One of those politicians all would agree was a most pleasant and kind man died on Thursday. Tony Earl, the former Wisconsin Governor was 86 years old, and though politics always creates a bevy of differences over policies it can be said he had genuine friends on all sides of the political spectrum. I saw that play out in person as Earl sought reelection in 1986, a time when our state politics could be frothy but not yet downright mean.
That summer I drove my aqua-marine colored Chevet into the driveway of Fred Peterson, owner of the famed Peterson Shipbuilding family in Sturgeon Bay. I note the car type as I knew it did not blend harmoniously with the impressive home and lawns of a very successful businessman and shipyard owner. I knew he was a staunch conservative Republican and what I, the chairperson of the Door County Democrats, was about to suggest was plucky, for sure. Earl had wanted to make a campaign swing through the county and his staff wondered if I might arrange for an event. I pondered it for a couple days and then thought way outside of the box about an idea that was sure to generate press.
Having lived in Door County for a couple of years I knew Peterson had constructed, in 1946, the famed staysail schooner, Utopia. Soon thereafter he took three years to circumnavigate the globe. The stories of that trip were often talked about by locals. Peterson greeted me warmly at his door and if was soon thereafter I suggested that he take Governor Tony Earl on a ride aboard his beloved schooner with some others from around the county.
His first responses are ones that did surprise me and these decades later they are fondly recalled as they speak to a gentler time of state politics. Peterson wondered what dates were being suggested, how many might be aboard, and whether there should be some snacks and soda served. I do not recall he ever said yes, but rather just started planning how to make it happen upon the governor’s arrival. That classy older man speaks to the way our politics once really did play out.
The scheduled day on the water was warm, and sunny, with just a few clouds above while perfect harmony was onboard. Fred was proud of his schooner and honored to have the governor out for a trip; my fellow Democrats were pleased to be there, a few local businesspeople I asked to join were able to talk with Earl about ideas, and his campaign staff was truly pleased with the event which garnered press attention. It strikes me as I write about the death of Earl and that excursion on the Utopia how people from different ends of the political divide could unite. People who might be grousing about property taxes, environmental policy, or the need for more transportation funds were able to find common bonds while relaxing and viewing the beauty of Door County.
In 2006, I chatted again with Tony Earl following a concert at Overture Hall in Madison. We talked about the years that had gone by and reflected on the time when the tone and style of politics were gentler and seemingly less rhetorically driven. The former governor knew a boatload about state politics, the upsides of winning, as well as the sting of defeat. Through it all, as I reminded him, he was always a gentleman and gracious. His eyes still flashed, and his words still had precision and honesty; laced often with humorous phrasing which allowed him to be a great storyteller. When I asked Earl if he missed the excitement of the campaign trail he flatly stated he did not since politics had become just plain mean and nasty. He told stories of how he would have heated disagreements with his opponents, but at the end of the day the common bonds of friendship took control, and the arguments were retired. He added the personal assaults aimed at each other make politics harsher, and less fun.
The thing that struck me about Earl in 1986 was his genuineness, which was not a trait I noticed in every politician I would come to know. He was solid enough with his own set of principles that he would not campaign on Sundays when running for re-election, even though many tried to convince him otherwise. That type of person with strong inner convictions has always moved me in his or her direction. With the passing of Tony Earl, we know we have lost more than a man many respected and admired. We also have lost another slice of decency and honor which was a staple of our state politics.