On Wisconsin!

Patio, Wisconsin Union, on the shore of Lake Mendota

On Sunday afternoon, October 10, I kissed Linda, hugged MacKenzie, and headed to the airport. I paused to watch the ebb and flow of customers in the B Terminal. To most of them it was routine, regular. I thought about all the organization required to run an airline network, stuff customers never see and don’t care about. Flew north to Madison, for the fourth annual set of lectures at the University of Wisconsin (the title of this post is the title of the school song). As regular readers know, I have great regard for that state and its wonderful public university.

We landed at 8:15, I hopped in a cab, and in 12 minutes was at the Fluno Center, a campus hotel and continuing-education center. Unpacked and walked across the street to Ian’s, a pizza place where Jack and I ate a year earlier. Enjoying a slice and a nice salad, I mused about the passage of time. No, I was no longer chronologically young (something my knees tell me several times a day!), but I felt akin to the handful of students in the joint. Age is relative, and “we are young” continues to be a mantra.

I met my UW host Jan Heide the next morning for breakfast. We got caught up with family and work. Jan amplified some news from a few months earlier, that their son Henrik, a flutist who graduated from Rice in June, had just begun work at the Juilliard School in New York. Whoa. At nine, we walked up the street to his office, then to a classroom to stand and deliver. As I often do before class begins, I worked the crowd, introducing myself and asking a dozen students three questions: 1) where are you from? 2) what did you do before starting your MBA? and 3) where did you go as an undergraduate? The two lectures went well, with plenty of good questions.

I peeled off at 12:30, changed clothes, and as I did the previous two years, walked over to the Yellow Jersey bike shop on State Street and rented a European-style city bike named Chad. He was a bit of a clunker, but the tires held air, the day was sunny and warm, and I had my vectors, south to a former rail right-of-way called the Southwest Bikeway, which ran that direction to the edge of town. From there, a mile or so on the Capital City Trail to the Wisconsin DNR (Department of Natural Resources) Military Ridge State Trail, on the old Chicago & Northwestern Railway line west to Dodgeville. At the start of the trail was a sign mandating a user fee. Obedient and communal, I filled out a short form, enclosed $5 in an envelope, and dropped it in the lockbox. Good to be legal, I thought, and set out. Straining, I thought I could hear the hissing and chug of an old steam locomotive pulling a train headed west from Madison. (A week later, the T-Geek checked a 1902 Northwestern timetable; three trains a day plied the route in each direction.)

Corporate headquarters, Epic, outside Verona, Wisconsin

I stopped in Verona, once a freestanding town that has become a suburb, for a pint of chocolate milk and a cookie (an adequate lunch after a big breakfast), then put legs to pedals and headed west. Fall colors were wonderful, milkweed pods full of their down, the last of the black-eyed susans blooming.


The trail ran through the Sugar River valley, low with lots of wetland, and glacial ridges in the distance – classic Wisconsin scenery. I passed the sprawling and modern “campus” of Epic, a medical software company. At milepost 10 I turned around and headed back on the same route, back into the city, past the enormous Camp Randall football stadium, then down to Lake Mendota and along the path back to the center of town. About 36 miles, a great workout.

At 5:45, Jan and swell wife Maria picked me up, and we motored to the west side of downtown and dinner at L’Etoile, a stylish restaurant right on the capitol square – we were 200 feet from the imposing state building, somewhat similar to the U.S. capitol in Washington. The restaurant owner is deeply committed to local sourcing, and virtually every item on the menu included its provenance – this farm, that field. Impressive, for sure. Dinner was great, the wine wonderful (if perhaps too plentiful!), conversation even better. A wonderful evening with such nice people.

I woke early on Tuesday morning, and after breakfast the first order of business was to reconnect with someone I barely remember. My dad had a fellow salesman friend, Fred Bisbee, in Madison, and I remember stopping to see Fred and his family on motor trips to visit kin in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s. In a variant of Talking to Strangers, I tracked down a “Fred Bisbee” in Madison at sunrise. With a little more Googling and online digging – ten minutes max – I had established that the listed person was Fred Jr.

You know me, so you know I had to call him. He instantly recognized my name, and to my surprise and delight said, “You know, Rob, just last week I thought of Cliff for some reason.”
Like his dad, Fred Jr. had been an apparel salesman. His voice was that of a salesman, with vigor, presence, humor, and the optimism that I remember from my dad. His wife died eight years earlier, and at that point he decided to work less (a good choice). We yakked for 45 minutes about the life of a traveling salesman, about clothing, and about all the changes in making and selling what we wear. It was a delightful chat, and I vowed to get together for a beer on my 2011 visit.

I then took a good walk around part of the sprawling campus. The university foundation had erected signs identifying firsts and noteworthy actions, and one caught my eye:

As president of the University of Wisconsin from 1903 to 1918, Charles Van Hise championed a mission of public service that became known as the Wisconsin Idea. Calling for professors to share the wealth of their teaching and research, Van Hise declared that he would “never be content until the beneficent influence of the university reaches every family in the state.” Campus leaders have been guided ever since by this moral imperative that the university should work for the benefit of all.

I crossed University Avenue and ambled into the gorgeous sanctuary of the Luther Memorial Church. My people! Indeed, Pastor Franklin Wilson was explaining the parts of the church to some wiggly five-year-olds. After a brief prayer, the kids departed, and I introduced myself. He had been at the church two years, after calls mainly in his native Pacific Northwest. We yakked a bit more, and it turned out that a couple of decades ago he interviewed our former senior pastor in Dallas, Jon Lee, for a posting in Eugene, Oregon. Small world! Leaving the church, I sent Jon an e-mail. A reply came back an hour later, with the connection and note that he and wife Stefani were “in Sibiu, Romania, serving a tiny International English-speaking Ecumenical congregation.” We are mobile.

At ten, I met my undergraduate host, Jean Grube, and we yakked for about 45 minutes, then ambled to a classroom and delivered two back-to-back lectures to her HR management students. At 1:20, she handed me back to Jan and said goodbye. Unhappily, she had office hours and could not join us for a caloric lunch at a nearby tavern. Jan and I had another good yak. Such a good guy.

After lunch, I said thanks and goodbye to Jan, worked my e-mail, took a quick nap, and ambled down State Street downtown, then back to the university. At four, I entered the recently restored main reading room of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Ceiling, main reading room, Wisconsin Historical Society

A century ago, it was the library of the university, and I heard faint echoes of ten decades of scholars. That afternoon there was a busload of seniors, digging and sifting through various sources, seeking answers to the question “where did we come from?” I cued my iPhone to the UW fight song, “On Wisconsin,” smiled, and thought of all my friends who studied here. Katherine and the late David Kelly in the 1930s, John Borchert in the late 1940s, and Edward and Karel Moersfelder and Cheryl and Daniel Smith in the 1970s. A great place, for sure, and I am lucky to be associated with it, if in a small way.

The Wisconsin Union, meeting place for students and faculty

After five, I crossed the street and headed into the Wisconsin Memorial Union, the student union that is another campus anchor. I picked up a large cup of local brew, Grey’s Rathskeller Ale, and walked out onto the huge patio along Lake Mendota. The place was hopping, people enjoying drinks and the last hour of daylight. Gulls flew overhead, kayakers paddled by, a youngster wearing a T-shirt with an image of Karl Marx rearranged chairs. This was the good life, for sure. I’d live here in a heartbeat, I thought.

At 6:45, I met Katy Kvale, a pal from geography graduate studies 35 years ago. She was a medical geographer with an interest in tropical diseases, and is now an epidemiologist for the State of Wisconsin. We repaired to an Ethiopian restaurant for a good chat and some laughs, back to the old days at the University of Minnesota. I was home the next morning by 11.

The classic Wisconsin barn, though in some disrepair

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