtor Week section. “My boss couldn’t believe it, but that’s kind of the story of my life.”

Later, she launched the first Parade of Homes tabloid for the newspaper, selling ads to local builders in spite of an ongoing dispute between the builders and the newspaper, and in spite of the fact that she had no clue how to write an ad.

Luckily, a salesman at the paper offered help. His wife – an English major – agreed to write ad copy for Selk, initially. “That’s how I learned,” she said. 

Few knew that Selk was struggling with dyslexia. Born in Rice Lake, she attended – though never graduated from – Macalester College in Minnesota. “Nobody knew [dyslexia] existed back then,” she said. “They just thought I was slow.”

Though she could read quickly, reading aloud was – and still is – another story. 

“In college, a speech teacher asked me to read in front of the class. I just couldn’t do it, and the more upset I got the less I could read until she had to pronounce every word for me. 

“She just left me there and wouldn’t let me sit down. Pretty soon the rest of the class started looking down. Those people in my class could never look me in the eye again. I still can’t believe that instructor did that, but things like that happened all through school. That’s just how it was.”

A weaker person might have caved, but the humiliation fueled Selk’s desire to work even harder, and her successes in advertising sales skyrocketed.

In 1978, she and her then-husband Jim became owners of Madison Magazine, and 18 years later, Selk sold the magazine to Channel 3. “I didn’t really know what to do afterwards,” she admitted. “I didn’t really make anything on the magazine, and didn’t have enough money to support myself. I had two small apartment buildings, but they weren’t really making any money.”

For a year, she served as president of the Madison Club – the first female to do so – before deciding to step into the world of commercial real estate. The required tests frustrated her, but she persevered thanks to the help of friend and local executive Sue Springman (Executive Management, Inc.), who taught her the ropes.

Selk’s second career came to a sudden – though temporary – halt in 2007 after she fell asleep behind the wheel of her car while driving on the interstate. The car swerved, then left the road and hit a tree. As luck would have it, a paramedic was in the following vehicle. Behind him was a doctor, and behind him, an RN. They all stopped to assist. The paramedic quickly removed her from her car before it burst into flames, and the doctor and nurse kept her calm until the helicopter arrived. “My pelvis was broken in three places, my back in four,” she said. Much later, her surgeon admitted he never thought she’d make it. “Nobody told me,” she’d reply to him.

 

These days, Selk, 76, works only with companies looking to purchase properties. Her two apartment buildings, now under a management company, are bringing in a steady income, and she collects rent from six businesses that lease space in her office suite on the Capitol Square. 

Though the economy has had a dramatic and devastating effect on the commercial real estate industry, Selk believes it’s all part of an endless cycle. “I’ve seen this happen over and over and over again. There have been hard times before.” 

She also sees a turnaround afoot. “Look at what’s happening on East Washington Avenue,” she notes. “Good companies have held on, and vacant properties are getting rented.”

Though she’s most proud of her daughter and granddaughter, her career legacy, she hopes, will be one of not only working hard, but also doing excellent work. 

“I was a pioneer, but didn’t realize it,” she said. “It was just my job.”

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