What's extra meaningful to me about Stuart Levitan's new book, "Madison in the Sixties," is that I lived and worked in Madison through most of that tumultuous decade and have fond and some not-so-fond memories of those years.
The two years I missed was spent on active duty as an artillery lieutenant at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where I became a fan of a young progressive politician named Fred Harris, who in 1964 defeated Oklahoma's legendary football coach and notorious right-winger Bud Wilkinson for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Ironically, it was a little more than 10 years later when a brash, 21-year-old long-haired disheveled kid popped into the newsroom at The Capital Times, then on South Carroll Street, to talk about Wisconsin politics. He was in town that day in 1975 tailing one of the announced candidates who was hoping to do well in the April 1976 Wisconsin presidential preference primary.
The candidate was none other than Fred Harris, who had since quit the U.S. Senate and focused on running for president in '76, the year Jimmy Carter won the Democratic nomination.
Although he was smitten with national politics, the young man, Stuart Levitan, was jobless. He hoped to parley his Harris coverage into a story for Rolling Stone, fashioning himself as a young Hunter Thompson.
I was city editor at that time and wound up hiring Levitan — probably because of the soft spot in my heart for Harris — as our part-time Washington correspondent. His job was to cover the likes of Gaylord Nelson, Bill Proxmire and Bob Kastenmeier and what they were doing in the nation's capital. Nelson and Kastenmeier, in particular, had already played significant roles in Madison's heady '60s, which Levitan's book today so artfully covers.
I was able to put Stuart on the full-time payroll in '76 and brought him to Madison. He quickly became one of the newsroom's "characters," but always worked hard and met deadlines. He did a terrific job covering the contentious fight over a huge copper and zinc mine near Crandon that Exxon wanted to build, much to the dismay of environmentalists and Indian tribes.
But the notorious Oct. 1, 1977, Madison newspaper strike interfered with his newspaper career. Like other Cap Times staffers, Levitan honored the picket lines of the striking printers union. He worked for the strike paper, the Press Connection, and when that folded after a spirited run, he went to law school, worked for the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission on tricky labor cases, was elected to the County Board and has since chaired several city committees and commissions.
In the meantime, though, just as he fell in love with politics at an early age, he began a love affair with Madison, its uniqueness and its history. How deep that runs is exemplified by "Madison in the Sixties."
This is Levitan's second book on Madison history; the first was a decade-to-decade account from 1856 to 1931. The new volume focuses exclusively on the 1960s, a year-by-year account of a decade that arguably changed Madison forever.
I wasn't sure what to expect of this new book. Much has been written about Madison and the '60s — some of the stories from the decade have been told and told again. John Nichols and I devoted a lengthy chapter to the '60s in our book published last year on the paper's 100th anniversary.
But Levitan's work provides new insights to a decade in which Madison somewhat clumsily dived into urban renewal (the demise of the legendary Greenbush one of its legacies), battled over civil rights, literally fought over the Vietnam War, turned the Monona Terrace civic center controversy into a fiasco and set the stage for the future of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.
What makes this book special is the way Levitan and his publisher, the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, creatively present those 10 years of history. It's not just 400 pages consisting of words with a dozen photos or so stitched in the middle, but each year is summarized with a lively narrative, complete with cogent illustrations, followed by lively but brief highlights of the big events that occurred during the year. Even quotes by the Wisconsin State Journal's iconic sports writer Roundy help summarize the year.
Those highlights are where old guys like me will find tidbits we've forgotten — like the city's prohibition against bowlers drinking on the lanes, they'd have to run to the bar to quaff a beer between frames; the city's routine spraying of elm trees with DDT in late fall to fight Dutch Elm disease despite warnings that the chemical might hurt birds, to which the city responded that most of them had flown south by that time anyhow; and in the early '60s, before Vietnam became the issue, conservative students were the ones who disrupted meetings on campus.
One of the most disturbing recountings of '60s history, though, is Levitan's description of how the city, even then hailed for its liberalism and inclusiveness, engaged in outright discrimination in everything from employment to housing. It's no wonder that Madison today is considered to be among the most unequal cities in America.
Overall, though, his is an upbeat book that tells so much about a time in history that tried many souls but sparked a new energy and growth. It's incredibly well researched and, above all, deserves to be on your holiday shopping list.
Even 88-year-old Fred Harris, still every much alive at the University of New Mexico where he taught political science for years, might agree.
He did, after all, bring Levitan to Madison.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. email@example.com, 608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.
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