Ed Durkin’s big tent

Peace broke out around the late Madison fire chief
Ed Durkin’s big tent
Photo courtesy of Pat Durkin
The late Ed Durkin, as Madison's one-time fire chief, brought calm by finding allies among rivals.

One summer many years ago, I played golf once a week at the crack of dawn with Tedd O’Connell and Ed Durkin.

Think I heard any stories?

I want to share a couple here, courtesy of Ed, who died Oct. 27. He was 88.

Our little golf group broke up after a couple of months because one of us–probably me–wearied of the early tee time. But it was fun while it lasted.

I mainly listened as we made our way around the back nine at Odana Hills. O’Connell–who died in 2008–was the dominant TV journalist of his era (1970s to 1980s) in Madison, a Channel 3 anchor who enjoyed the limelight but also knew how to work sources and report stories.

Durkin was Madison’s fire chief from 1979 to 1985–O’Connell’s peak TV years. That they became friends is not surprising. Ed’s circle was vast and varied, and even included a Russian cosmonaut.

I heard that memorable story after Sergei Krikalev became one of the first three residents of the International Space Station in 2000.

One of Durkin’s activities after leaving the fire department, where he served 34 years, was directing the Link Friendship House, a residence in Madison’s Highlands west-side neighborhood named for the late UW biochemist Karl Paul Link and his wife, Elizabeth.

Promoting peace was the primary mission of the Friendship House. In 1992, the house provided some expense money for four Russian cosmonauts to attend the annual Oshkosh air show. In return, they visited Madison. Krikalev was the star–he’d spent 312 days on the Mir space station during the break-up of the Soviet Union–and stayed with Durkin at the Friendship House. Ed arranged for Krikalev to speak to the Downtown Rotary.

The press generated by the Wisconsin visit resulted in an invite to the NASA Visitor Center in Alabama, and in 1994, Krikalev became the first Russian to fly in a U.S. space shuttle, and on a mission with five U.S. astronauts.

Krikalev was able to invite a few people to watch the shuttle launch backstage at the Kennedy Space Center. He asked Durkin, who was thrilled. The launch itself became seared in Ed’s memory. “The noise is deafening,” he said. “You can feel the heat. The earth rumbles.”

It was a rumble of a different kind that led to another of my favorite Ed Durkin stories.

I first heard it in 2010, the 30th anniversary of Durkin’s first recruiting class as fire chief. There was a reunion party at Warner Park. Pam Jacobson, up from Ohio, was a member of that class–the first in Madison to include women.

“He changed the world by hiring our class,” Jacobson told me.

Jacobson was passing out photocopies of a New York Times article.

She explained that a few months earlier, Durkin, driving from his winter residence in Florida back to Wisconsin, had stopped in Cincinnati to visit Jacobson. Durkin told her how proud he was of that 1980 recruiting class. It included 10 women.

“There’s something else I’m proud of,” Durkin said. I can imagine a twinkle in his eye.

“What’s that?” Jacobson said.

“In 1969,” Durkin said, “I was on the front page of the New York Times.”

It was that article Jacobson handed out at the Warner Park reunion.

I know my Madison history, but somehow I’d missed that one.

The Times headline read: “A Party in Madison: Peace Breaks Out.” The article described the first weekend of May 1969 when violence broke out on Mifflin Street with students protesting the Vietnam War clashing with police. There was tear gas and 100 arrests.

Durkin, then a captain in the fire department, bailed one of the leading student activists, Paul Soglin, out of jail.

It was not inconsistent with his longtime progressive politics. Over the years Durkin led a firefighters’ strike, supported a teachers’ strike and refused donations while running unsuccessfully for Dane County executive. He could be a firebrand, yet at the same time was a consummate family man, married to Winnie for 65 years, with six kids, 12 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

But back to May 1969. The following weekend, violence was again in the air in Madison.

“There was a group of people on Mifflin Street,” Soglin told me, “who wanted to go right back at it.”

The students planned their assembly while the police loaded up on tear gas.

The night prior, Durkin spoke to Soglin and other activist leaders.

“Why don’t you come out to my house instead?”

Durkin had a big backyard in the Crestwood neighborhood. Bill Dyke, Madison’s conservative mayor, heard about the party offer. “If Durkin’s that crazy,” Dyke said, “I’ll give him a couple of buses to help.”

It worked. City buses shuttled students from Mifflin to Durkin’s backyard. And peace broke out.

From the New York Times: “There were about 450 uninhibited students milling around, dancing, drinking beer and just lying down under the trees in Captain Durkin’s backyard.”

Soglin–who was at the 2010 Warner Park reunion, too-told me, “Ed is one of those guys who decides to do the right thing and then worries about the consequences later.”

The firefighter Pam Jacobson said, “I knew he was a radical, crazy guy, but that was pretty cool.”

That was Ed.

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