Student Life

Bold Gestures

Rick Maas

It was graduation night in Madison. I wasn’t graduating, but my friend Jenni was, and she was determined to mark her foray into adulthood with a bold gesture. So she dragged me and two other girlfriends to the old, rickety, white pier on Lake Mendota just off of Carroll Street.

We were going to go skinny-dipping.

That’s the night I first met Shawn. He and his friends happened to be out celebrating, too. It was the night before Shawn’s twenty-first birthday.

Within moments, we had struck one of those deals that only make sense when you’re young. Girls and guys jump into the lake. Guys climb back onto the pier and lift the girls out. We figured we’d do this crazy thing and never see each other again.

Except that we did.

Shawn and I bumped into each other numerous times that summer of 1996. On State Street, dancing to the guitar of “Jim,” the street performer who led sing-alongs for the post-bar crowd. At State Street Brats, where I worked the grill on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

After enough of these run-ins, Shawn said he wished we could see each other more often. I agreed, and we started dating. We went to the Chinese restaurant, China Moon, just off of the Capitol Square. To Ella’s Deli on State Street for dessert. To James Madison Park, where, on a picturesque Saturday afternoon, we watched a wedding party pour out of the chapel.

I remember thinking, “Could Shawn be the guy I’m going to end up with?”

But then I quickly dismissed the idea with, “Of course not. We’re just kids.”

Nonetheless, Shawn and I fell in love in downtown Madison the way I imagine thousands of UW students do every year. The campus and our time there was our common ground, our shared experience, the place where we both belonged, while belonging to each other.

Senior year flew by, and I graduated with plans to see the world. Shawn graduated, too, but he decided to go back to the UW to earn a teaching certificate, which would take another two years. We did our best to keep the relationship going, but after nearly four years of long-distance phone calls, bus tickets, and rented cars, Shawn and I broke up. And, but for a few birthday and Christmas cards at first, we lost touch completely.

Over the next seven years, I did what I said I wanted to do: moved around the country, got jobs at big newspapers, traveled. But to my surprise, the journey taught me that I was happiest in the Midwest. I settled back at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, writing a column and a blog.

Over the next seven years, Shawn did what he said he wanted to do: stayed in Wisconsin, got jobs teaching social studies and coaching football, traveled. But to his surprise, his journey taught him that he was ready for a bigger city. He moved to Chicago, where he taught high school for four years, got his master’s degree in political science, then became the resident scholar at a downtown museum.

It was from his desk at the museum that, early in spring 2007, Shawn reached out to me in an e-mail. We agreed to meet for coffee in downtown Chicago. When I got out of the cab and saw him waiting for me on a bench, I thought my heart was going to pump blood out of my ears. I recognized everything — his tall, lean build; the nod of his head; his voice, which I’d listened to on the phone for years.

But then there were things that I didn’t know at all. Where were you during the 9/11 attacks? How did you end up living and working on the Magnificent Mile? So, you drink lattes now?

Two hours that afternoon was not nearly long enough.

We started dating again. We went to sushi restaurants just off of Chicago’s Restaurant Row. To the Milwaukee Public Market. Through Central Park in New York City, and then the top of the Empire State Building — where he proposed.

This August, we’ll be married in the Chicago suburbs where I grew up, and many of our guests will be friends from the University of Wisconsin.

Shawn is pushing for a Camp Randall-shaped wedding cake.

I suppose we will need to mark our foray into adulthood with a bold gesture …

Vikki Ortiz is a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Her fiancé, Shawn Healy ’97, is the managing director of the McCormick Freedom Museum.

If you’re a UW-Madison alumna or alumnus and you’d like the editors to consider an essay of this length for publication in On Wisconsin, please send it to

Published in the Summer 2009 issue


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