Meet-up in ‘Mad City’

Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin alums re­unite 50 years later

USA TODAY US Edition - - LIFE - John Bord­sen

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.”

GETTY IM­AGES

Madi­son ranks high on many “most liv­able cities” lists for its vi­brant cul­ture and din­ing scene and its set­ting among four beau­ti­ful lakes.

JOHN BORD­SEN/SPE­CIAL TO USA TO­DAY

State Street looks lit­tle changed since the 1960s.

AN­GELA MA­JOR/ AP

The spirit of 1960s protests lives on in Madi­son, as in the 2017 Women’s March.

JOHN BORD­SEN/SPE­CIAL TO USA TO­DAY

At Sugar Shack Records, owner Gary Feast pre­sides over an eclec­tic mix of CDs and records.

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