Jen Lada scoops up some Pez and pencils and put them in a Transformers cup, and then quickly wipes down a place mat. Finger and hand paintings adorn the walls and cabinets, a mini-football commemorating one of Wisconsin's Rose Bowl trips sits on a counter.
The smile that Milwaukee has come to love for the last seven years on WITI FOX6 is bright as ever, perhaps more joyous even, even as a date with a mop and bucket was on the horizon.
"This is my life," she says with a laugh, running her dog out to the yard.
Lada begins the next chapter in her career today with a freelance position at Comcast SportsNet Chicago. She wasn't necessarily looking to leave Milwaukee, but in a rare instance, the stars aligned for the Spring Grove, Ill., native and Marquette University alumnae to move on.
Fox 6 has veteran sportscasters who aren't going anywhere anytime soon, if ever. As such, she thought advancement with the news station was limited, at best. And as a weekend anchor, Lada's duties would have been expanding with the start of a year-round Sunday night sports show. On top of that, the sports staff will be taking on additional writing duties for the web site.
"It was little things like that when I started to look at the big picture, I just wondered how thin I could stretch myself," she says. "And my priority is always going to be, number one, being a mom. And in this business, that's hard."
With that weighing on her mind, Lada's contract also happened to be expiring – right as CSN Chicago was looking for additional talent due to the end of the National Hockey League lockout.
Not only will Lada to move into the No. 3 television market in the country, but she will remain close to her three siblings and parents, who are sprinkled between Milwaukee and Chicago. Most importantly, she will be able to spend quality time with her son.
"I'm not the type of person that's going to leave just because a contract is up," she says. "The circumstances being what they were, it was like, this might be the time to go. My son is four. He'll be in school next year, so now I can spend real, quality time with him and be that person in his life that he needs at that stage because he's never going to be four again.
"That sounds so trite, but the reality is I won't get these moments back. And to always feel like I was passing him off to caregivers and sitters and family members to do this job – which is a great job – but still I always felt like I was being pulled in another direction."
Lada will anchor and report for CSN Chicago, filling gaps wherever she is needed. While she is starting fresh – and covering an entirely new league in the NHL – she has quite a bit of familiarity with the Chicago teams due to the crossover between coaches, players and many Wisconsin teams playing in the same divisions.
That doesn't mean there aren't nerves, however.
"But, that's part of what I'm excited about," Lada says of learning about new organizations and rosters. "I don't ever want to be complacent. I think there's a real danger in this business to rest on your laurels, to liken something that's going on now to something that went on a few years ago and draw parallels and fall into a trap of not investigating or seeking out what I actually going on now because you knew it so well a few years ago. I don't want to ever get like that, so it's good to be challenged again, good to be reminded that we're always learning. That is what I'm most excited about."
As she talks, she slides a stack of cards and envelopes in front of her. Since putting in her notice at Fox 6, Lada began writing. Card after card, she cycled through her address book, sending notes to all of those who have helped her along the way.
One recipient was incredulous, and called wondering exactly why it was sent. But to Lada, no form of assistance or advice was too small, and she wanted to be sure to let everyone in Milwaukee know what they mean to her.
"What I don't want to do is burn any bridges or leave and not let the people who helped me get to this point not know that they helped me," she says. "That's my number one priority with making this transition, is that I don't anyone who helped me along the way to think 'What an ingrate. There she goes, she's just moving on to something else and doesn't appreciate all the people that helped her get that.'"
Through social media Lada was able to communicate directly with the fans she developed over her time in Milwaukee and admits she was humbled by the response.
"I was blown away by all of the reaction from people who appreciated what I did and felt like my contributions were positive," she says. "I feel like a lot of times in this business we focus on the negative, when somebody tells us that we're garbage or that we're horrible we member that. But it was really nice to see that in my time here people did appreciate and did enjoy my coverage."
She'll never truly "leave" Milwaukee – once a Golden Eagle, always a Golden Eagle – and in television it's impossible to say you'd never return. But, she's moving on, and looking ahead. In the down time before starting at CSN Chicago, she studied up on Chicago sports teams while dodging training wheels, attending birthday parties, and approving the eating of candy before dinner – the perfect mix of personal and professional she has been looking for.
"It had to be the right opportunity," she says of a career move. "I'm close with my family and even though opportunities presented themselves in other parts of the country, it never seemed like the right place to go and abandon my support system.
"It's not so much about the market size – you still have to do a good job wherever you go – but with market size comes more exposure and along with that comes the money and the financial gain. And, to be as close as we are that I'll have this opportunity to make it work (with family), I couldn't pass it up."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.