Meet-up in ‘Mad City’
University of Wisconsin alums reunite 50 years later
MADISON, Wis. – The year 1968 was tumultuous at the University of Wisconsin, in student neighborhoods and downtown’s State Street.
Tensions rose as the Vietnam War expanded and the political fabric stateside continued to unravel. Marches and rallies were likely to result in clashes with the police. A forecast for demonstrations could easily predict clouds of tear gas and flurries of flying objects.
Fifty years later, those days are coming back — in a nostalgic way — June
14-16 at the Madison Reunion. Stillvibrant hippies and activists, some into trekking and others toting extra pounds, will revisit those wild times.
The event, billed as A Party With a Purpose, features free and ticketed events from concerts to panel discussions about the 1960s and how Baby Boomers can navigate and shape current times.
Former vice president Dick Cheney (a UW grad student in 1968) is likely to take a pass. But other illustrious former students are on the bill: Hollywood producer Jim Abrahams (a student in the
1960s), journalist Jeff Greenfield (B.A.,
1964), novelist Peter Straub (B.A., 1965), rock musician Boz Scaggs (a student in the ’60s) and others.
Just as unusual is the lineup of corporate sponsors, from the Wisconsin Historical Society to the high-end Edgewater hotel and MG&E, an area utility.
Although the Madison Reunion may seem to have niche market appeal, several travel experts say it directly taps an affluent demographic sweet spot.
Targeting Boomer tourism
Judy Randall of North Carolinabased Randall Travel Marketing is known nationally for her trend-spotting savvy. The Madison Reunion, she says, plays to “Gypsy Baby Boomers — people, basically, who are collecting Social Security, have the mortgage paid and the kids raised. They love road trips and are literally gypsing around the United States. For them, it’s a combination of seeing old friends and hanging out at cool places. ”
Randall says these travelers tend to avoid major metros and prefer smaller towns that are walkable and predicts there’s “at least another 10 years” of the trend.
Madison ranks high on many “most livable cities” lists for its vibrant culture and dining scene. It’s an easy-going white-collar city wedged among four beautiful lakes less than two Interstate hours from Milwaukee and Chicago, with state parks close by.
Bill Geist, whose ZeitGeist travel marketing firm is based in Madison, says, “Roughly half the nation’s wealth is in the hands of Boomers, who are at the point in life where they want to spend what they’ve accumulated on experiencing things. They’re looking for a reset — relaxation, learning something new if they can.”
Geist, an Illinois native, says the city’s 1960s heritage is “powerful stuff ” when it comes to allure, and Madison Reunion shows strategic marketing: “Boomers remember this was their life — going to concerts and rallies. ... Madison Reunion is recapturing that. ”
The Temptations are playing the UW Memorial Union on June 14; Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers take the stage at Breese Stevens Field on June 16.
Exploring the big picture
The Reunion organizer is Ben Sidran, an award-winning keyboardist/broadcaster/writer who moved from Racine, Wis., to Madison in 1961, and who was in a band with fellow students Steve Miller and Scaggs.
Sidran played and recorded with Miller and others after getting an English degree but remained based in Madison.
“We travel the world, and in Europe we met people after gigs who had been in Madison,” he says. “There was lots of curiosity about what happened to the place and to us.”
In the 1960s, Sidran says, “I started thinking about a conference in the middle of a reunion as kind of a destination for everybody who wanted to know about that state of mind. It would be a way of getting in touch with something we all remembered.”
His Madison Reunion mushroomed. The event includes 32 panels over three days, covering everything from politics and media to film, the environment, women’s studies, comedy and literature. No-charge Reunion events include concerts at the Memorial Union terrace and a film series. Lessons learned, lifelong learning
David Maraniss has an unusual perspective on the Reunion: At The Washington Post he won a Pulitzer Prize and also wrote best-sellers First in His Class about Bill Clinton and Barack Obama: The Story. Maraniss also wrote They Marched Into Sunlight, about the Vietnam War in 1967 and reactions it caused in Madison, where he grew up.
“When I was a (UW) freshman in 1967, the largest club on campus was the Young Republicans. There was a counter-culture that was starting to build, but it wasn’t overwhelming. That’s mythology.”
Maraniss lives in Washington but he and his wife relocate to Madison every summer. As a Reunion speaker, he thinks he’ll talk “vaguely about journalism. The search for truth, the (school’s) ‘sifting and winnowing’ tradition: Is it real? Is it important now?”
Another journalist/author at a podium will be Peter Greenberg (B.A., 1972), travel editor for CBS News.
“The University of Wisconsin was the most active, engaged and violent campus in America — more than Berkeley and Columbia combined. I walked into the (student) paper there and already, permanent clouds of tear gas were there.”
Greenberg says that his heart is still on campus and that on Madison’s long-quieted streets, “you can still engage in intelligent discussions. And that still makes a difference in this polarized world.”
Madison ranks high on many “most livable cities” lists for its vibrant culture and dining scene and its setting among four beautiful lakes.
State Street looks little changed since the 1960s.
The spirit of 1960s protests lives on in Madison, as in the 2017 Women’s March.
At Sugar Shack Records, owner Gary Feast presides over an eclectic mix of CDs and records.