Ed Thompson, a former boxer who was once so broke he ate his dog's treats, remembered the hard times amid his success as a restaurant owner and politician.
The younger brother of former Gov. Tommy Thompson and a one-time gubernatorial candidate himself started a free community dinner that has become a Thanksgiving tradition in Tomah, where he served as mayor.
This year, it will be held in his memory, his brother said. Ed Thompson, 66, died Saturday at his home in Tomah after fighting pancreatic cancer.
"He was one of those guys who would give you the shirt off his back until he was out of shirts," said family friend Brian Schimming.
Thompson was mayor from 2000 to 2002 and 2008 to 2010. He ran for governor as a Libertarian in 2002, touting himself as Wisconsin's version of then-Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. He lost to Democrat Jim Doyle in a race that also included then-Gov. Scott McCallum, a Republican.
"To know him was to love him," Tommy Thompson told The Associated Press by telephone. "People loved to be around him. He was fun, he was entertaining, he just loved people."
Ed Thompson most recently ran as a Republican for the 31st District state Senate seat. He was in the middle of that campaign when he announced in September 2010 that he had cancer. He lost to incumbent Democrat Kathleen Vinehout less than two months later in what Schimming called a "very, very close" race. A recount put Vinehout ahead by about 440 votes.
Thompson was diagnosed with cancer after going in for an unrelated surgery, Schimming said. Told that he had only about six months to live, he decided to forge ahead with the campaign.
"Ed wanted to win that race," Schimming said. "He had been mayor of Tomah. He was very interested in helping out his community and the state."
Thompson worked at various times as a professional poker player, a prison cook and on a railroad. He fought in boxing matches and broke his leg skydiving. He recalled during his 2002 gubernatorial campaign that he was once so broke he sometimes ate dog treats.
"They were the kind called 'Bonz,'" he said. "They're good dunkers, by the way. I was fighting with the dog over the last one."
Thompson shared a turkey leg with the dog, Ace, on one Thanksgiving or Christmas when he had nothing else, his brother remembered. He later bought a Tomah supper club and decided he didn't want anyone else in the community to suffer through a similarly meager holiday.
"So he put on a Thanksgiving feast for anybody who wanted to come, free of charge," said Tommy Thompson, who was governor from 1987 to 2001 and U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush. "Now it's turned into a community-wide thing where they serve 50 to 100 people every year. It's grown into a wonderful thing."
Ed Thompson had no interest in politics until police raided the club, Mr. Ed's Tee Pee, in 1997 for allegedly operating illegal video machines.
He took hits during his gubernatorial bid for running for the state's highest office without more experience, but he captured 10 percent of the vote in the best third-party showing in Wisconsin in nearly 60 years.
Thompson's candidacy was hurt by a Wisconsin law requiring candidates to get at least 6 percent of primary votes to qualify for public financing. Without it, he had about $500,000 to spend. Doyle and McCallum poured $5.8 million and $7.4 million into the race, respectively.
"I realize now probably more than ever that you need the money," Thompson said later. "You just can't do it on less than half a million dollars."
Schimming, who has known the family for more than 30 years, described the brothers as very close. He said he and Tommy Thompson were at a political event in Milwaukee on Friday when the former governor got a call that his brother wasn't doing well. He rushed to Tomah and spent a few hours with his brother before he died about 2:30 a.m.
Ed Thompson was surrounded by his four children, Tommy Thompson and their sister. Their youngest brother arrived moments before he died.
"It seemed like Eddie was waiting for all of us," Tommy Thompson said.
Schimming said he last saw Ed Thompson a few months ago at the Tee Pee.
"We all kind of had a very frank talk about what this is and what he was facing and he accepted it as much as you can ever accept these things," he said.
A visitation was scheduled for Sunday evening in Tomah, followed by a funeral Monday morning.