Following in his father’s footsteps

Ben Elson gets to know his father, the man many...
Following in his father’s footsteps
For Ben Elson (left), learning about the work of his father Edward Ben Elson (right) has helped set his own path.

People who remember Ben Elson’s father Eddie–the father Ben never really knew–likely recall an inspired Madison prankster who once persuaded hundreds of people to purchase tickets for a ride on a comet.

The Comet Kohoutek, Edward Ben Elson insisted, back in 1973, was really a spaceship that was going to land on the shore of Lake Monona.

The “chosen few,” Elson said–meaning anyone who bought a ticket from Eddie, as he was widely known–would be whisked away and saved from an imminent apocalypse on Earth.

When the appointed time came and went, with no sign of Kohoutek on the Lake Monona shore, a reporter tracked down the man who sold the tickets.

“Where’s the comet?” the reporter asked.

“What comet?” Eddie said.

People laughed, and hung on to their tickets. Some have them still. Madison loved Eddie Elson. They laughed again when NBC’s “Real People” show invited Eddie to California to explain his comet stunt. Eddie agreed to appear, then sent an imposter.

But beyond the zaniness, demons loomed. Edward Ben Elson died by his own hand in 1983. His widow Patty and their three-year-old son, Ben, moved from McFarland to Madison’s Nakoma neighborhood. Ben attended West High School.

It was in those high school years that Ben, now 36, became interested in learning more about his dad.

Ben’s mom had an abundant file of news clippings, many related to the pranks. Other stories, however, involved Eddie’s serious work as an attorney. As a lawyer, Eddie was devoted to giving a voice to the voiceless, frequently representing the mentally ill and dispossessed.

When Eddie ran unsuccessfully for Dane County district attorney, he told a reporter, “Out of my office window would fly a flag that says, ‘Don’t tread on me.’ And it’s your flag, too.”

Of course, being Eddie, he couldn’t keep humor completely out of his law practice. Eddie once represented his friend Bronson La Follette’s dog, Cutter, when Cutter was apprehended outdoors in Maple Bluff without a leash. Eddie demanded a jury of Cutter’s peers–12 Irish setters.

It was Eddie’s serious legal work that spoke to his son Ben, coupled with conversations Ben had with an uncle, Michael Smith–his mom Patty’s brother, who is an attorney in New York City. Smith co-hosts a radio show called “Law and Disorder” and edited a book of the famed activist attorney William Kunstler’s speeches.

“From my dad’s example,” Ben says, “I felt like fighting back against injustice was an important thing to do. I liked the idea of becoming a lawyer like my dad and my uncle.”

Ben Elson has done just that. Since graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School in 2005, Elson has worked for the People’s Law Office in Chicago, a firm that specializes in civil rights litigation, and has in the past several years helped bring systemic abuses by the Chicago Police Department to light.

In 2012, Super Lawyers–a rating of attorneys that was included in the February issue of Chicago magazine–listed Elson as a “rising star,” one of the best lawyers in Illinois younger than age 40.

Elson still works for the People’s Law Office, but in 2013, he and his wife Bridget Sharkey moved from Chicago to Madison, hoping to start a family. Their daughter Maeve will be 2 this year. Bridget works as a writer for a Chicago public relations firm. Living in Madison while working for Chicago-based employers presents challenges, but Ben wanted his mother to have easy access to her granddaughter.

“I wouldn’t be anywhere if it wasn’t for my mom,” Ben says. “She raised me since I was three as a single mother. She’s my hero.”

He had other help along the way. Elson received both his undergraduate and law school degrees from UW-Madison, and during those years he had internships with prominent Madison civil rights attorneys Michael Fox and Jeff Scott Olson, as well as a judicial internship with then-Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.

After law school, it was Elson’s uncle, Michael Smith, whose connections eventually led to Ben getting an interview with the People’s Law Office. He got the job in part because the firm had just taken on the high-profile, difficult defense of an American Muslim accused of terrorism.

There have been many cases since. One that continues to resonate with Elson involved an African American man in Chicago, Michael Tillman, who spent 23 years in prison after confessing under torture to a murder he didn’t commit. Ben and his colleagues got the conviction overturned. They watched at a respectful distance the day Tillman left the courtroom a free man, and hugged his mother for the first time in two decades.

“I will never forget that,” Elson says.

It is what he had in mind while he was still in school and went to see Jeff Scott Olson about an internship.

“Why do you want to work for my firm?” Olson asked.

“I want to be like my dad,” Ben Elson said.