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Storied Life Of Tommy Thompson Continues

June 21, 2020

This weekend, while reading news coverage of the announcement that former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson will serve as interim president of the University of Wisconsin System, I thought about the need for a massive book dealing with his life.  There are few Wisconsin personalities that match his dynamism or scope of service.  He is a Republican, through and through, but has that essential quality of honesty and fair-play that allows him to have true friends from the entire political spectrum.

Thompson is trusted, and in this time of deeply partisan rancor and tribalism of the worst kind, it is truly refreshing to learn of the bi-partisan regard which the regent’s announcement was greeted.  Add the fact he fully grasps why the UW System is essential and how education paves the path to success, and I am confident we will look back on the failed search for Ray Cross’s replacement as having produced a positive outcome.

Over the decades I have been fortunate to have witnessed the style and manner of many politicians.  Most were forgettable as being glib, arrogant, and not made of substantive political material.

On the opposite end of the spectrum were the likes of Tommy Thompson and Bill Proxmire.  To watch a master at the art of politics is something which, for me, is how others might feel regarding a home run hit into the upper stands.  Thompson made a tremendous impression on me in 1987, one I have always talked about over the years.

An employee of the famed Door County eatery,  Al Johnson’s Restaurant (with goats on the roof!) fell ill with hepatitis contracted during a vacation.  The establishment closed down for an extended period of time, and when reopening called in none other than Thompson to create the needed favorable headlines.

A number of elected officials were standing in line along with local citizens galore, waiting for the Governor to arrive.  I had traveled with Representative Lary Swoboda, and alongside him was State Senator Alan Lasee.  When Thompson arrived and set foot on the ground his smile and outstretched hand never stopped.  He greeted people by first names, and if he did not know it he still bantered like they had been college buddies.  His one hand rested on a shoulder as he pumped a handshake and looked into a person’s eyes, as opposed to the too-often ‘political scan’ over the shoulder to see what else is happening.  He was truly present with the folks in that restaurant.  That morning has never been forgotten for what the art of politics can feel and look like.

The other memory I put into my journal at the time, was due to Thompson in attendance there were enough Green Bay news crews on hand to make one think Elvis was inside the restaurant having a waffle. (Or fried peanut butter and banana sandwich.)

I believe Thompson is a most-qualified person, and well-suited to lead the UW System at this time because he can strike the needed chords of unity.  Something so much in need now in our state.

A few months after Governor Thompson took his oath in 1987 he happened to swing by the office of Swoboda.  Geneva Rode and Ruth Schohl who had worked for decades in the Capitol were splitting a full-time position in the office of the assemblyman from the First District.  Thompson knew each of them and stopped by to trade a few pleasantries and shake hands. That small simple event alerted me that we all were working in the building for the folks of the state.  It has always stood out to me as memorable due to how it demonstrated that leadership and conviviality start at the top.

With that same energy and force of character, which Thompson still possesses, I am confident of the future of the UW.

As for the biography that needs to be written about the life and times of Thompson the only criteria is that it has to have the gravitas of what Robert Caro accomplished with Lyndon Johnson. There would be sub-chapters and insight into James Klauser, Tom Loftus,  David Prosser, and so many others.  From his early days in Elory to acting president of the UW System, Thompson is a Wisconsin story that needs to be told in depth.

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