Do Not Despair

Do Not Despair

Late in 2012,  our town interrupted the Solidarity Singers to confront some very big things.

The Clean Lakes Alliance announced a new campaign to fix the lakes, aided by the leadership of wonderfully impatient newcomer Dave Lumley. He has goaded Madison to take real action to save our waters rather than do what we have done the last fifty years: meticulously study their fragrant death by phosphorous, manure and weeds.

On another front, the Urban League of Greater Madison and their CEO Kaleem Caire staged a thought-provoking seminar with national education reform leaders Geoffrey Canada and John Legend. Canada and Legend argued eloquently for innovation, change and common sense to combat Madison’s appalling racial achievement gap. The ideas were powerful enough to send assemblyman Brett Hulsey scurrying away shortly after the presentation began, lest listening to new ideas regarding social justice from respected black leaders would upset the teachers’ union. It would seem to further prove that, though some of Madison’s white progressives are indeed white, they are no longer progressive.

At another gathering, developer Bob Dunn, before a thrilled and relieved crowd of locals, explained how it came to be that Madison could finally move forward with a big idea for a big hotel on our biggest lake. These people, with big visions and plans, came as a welcome contrast to our two-year solidarity serenade. Sure, our government friends and neighbors had something to sing about, but every song gets old after twenty-four months of continuous play. Public union members are a large segment of Madison’s population, but they are not the only residents in town, and their concerns are not the only item on
our agenda.

Dunn’s Edgewater gathering was especially exciting. The mood was exultant. Folks of every political stripe were giddy with the notion that someone, other than the university, could actually construct a beautiful, large building worthy of our city and its lakes.

As it turns out, the heroes were the couple who built our last beautiful building.

Dunn was unusually subdued as he shared a poignant anecdote on how the Edgewater dream finally came true.

On the eve of the hotel’s rebirth, Dunn was a defeated man. After a lengthy, nightmarish process of municipal approvals, meetings and pettiness, the project was voted down. Dunn told how he left the final vote after 2 a.m. and drove straight through the night to his northwoods escape near Manitowish.

At 8:30 that morning he received a call from Pleasant Rowland. According to Dunn, she offered three words: “Do not despair.”

With Pleasant and Jerry Frautschi’s help, the Edgewater financing came through. Now Madison will have a destination hotel that befits a revitalized State Street and one of the world’s great universities and most livable cities.

These three meetings were cause for even the worst cynic to take heart.

After two years of community focus on the contracts of government workers, the private sector—and the dreaded One Percent—stood up and declared that it was time to move forward on projects that benefit all of us.

Lumley, head honcho at Spectrum Brands, has offered vision and resources to create urgency for government agencies that simply haven’t done what is needed for our lakes. 

Caire and the Urban League are forcing Madison to confront our true values in the face of a more diverse population of citizens and the challenges they face and represent.

And Pleasant Rowland and Jerry Frautschi are unafraid to help Madison dream big.

The political rancor in Madison over the last two years has been a sad thing. Along with the economy, it created a feeling of anger and hopelessness in a city that is usually pretty joyous and goofy.

We have spent a lot of time listening to the folks who perform the everyday tasks of government.

We understand their importance.

But there is more to life than assuring process is followed.

Sometimes we need to dream big.

Lest we despair.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at

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