Roach: The airport Epic’s Judith Faulkner built

Think about what Epic has come to mean in Madison
Roach: The airport Epic’s Judith Faulkner built
Courtesy of Dane County Regional Airport

I tool along Packers Avenue with plenty of time to catch my flight. Streaming by to my right are the many small, neat houses that were once home to generations of Oscar Mayer workers, back when the most prominent private enterprise in Madison made wieners and pimento luncheon meats.

On the driver’s side are the large, abandoned Oscar Mayer offices. It haunts Madison’s east side like the empty stadium of an NFL franchise that split town.

With the newly expanded Dane County Regional Airport, check-in is a breeze, allowing for a quick beer at the friendly pub across from the gates. As I cozy up to the bar rail, I get a smile and nod from the young woman seated next to me. She is working on her computer at the bar.

One of the great joys of travel is meeting new people. Sure, it’s fun to have a regular group of family and friends. But you often know what your cousin is going to say because you’ve had the same conversation with her 94 times before.

Travel allows for fresh social exchanges. A casual mention of the Wisconsin Badgers basketball team’s last-minute win, and a conversation begins. It turns out that the young woman is a working mother traveling to an exotic European destination. I ask her who she works for, already knowing the answer.

“Epic,” she responds, adding that she received an advanced college degree, went out into the world to ply her trade, only to discover that she didn’t much care for the career for which school prepared her. So she quit and returned to Madison to raise her family and landed a job at Epic Systems Corp.

I ask her how she likes it, knowing that the hours there can be demanding, as is the case for many growing digital companies. She looks at me and declares that she absolutely loves Epic. Her co-workers are smart and she enjoys independence in her position.

And as a woman, she carries true respect for Judith Faulkner, Epic’s founder and CEO, and the culture Faulkner created in the former farm fields of Verona.

As do I, because on this day I am catching a flight to Tampa, Florida – a direct flight from Madison that wouldn’t be possible if not for Faulkner. Nor would new direct flights to Phoenix, San Francisco and Los Angeles. If there was any justice in the world, Madison planes would be departing from Judith Faulkner Airport.

Stop for a moment to consider just what Epic has come to mean for our jewel among the lakes. Do you really think our many new restaurants and hotels would be here without it? Without Faulkner’s vision slowly and inexorably becoming a reality, would The Sylvee have been built? Would we have concerts at Breese Stevens Field?

One could argue that not too long ago one of the most forlorn demographics in all the world were graduates of the University of Wisconsin-Madison who never left town. They were like the guy who kept hanging around his old high school. Creepy.

But now spending a night downtown at Lucille or Graze feels more like an experience in Chicago’s Bucktown rather than in Madison. The heart of the city is alive with young adults with diplomas who have abandoned the pajama chic of college and now dress like grown-ups. They have cash to spend at places other than Ragstock and Ian’s Pizza.

And think for a moment what the rise of Epic, Promega and Exact Sciences corporations has done for the Madison psyche. Faulkner and her entrepreneurial brethren Bill Linton at Promega and Kevin Conroy of Exact Sciences have helped Madison evolve from its low-risk, state-employee-for-life-with-a-pension culture to the more dynamic, private sector risk/reward model that hasn’t existed here since Oscar Mayer stopped making assembly-line hot dogs to the tune of a great jingle.

Further, our new tech growth has been realized without cattle carcasses. Which is nice.
Coming home from my trip, I drive through the valley of new high-end apartment buildings on East Washington Avenue, feeling like someone dropped a piece of Chicago right next to Breese Stevens.

I find myself thinking that these towering places are Epic’s mark on our city just as so many east-side homes are a mark of another company in another era.

And truth be told, Oscar ain’t got nothin’ on Judith.