Bill Kraus’ life of achievement — and fun

Doug Moe doubts anyone has more admiring friends
Bill Kraus’ life of achievement — and fun
Photo courtesy of Bill Kraus
Bill Kraus

I am pleased to be able to make what I think is the first public announcement of a great honor for one of my favorite Madisonians.

On April 4, in Wausau, Bill Kraus will receive the inaugural “Bill Kraus Lifetime Achievement Award for Civic Leadership” from the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service.

In other words, Kraus is the first recipient of an award that will carry his name going forward.

The evening event marks the institute’s 10th anniversary and will include a discussion with former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and former University of Wisconsin-Madison chancellor and Health and Human Services secretary Donna Shalala.

The award for Kraus — who came to Madison as a top aide to Gov. Lee Dreyfus in 1978, and never really left — is richly deserved, and recognizes his many years of co-chairing Common Cause in Wisconsin and his tireless advocacy for open government and common sense campaign finance reform.

I do have a couple of quibbles with the award.

First, a “lifetime achievement award” by its nature suggests the recipient may be done achieving. Although Bill Kraus put 89 in his rearview mirror in March 2016, he’s more active than many people a third his age.

He’s also not averse to calling out the younger generations, as evidenced by this letter he wrote to the Wisconsin State Journal late last year:

“Melvin Laird’s accomplishments and career, including serving in Congress and as President Nixon’s Defense secretary, were celebrated at a burial in Arlington Cemetery in the spring and a memorial at the Marshfield Clinic last week. No member of the Wisconsin delegation showed up for either event, including and notably U. S. Rep Sean Duffy, R-Wausau, whose district still includes Marshfield thanks to artful mapmaking.”

I love Kraus’ parting shot at the gerrymandering that is killing fair elections in Wisconsin and around the country. Kraus didn’t bother mentioning that Laird was a good friend of his. When Kraus’ highly accomplished wife, Toni Sikes, threw a surprise 80th birthday party for Kraus at Restaurant Magnus in 2006, it was Laird who inadvertently spoiled the surprise by calling Kraus from Florida to say he couldn’t make it.

My other quibble with the award is that people who don’t know Kraus might hear about it and conclude he’s one of those humorless do-gooders who perform valuable tasks but lack any capacity for enjoying themselves.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

A conversation with Kraus is likely to include informed and good-humored riffs on current books and movies, sports, theater, media, restaurants. I remember doing a newspaper column on the best burger in Madison, and getting a note from Bill: “It’s incongruous, but Marigold makes the best one,” referencing the breakfast eatery off Capitol Square.

Like many in Madison, I first met Kraus some four decades ago, when Dreyfus pulled off his unlikely victory in the governor’s race. Then an executive at Sentry Insurance, Kraus was a big part of the campaign, with good friends Bob Williams, a Stevens Point PR guy, and Marsha Lindsay, who went to college in Point, and now, all these years later, is an advertising legend in Madison.

Kraus wrote a book about the campaign called “Let the People Decide.” The campaign was unconventional, and nimble. When campaign buttons came back with the map of the state reversed — the thumb pointing west — they had the printer add the slogan “We’re turning this state around.”

Kraus came down from Point to work in the governor’s office. It was unlike any other, before or since. There was an open air “bullpen” that reporters (or anyone else) could stroll into and talk to the governor’s top aides. The words “no comment” were never uttered. Mistakes were admitted. Yet Dreyfus got great press. Reporters liked Kraus, and — shockingly — he liked them. I profiled Kraus for Milwaukee Magazine in a piece headlined, “Riding Shotgun for the Governor.”

When I became editor of Madison Magazine in 1991, I asked Bill to write a column on the magazine’s back page. He eventually passed that baton to John Roach, but then did a terrific feature piece for the magazine when Donna Shalala and Bob Froelhke — secretary of the U.S. Army under Laird, and another Kraus buddy — teamed up to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for UW. We called it “The Odd Couple.”

These days, along with his continuing civic engagement, Kraus is a member of at least two dinner clubs, one lunch group and one book club that I know of. I doubt there’s anyone with more admiring friends.

Kraus likes to call his lunch bunch — a group of reporters and politicos who for years met at the late, lamented Avenue Bar — “the has-beens.”

No way, not Bill Kraus. Not even if he’s getting a lifetime achievement award named after him.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.