On October 5, the 25th anniversary of my arrival in Texas and joining American Airlines, the Silver Bird carried me north to Chicago, and into late-fall chill (40F, wind). Walking to the Blue Line subway station at the airport, I passed the spot where buskers play. Normally there’s someone playing a horn or sax, but that day a skinny fellow with a pony tail and guitar. I stepped onto a moving sidewalk. Then I listened. And smiled. He was playing “Wagon Wheel,” a tune made popular by Old Crow Medicine Show, a group Jack likes. And he was playing it with skill and feeling. So at the end of the walkway I turned around, rode another one back, and dropped a dollar in his milk crate. Hopped the train downtown to my hotel, worked a bit, rode in the fitness center, ate a late lunch.
At six, I walked east on Adams Street to the Illini Center, the downtown mini-campus of the University of Illinois. It was my seventh appearance before their EMBA students. Ate dinner, then delivered a well-received lecture. It was Friday night, and they were tired, but they were “on.” I like the U of I program, because the students are older, mid-career, and very engaged, and because my host Steven Michael, is a bright and supportive fellow.
The trip was a two-fer, and because I was due at the University of Wisconsin Madison two days later I opted to spend Saturday and Sunday morning in Chicago with friends and kin. Got up early Saturday to ride the exercise bike, then out into a cold, sunny day to snap a few pictures of the architecture that makes downtown Chicago so special. I got some good snaps, but also got cold quickly, so nipped into a Dunkin Donuts for a coffee and a quick look at The New York Times on my iPhone.
My eyes gravitated to a report on the memorial service for Mr. Punch Sulzberger, former publisher of that great newspaper and father of the current CEO. Among other bold decisions, Mr. Sulzberger opted to publish in 1971 the damning government documents known as the Pentagon Papers. Sitting across from the massive Federal complex (designed by 1960s superstar Mies van der Rohe), I thought once again about press freedom, about a private company – albeit a large and influential one – having the guts to expose the truth. And yet again I concluded that among the many gifts soldiers like Punch (a Marine) and my dad gave us, freedom of the press might be the greatest one. Punch once wrote, “The business of America is freedom. For the journalist, that means the freedom to get to the root of the truth, the freedom to criticize, the freedom to goad and stimulate every institution in our society, including our own.” Amen, and rest in peace, Mr. P.
At nine I met Lora O’Riordan at her loft at the corner of Harrison and S. Clark St. at the south end of the Loop. After a tour of the way-cool apartment Lora and I walked to Blackie’s, a pub a few blocks south, for breakfast and a long yak. I worked with and mentored Lora at American in the 1990s. Because we had only seen each other once in the last 11 years, I asked for a recap. Putting it in sequence: she personally knew two of the AA people killed in the September 11 attacks, then three weeks later got laid off; moved to San Diego to attend law school, and finished two years; got married to Brian; earned an MBA in California; moved back to Texas and joined Continental Airlines in Houston (I have long admired their culture, and she confirmed it was a great place); and moved up to Chicago after the United merger (my realtor Cousin Jim found the loft for them). It was an absolutely wonderful morning, so good to reconnect with a fellow airline geek (she may be more into the flight biz than me), and the emotion that whooshes along with the business flowed, at least for me: what we do – that complex business of bringing people together – brought both tears and laughs.
At noon I walked north through the loop, pausing to gawk at Trump’s new tower on the Chicago River, picked up a rental car, and motored north to suburban Glenview, to see my first cousin once removed, Larry Frederick, and his wife Judy. His mother Alice was my paternal grandpa Jim’s youngest sibling, so the age gap is only 16 years. I had first reconnected in 2010, and back then we both mused about why our families had drifted apart, but we agreed we were happy to reconnect.
Their youngest child, Matt, arrived soon after, and after introductions the first thing I did was snap his picture. “Your eyes,” I said, “you have the Fredian eyes.” He did, and it was so good to meet new kin of the same generation. Matt was headed to a soccer game; at 46 he still plays the game he has loved all his life. A bit later Larry’s oldest child Karen arrived with her only child, Sally, 14. Karen basically asked “who are you?”, so I told my story up to the present and near-future of the move to Virginia. Meanwhile, Larry and Judy laid out a light lunch of Italian fare – he reminded us later that he was the last remaining 100% Italian in the family (my maternal grandmother was German, and even though my mother said she was Italian that was only half-true). Karen and Matt had interesting life stories, too, and we had a great chat.
It was so wonderful to meet new family. To keep that theme going, at four we drove west to Arlington Heights so Larry and Judy could meet Cousin Jim. Two of Jim’s sibs, Lisa and Mike (and their spouses Jack and Gail) arrived later for a huge cassoulet dinner that Jim’s wife Michaela prepared. Before beginning the meal I stood and raised my glass to family. That evening, it was Larry’s turn to explain who he was, and we were able to fill some gaps. And have a lot of fun.
All the day’s yakking propelled me into deep sleep, and up early Sunday morning. Two of Jim’s and Michaela’s three kids had soccer games (that game must be in the family genes!), and peeled off. I chatted with Michaela, and at 8:30 met another friend for breakfast, Jane Allen, tied with Arnold Grossman as my best boss ever. Jane left AA to join United Airlines in 2003, and has since retired. We had another great airline yak and chatted a lot about relocation – she and husband Tom are likely to head to Raleigh, North Carolina, where Jane has two sibs.
At ten I headed northwest on U.S. 14. I had some extra time, and thought it might be good to take that route (how the Brittons of the 1950s used to get to and from to Madison) rather than the freeway. Big mistake. Chicago’s suburbs now extend almost to the Wisconsin border, and soon after I crossed the state line I consulted iPhone maps, turned west on Wisconsin Highway 67 (no traffic, pedal to the metal), and north on I-90 at 75 mph. The car was due at the airport Hertz location at 1:00, and I made it with 12 minutes to spare, including refueling. Whoosh.
At the hotel, the University of Wisconsin’s Fluno Center, I discovered that I left my bike shorts at Jim’s house, but I still headed out for a bike ride (in khakis), using B Cycles, a network of rental bikes (like London’s, only privately run). You buy a day pass for $5, but if you use the bike for less than 30 minutes there’s zero usage fee, so I stitched together an 18-mile ride over a couple of hours – slow because I had to trade in a bike every 25 minutes or so, and because the red bikes were really, really heavy. But the air was fresh, Madison’s lakes and old inner neighborhoods were interesting, and the afternoon brought a smile. Not surprisingly in a college town long a bastion of progressivism, one did not see a lot of Romney nor Republican lawn signs. In fact, I didn’t see one. But I did see plenty of “Recall Walker” signs, including one suggesting the current governor be indicted. Passion.
At four, I met yet more friends, Dan and Cheryl Smith, at the Rathskeller of the Wisconsin Union, a wonderful place. As I’ve written about previous visits to Madison, Wisconsin’s brewing tradition means beer in the student center of their largest public university. Nice! And it’s been that way since before Prohibition. I’ve known the Smiths for three years; I wrote Dan after reading his 2008 essay about his career as a dairy farmer, “An Honest Living,” published in On Wisconsin, the school’s alumni magazine. He’s now CEO of Midwestern Bio Ag, a progressive company focused on sustainable agriculture. We talked about work, but mostly about family. They have three sons, Austin, who just earned a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford; Ryan, beginning his surgery residency at Rush Medical Center in Chicago; and Levi, in second year at the University of Michigan law school. I marveled at these accomplishments.
We walked a couple of blocks to a Turkish restaurant for an early dinner and more conversation. Among other topics, I mentioned that I read about a Swiss inventor who had built a collar-like device for cows that would notify the farmer by text message when she was in heat. The article said that because cows were milked so intensively, they were less fertile. With more than 30 years of experience with some of God’s most useful animals, Dan asked “wouldn’t it make more sense to stress the cows less?” And we agreed that reversing agriculture’s complexity curve, whether for bovine reproduction or for replenishing the soil – a major part Dan’s business – made a lot of sense. It’s a great joy to reconnect with someone who “gets it” with respect to agriculture; it’s a link back to what I learned almost four decades ago, when I worked a week each summer on David and Katherine Kelly’s dairy farm in western Wisconsin. Later, I read a great quotation from Dan on his company’s website:
For years, we have relied on science and technology to solve our problems. In the future, the goal must be to enable people around the globe to grow their own food, not have it shipped to them. Our survival, in his view, depends on our ability to respect the principles of three key areas: one: soil nutrition; two: business practices; and three: personal integrity.
The next morning, still another friend, in this case Prof. Jan Heide, my UW host. The Wisconsin visit is formulaic – no need to mess with six years of tradition – and it starts with a big breakfast (plenty of Wisconsin bacon) in the Fluno Center dining room. Then up to school and into class; I began by telling the MBA students that of all the U.S. schools I visit, this one is hands-down my favorite. It’s all about Midwestern sensibility and comfort, but mostly it’s because Jan is such a great fellow and superb host. Back-to-back classes full of bright youngsters with varied backgrounds – a woman who played varsity volleyball then pro ball in Dubai, an Indian-American just back from volunteer service in Rwanda, to name two – what a delight.
At 1:15, I ambled back to the hotel, changed clothes, did a bit of work, and rode a bike 15 miles in the fitness center (without shorts, I had to improvise, rolling up my pajama bottoms and donning the Wisconsin Badgers T-shirt I bought an hour earlier). At 5:40, I met Jan and his wife Maria for the traditional Monday night dinner. Jean Grube, my other UW host, joined us. We visit a new place each year, and the repast at Harvest, right on Capitol Square, was splendid: duck confit, Wisconsin trout, wild rice, braised kale, pudding cake, yum!
Tuesday morning I met with a couple of MBA students who needed a bit of redirection on an airline-related project, then into Prof. Grube’s two undergraduate HR classes for a lecture on people issues in the airline business. At 1:15, I met Jan for burgers and fries at Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry, across from the hotel. Said goodbye, and headed back to the hotel to work the afternoon.
About 4:30, I headed out into cold rain, walking a few blocks to the wonderful Wisconsin Historical Society. I needed a little research task to put me into a real library, so I opted to track down the address of one of my dad’s old friends who lived in Madison years ago. Down I went, deep into the stacks, to location 1A and city directories. I found Fred and Mary Bisbee, 220 Westmorland Blvd., listed in directories from 1947 to 1967. It was so cool to be around so much knowledge, so I paddled around 1A for a few minutes. They had everything. As I left, the eye of the Transport Geek spotted 1912-20 annual reports for the Minneapolis and Sault Ste. Marie Railway. Wow.
Upstairs, I snapped a photo of Forward, a bronze sculpture created by Wisconsin artist Jean Pond Miner (1865-1967) in 1893 for the state’s pavilion at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The adjacent plaque stated “Forward is an allegory of devotion and progress, qualities Miner felt Wisconsin embodied.” And while admiring her advancing posture I thought about all the good ideas that sprang from Wisconsin in the past, and where it seems to be going today. I liked her past posture better. Forward, indeed!
It was 5:30, and time for a beer, so as I’ve done at the end of almost every visit to UW in the past, I ambled across the street to the Wisconsin Union and the Rathskeller. The well-worn furniture, names and initials carved into the oak tables, Germanic frescoes on the walls, music from my era (The Beatles’ “Let It Be,” Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” Creedence Clearwater Revival, oh my) all make it a comfy place, perfect for bringing this journal up to date. And to think about still being young in mind.
Was asleep early, up before five, and home walking MacKenzie and Henry by ten.