Alumni – On Wisconsin https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com For UW-Madison Alumni and Friends Mon, 17 Sep 2018 15:53:15 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.8 The Big Dig https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/the-big-dig/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/the-big-dig/#respond Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:27 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23640 Pulling a soil sample from frozen Wisconsin ground in January is not impossible, but it certainly isn’t easy.

Armed with a steel pick, plant pathology professor Douglas Rouse sent dirt, grass, and ice flying into the sunlight at the UW Arboretum as a small group of introductory biology students noted the location and condition of the frozen soil. Thawed or frozen, wet or dry, the soil remains an essential hunting ground. Within it lies the key to suppressing what the United Nations calls “the greatest and most urgent global risk”: superbugs — strains of bacteria that have grown resistant to traditional antibiotics. Superbugs could kill more people than cancer by 2050 if left unchecked, according to a 2014 report issued by the United Kingdom’s government.

More than two-thirds of new antibiotics come from soil bacteria or fungi. But since a small sample contains thousands of species of bacteria — and most of the antibiotics they produce are toxic to humans — it requires significant time, labor, and persistence to isolate effective antibiotic producers and to test for new compounds. With the prospects of profitability lacking, pharmaceutical companies have shied away from developing new antibiotics to focus on more lucrative drugs.

Enter Tiny Earth, an initiative based at the UW’s Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID). Rouse’s biology students are just a sampling of the nearly 10,000 students across 41 states and 14 countries who are mining soil to solve the superbug problem.

“Antibiotic resistance is one of the main threats to global health and security, and the students have potential to discover new antibiotics to fill the void that currently exists,” says Jo Handelsman PhD’84, director of WID and founder of the initiative.

Each semester, thousands of students around the world dig into the soil in their backyards, farm fields, stream beds, and forest floors. Just like the UW students, they learn the techniques they need to identify new species and compounds. Along with building a database of new antibiotics with medical potential, Tiny Earth is addressing another looming global crisis: a shortage of students pursuing careers in science.

“One of the best ways to learn is to engage in science actively and to do research so that the thrill of discovery drives the learning process,” says Handelsman, who first developed the program in 2012 at Yale University. She saw too many first- and second-year undergraduates dropping out of the sciences and wanted to reverse the trend by offering hands-on research that pulls in techniques and ideas from disciplines such as ecology, genetics, and molecular biology. For students, it’s a galvanizing introduction to laboratory science: they learn new skills while solving real problems.

The UW introductory biology students spent last spring diluting their soil samples, culturing and isolating bacteria, and profiling the genomes of anti- biotic-producing microbes. Along the way, they made hypotheses about what they might find, learned and selected techniques, and synthesized their findings, all in the hope of discovering new antibiotic compounds. While the samples await final analysis, the initiative is betting on the odds that more participation will increase the chances of unique discovery.

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The Marvels of Cartooning https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_alumni/the-marvels-of-cartooning/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_alumni/the-marvels-of-cartooning/#respond Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:27 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23747 Jeff Butler looks over students' drawing in a classroom

Andy Manis

Just like the superheroes he creates, artist Jeff Butler x’18 provided powerful inspiration when he led a workshop on drawing cartoon characters in July at One Alumni Place.

Butler, whose past jobs included illustrating the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, leads courses in the graphic design and illustration program at Madison College. He’s also returned to campus to complete his degree 36 years after leaving to pursue his career.

Butler began the Wisconsin Alumni Association event by detailing how he turned a childhood obsession with comic books into a career. Participants then tried exercises such as drawing the Statue of Liberty with their eyes closed. As the class concentrated on simple strategies to draw figures and other lessons, the room grew quiet, punctuated only by Butler’s delighted laughter and comments of “Wow,” and “Awesome!” as he examined their work.

“It was wonderful to see Badgers of all ages who came out to learn more about Jeff’s story and share in his talents,” says McKenzie Glynn-Zdrale ’00, the Alumni Park and Place program director. “It was a fun night for everyone.”

Len Mormino ’91 attended the workshop with his daughter Sophia, an aspiring artist of 13. Mormino had planned to spend the time working on his laptop, but he was drawn into participating. “I was glad I did it,” he says, adding that he enjoyed watching Sophia find the inspiration and confidence she needed through the workshop. Her takeaway message, he says, was, “Stick with your art, and you can grow it into unpredictably great things.”

One Alumni Place is the visitor center for the new Alumni Park. See alumnipark.com for more information and a schedule of events.

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Reckoning with History https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_campus/reckoning-with-history/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_campus/reckoning-with-history/#respond Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:26 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23738 People walk past a decorative wall in the Memorial Union

Bryce Richter

Between 1919 and 1926, two UW student organizations took the name Ku Klux Klan, and a report delving into that era of campus history “does not make for comfortable reading, nor should it,” says Chancellor Rebecca Blank.

In the wake of a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville last fall, Blank appointed a study group to research the organizations and their connection to the national KKK. She also asked members of the group, which included UW history professors, to advise her on how the university can respond to this painful history.

The group’s report, released in April, found that the campus community in the early 1920s did not question the presence of two organizations bearing the KKK name, including one that was affiliated with the national white supremacist group Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The report also detailed what Blank calls “shameful examples” of the UW community’s treatment of black and Jewish students and of Native Americans, who were excluded from the student body during that era.

“The history the UW needs to confront was not the aberrant work of a few individuals but a pervasive culture of racial and religious bigotry, casual and unexamined in its prevalence, in which exclusion and indignity were routine, sanctioned in the institution’s daily life, and unchallenged by its leaders,” the report says.

The study group also considered the question of renaming campus spaces. But members decided that, first and foremost, the university needs to take more substantive action to address the past and reinvest in institutional change. “We want our collective reckoning with this history to consist of a great deal more than the purging of unpleasant reminders,” the report says.

However, the Wisconsin Union Council, which governs Memorial Union, voted in August to change the names of the Porter Butts Art Gallery and the Fredric March Play Circle — named for the union’s first director and the Oscar-winning actor, respectively. Both men belonged to an interfraternity society that used the Ku Klux Klan name in the early 1920s but was not affiliated with the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

The surviving family members of Butts publicly supported the move, which council members said would allow the Union to fulfill its mission by being more welcoming to students of all backgrounds. Butts ’24, MA’36 worked for inclusivity later in his life, including his refusal to allow segregated groups to use Wisconsin Union spaces. And in the 1950s, March ’20 fought persecution of Hollywood artists, many of them Jewish, by the House Un-American Activities Committee. The Union council plans to acknowledge the professional achievements of Butts in another way at Memorial Union.

In response to the study group report, the UW has committed up to $1 million to research and install a public history project “that will document and share the voices of those on campus who endured, fought, and overcame prejudice” throughout its history, Blank says. The university will also fund a proposal to hire a new faculty member in four progams: Afro-American Studies, American Indian Studies, Chican@/Latin@ Studies, and Asian American Studies.

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Science Faction https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/science-faction/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/science-faction/#respond Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:26 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23583 In his autobiography, Tommy, which is out this September, Tommy Thompson ’63, JD’66 shares stories about his small-town upbringing in Elroy, Wisconsin, his days on campus, and his career in government. Thompson devotes a significant passage to his support for stem cell research, both on campus and worldwide. In May 2017, the university opened the Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership, which states that it seeks to provide “a multidisciplinary, nonpartisan environment to study, discuss, and improve leadership.” Although some have questioned whether the center will live up to its nonpartisan charge, few would disagree that its namesake is known for reaching across the aisle and for being a tireless promoter of Wisconsin and its state university.

It was at a cabinet meeting that first spring after being named secretary of Health and Human Services when President George W. Bush asked me if I would stay afterward.

“I need to address stem cells,” the president said. “I want to know more about them.”

I nodded.

“I know you are for the research,” the president continued, “and I know Karl Rove [then White House deputy chief of staff] is against it. I am going to schedule a lunch for the three of us. I want you to come in, and I want you and Karl to discuss it.”

I wasn’t surprised. In my 1999 State of the State speech, I introduced James Thomson, a UW–Madison developmental biologist whose lab, in 1998, was the first to isolate stem cells from human embryos. His findings were published in Science magazine in November 1998, and the following month the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) received a patent on the discovery. Even in those early days it was being touted as a breakthrough that could revolutionize modern medicine and health care.

But the research was not without controversy. Though the cells Thomson used were left over from fertility clinics — and the donors had signed off on their use in research — some right-to-life people called it immoral, unethical, or both. They were furious with me for introducing Thomson during my State of the State speech, and it was brought up again by the Bush team prior to my appointment.

“I support stem cells,” I told them. “If that means I can’t get the appointment, so be it.”

My passionate support of Thomson and WARF were part of my larger belief that the University of Wisconsin’s emergence as a leader in biotechnology and biomedical research was great for both our state and humanity in general. Where are lifesaving advances going to come from, if not great institutions like the University of Wisconsin?

As governor, I tried to forge a partnership that would help the UW System grow while at the same time generating new technologies and businesses to pump up the state’s economy. During my time as governor, more than 4,000 building projects at a collective cost of nearly $2 billion were initiated at campuses across the state. It was a mix of public and private money. I helped Donna Shalala, before she left the UW–Madison’s chancellor job to join the Clinton administration, generate private funds to advance the expansion. Later, I called it the New Wisconsin Idea — a collaboration between academia and the private sector that would benefit both and bring good-paying new jobs to Wisconsin.

I can’t understand why any public official wouldn’t see the University of Wisconsin System as an ally, especially in a world that is changing faster than ever.

I remember having a discussion at some point in my last term as governor with John Wiley MS’65, PhD’68, who would later be UW–Madison chancellor but at the time was provost. John said he wanted me to meet Michael Sussman, a biochemist on campus who was doing some interesting work perfecting DNA chips utilized in identifying genetic abnormalities that can eventually lead to new drugs and ways to fight disease.

I said I’d be happy to meet Sussman. During my first term as governor, Chancellor Shalala had approached me about assisting with a new Biotechnology Center on the Madison campus. I agreed to help, and with a mix of federal, state, and private dollars, the center was built on the site of the old Wisconsin High School. By the time Wiley brought Sussman to see me in the late 1990s, the biosciences were exploding on campus, and the center I’d helped fund was already inadequate. Sussman sat in my office in the capitol and for two hours talked about DNA and the potential for all this great science to generate medical advances. I liked Sussman, his enthusiasm and genuineness, though we joked later about how he’s a Democrat from New York and would never have voted for me prior to meeting me. He said that more brilliant students than ever were interested in studying biology at Wisconsin, but because of space limitations, some had to be turned away. He said we weren’t losing them to Michigan State — we were losing them to Harvard and Stanford. We’re a great university, he said, but we need a new building and more lab space.

He impressed me. Within a few days of the meeting, I called Wiley and promised funding for one of the things we had talked about: five new faculty hires in the area of human genomics. I toured the existing facilities, learning more about the science all the time. Then, in my January 2000 State of the State speech, I unveiled the $317 million BioStar Initiative, which included an addition to the Biotechnology Center as well as renovations and additional buildings for biology-related departments.

I’m proud of what I was able to do for the University of Wisconsin. It made sense for all kinds of reasons, including economic development. I was always trying to figure out how to help Wisconsin compete with the technology triangle in North Carolina and Silicon Valley. I wanted Wisconsin to be the third pillar out there.

At some point after I left for Washington and Health and Human Services, word reached me that Mike Sussman was thinking of leaving UW–Madison. He had a very attractive offer from the University of California–Davis, and was considering it to the point he’d already looked at houses.

I telephoned Mike one night from Washington — he later joked that he’d had a couple of drinks by the time I called — and asked if it was true.

“You’re thinking about leaving?”

“Yes,” Mike said.

“You can’t do it,” I said. I talked about all we’d accomplished and all that was still to come. This was when Mike confessed he was a Democrat. “I usually bat for the other team,” was the way he put it.

“I suspected it but never held it against you,” I said. We laughed. “Now, let’s talk about why you’re going to stay.”

I’m sure all my work on behalf of biomedical research at the University of Wisconsin was somewhere in my mind when I went to the White House in spring 2001 to meet with Bush and Rove to discuss stem cells.

The president had us in to the Oval Office. There’s a little room off to the side of the Oval Office, and that’s where we sat for lunch. I had a hamburger, and the president had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

I don’t remember what Rove had to eat, but he spoke first, and he was adamant that Bush keep a hard line against allowing the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. He brought up the ethical concerns, but he stressed — and this was not atypical for Rove — the potential political fallout of softening that stance. I must admit I could relate. As I noted earlier, antiabortion groups in Wisconsin were furious with my support of Thomson’s research. They are passionate, and they are vocal.

But as I have also stated, I believed that in the end, the lifesaving potential of the research should carry the day.

A few weeks before my lunch with Rove and Bush, I’d been visited in Washington by Jere Fluno ’63, a classmate of mine at UW–Madison who went on to a vastly successful career in business. Jere was also a philanthropist. I attended the luncheon in 1997 at the Madison Club when Jere’s gift of $3 million to UW–Madison for an executive education facility — now called the Fluno Center — was announced.

Four years later, he was in my office at HHS in Washington to talk to me about his granddaughter, Lauren, who has juvenile diabetes. Jere told me about getting the phone call from his daughter informing him about Lauren’s diagnosis. She was two years old. He talked about seeing that tiny girl in that big hospital bed. And he talked about the need for research to find a cure.

“Stem cells give us hope,” Jere said.

It was an emotional meeting, and I remembered it at that Oval Office lunch, after Rove had finished and it was my turn to speak. I gave myself a quick, internal pep talk, knowing that the next few minutes might be my only chance to make my case.

“Mr. President,” I said, “your mother and father have been great champions in the fight against cancer. They’ve devoted a tremendous amount of time, money, and effort to that cause.

“And you’ve started out your presidency by increasing funding for the National Institutes of Health. I thank you for that. It’s the right thing to do, a great use of federal dollars.

“But Mr. President,” I continued, “if you come out against embryonic stem cell research, no matter if you double the money for NIH, or anything else, if you turn down embryonic stem cells you’re going to be remembered as the president who was antiscience.” The president kept looking at me but didn’t say anything, so I went on.

“Every person in your administration has either a member of their family or a close friend who is suffering from a debilitating illness. You had a sister who died young of a terrible illness. Your mother and father did everything they could for that child.”

I was referencing the daughter George H. W. and Barbara Bush lost to leukemia before she was four years old. “Every parent,” I told the president, “who has a child with juvenile diabetes, and who has to get up every night, four or five or six times, to check that child’s blood, not knowing if that child is going to live or die, those parents are counting on stem cells to come up with a cure. If you, as president, stand in the way of giving those parents the hope and dream of a cure, you’re going to be viewed as antiscience and stopping the great progress being made on juvenile diabetes, ALS, Parkinson’s — you name it.”

“But we don’t know that it will work,” the president said.

“It’s the hope, Mr. President,” I said. “The belief. And the dream.”

About six weeks later, on August 8, I was called to the White House for an early evening meeting. The president told me he was going to give a prime-time address — the first of his presidency — the following night to state his position on federal funding of research using human embryonic stem cells. The president had decided to allow federal funds to be used for research on existing stem cell lines — cells derived prior to August 9, 2001. Federal dollars would not be used for any cell lines derived after that date. It was, essentially, a compromise, and while it didn’t go as far as I might have hoped, I was pleased that the president at least went halfway. It got the federal funds flowing. I think what I said that day at lunch may have swayed him. The president didn’t tell me so, but that’s what I believe.

That night I called Carl Gulbrandsen, then managing director of WARF, which held the patent on Thomson’s research, to tell him what was coming. Carl was at dinner with his wife, Mary, in Colorado. I asked Carl, “Can you make these cell lines available?”

“Absolutely,” he said. “We’ll do everything we can.”

By the first week of September, we had signed an agreement with the WiCell Research Institute, a nonprofit subsidiary of WARF, granting NIH scientists access to the cell lines, along with academic researchers, while also respecting WARF’s patent and license rights.

There is no question in my mind that my coming from Wisconsin and personally knowing people like Michael Sussman, Jamie Thomson, and Carl Gulbrandsen helped us accomplish more in a shorter time frame than would otherwise have been the case. We respected and trusted each other. Carl came to Washington several times during the implementation process and let me know that someone at NIH told him the agency had never moved so quickly on anything. I brought a group of 20 scientists and administrators from NIH to Madison to see where the research was happening and meet the people responsible for it.

I don’t mean to suggest any of this was easy. Throughout the debate, I was caught in the middle between the strict pro-life contingent and those — like Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter — who wanted all restrictions on embryonic stem cell research removed.

In spring 2016, UW–Madison invited me back and awarded me an honorary doctorate of laws degree for meritorious activity “as a dedicated promoter of the Wisconsin Idea and the use of government to enhance the life of its citizens.”

I spoke at commencement at the Kohl Center in Madison, and I shared the story of Mike Sussman — he stayed — while just generally touting the assets of this great economic diamond, the University of Wisconsin.

I didn’t speak long, 10 minutes or so. Primarily I wanted to thank the university for what it had given me — much more than an honorary degree — and once again make the case for how very valuable our great university is to the entire state of Wisconsin, as an economic engine and more.

I thought it was important to tell the graduating students in the audience a little about myself. How I came from a small city called Elroy, where if you dialed a wrong number on the phone you talked to whoever answered, because of course everyone knew everyone else. I talked about coming down to Madison for school with nothing but some dreams, and I told them how, with a lot of hard work, a lot of help, and a bit of luck, I’d been elected to the Wisconsin assembly and then elected governor. I’d gone to Washington and served a president in his cabinet. It still seemed so improbable, talking about it all these years later.

What I really wanted to convey was that my story, so much a Wisconsin story, could be their story, too, if they dreamt big enough and reached high enough.

Later, Chancellor Blank asked me if it would be possible to get a copy of my speech. I had to tell her there were no copies. I’d written nothing down. It came from the heart.

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Pat Richter ’64, JD’71 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/conversation/pat-richter-64-jd71/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/conversation/pat-richter-64-jd71/#respond Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:25 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23756 Pat Richter wearing red Wisconsin shirt

Pat Richter

To some Badgers, Pat Richter is remembered as the star of one of the most exciting football games ever: the 1963 Rose Bowl, which the Badgers lost 42–37 after a furious fourth-quarter comeback fell short. To others, he’s known for transforming UW–Madison into a sports powerhouse. When he became athletics director in 1989, the program had a multimillion-dollar deficit. He led an effort to hire coaches and build facilities that made the Badgers a national force. Richter retired in 2004 but has kept an active eye on the UW.

Vince Lombardi was one of your coaches. What did you learn from him?

I played for Lombardi for just one year, in 1969 [with Washington], but he taught me what it means to be a professional. I had a job to do, and if I did my job — if everyone did their jobs — we would be a successful enterprise. Now, football is just a game, but that outlook carries over to other, more important things: businesses, police and fire departments. Don’t just think about yourself. Think professionally about how your job fits with other jobs, and the enterprise will succeed.

After you left football, you became an executive at Oscar Mayer, but then you returned to athletics at the UW. How did that experience shape you?

Well, Oscar Mayer, athletics — you’re dealing with hot dogs at either place, aren’t you?

But did it affect the way you worked at the UW?

One of the things I brought with me to the UW was the belief that motivation is key. What motivates a coach or anyone else to be successful? I looked for people who were motivated by more than just financial reasons, and not people who looked at the job as a stepping-stone. [Basketball coaches] Dick Bennett, Bo Ryan — they had strong personal connections to Wisconsin. I looked for people who wanted to bring respect and a tradition of success to the UW.

And you recruited in similar ways as vice president of personnel at Oscar Mayer?

I often recruited from the UW because it provides future leaders. I remember talking to somebody who actually was getting a PhD in music (piano). Yet they wanted to be a salesperson at Oscar Mayer. And because of the breadth of their education, it turned out that they were perfectly qualified to do that and be very successful.

In retirement, you’re still involved with the university. What causes do you support?

[My wife] Renee and I have been targeted in our support, but Alzheimer’s is one area. It’s taken on a bit more meaning because of what’s happening with football players. You know, Lou Holland [’65] was a friend of ours. He was a teammate, and [years later], we’d see him at games, but unfortunately, that’s when he started having problems with dementia, and you could see him beginning to slip, and it was very sad to see him. Week to week, almost, a couple weeks between games, you could see his deterioration. He was a great teammate and friend who accomplished great things.

What makes the UW so special to you?

I think there’s a certain cultural aura about the University of Wisconsin. Obviously, it’s a huge school, yet with the wide range of things that you can experience, from athletics to academics, social activities, the Union, Hoofers — it’s not like this anywhere in the world.

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Misdemeanorland https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/diversions/misdemeanorland/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/diversions/misdemeanorland/#respond Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:10 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23784 Illustrated cover of book, "Misdemeanorland"By the early 1990s, misdemeanor arrests began to outpace felony arrests in New York. Now its most common criminal-justice encounters are for misdemeanors — not more serious felonies — and the most common outcome is not prison, according to Issa Kohler-Hausmann ’00. Kohler-Hausmann, author of Misdemeanorland: Criminal Courts and Social Control in an Age of Broken Windows Policing, an associate professor of law and sociology at Yale University, asserts in her book that this rise in misdemeanor arrests is largely due to the broken windows policing model, which contends that more serious crimes will be avoided if police enforce sanctions for low-level offenses.

Photo of Issa Kohler-Hausmann

Issa Kohler-Hausmann Sam Hollenshead

In Misdemeanorland, Kohler-Hausmann offers a look at the people whose lives are surveilled by New York City’s lower criminal courts, drawing upon fieldwork, interviews, and analysis. She argues that, under broken windows policing, lower courts have mostly adopted a managerial role in which monitoring and control outside of the courtroom dominate. Although media attention often falls on felony convictions and mass incarceration, Kohler-Hausmann points out that a significant number of people are subjected to police hassle and court scrutiny, even though about half of these cases lead to some form of dismissal.

Kohler-Hausmann writes: “I conclude by arguing that the study of mass misdemeanors — like that of mass incarceration — ultimately points out larger political questions about what role we, as a democratic society, will countenance for criminal justice in establishing social order.”

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LOL https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/lol/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/lol/#respond Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:10 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23632 The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.]]> As the chipper CEO of a charity called 1-877-CARS-4-SHARKS, writer and actor Brian Stack MA’88 speaks directly to viewers.

Like many sketches on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, it plays off news from the White House — in this case, recent stories about adult film actress Stormy Daniels’s tryst with Donald Trump before he was president. After Daniels had revealed how Trump had expressed hatred for sharks, increased donations flowed to shark conservation groups.

That led to the mock infomercial that opened the show that night. Accompanied by a guitar-playing shark, Stack, as the straight-laced CEO Burt Ridgewood, explains the benefits of putting live sharks into used cars, despite the high probability that drivers would be eaten in traffic.

The punchline features a picture of Stack, smiling, dressed as a double cheeseburger.

“It was so ridiculous,” Stack says. “One of my favorite compliments is when someone tells me: ‘That’s so stupid.’ That’s often my most favorite stuff — when it’s wonderfully dumb.”

Since the late 1990s, Stack has thrived by writing and performing wonderfully dumb sketches with some of late-night television’s biggest stars. After writing for Conan O’Brien’s show for 17 years, he joined the Colbert production team on CBS in 2015.

On O’Brien’s show, Stack had indulged his inner clown, writing for one of television’s funniest comics. But with Colbert, whom he’d known from their days in Chicago with the Second City improv troupe, Stack had to recalibrate his approach. Colbert’s forte is comic commentary on the day’s news. In a media landscape where satire has found a strong footing on television, Stack moved his antic, wacky humor into the political arena.

“It’s a challenge to funnel my natural … non-topical brain into the world of politics,” Stack says. “With Conan, we would address the news in a glancing, silly way. It was like fun cartoons. It never felt as driven by the news as our show feels at Colbert these days.”

That focus has added a certain immediacy to the joke-making process, especially with a president whose Twitter blasts provide ample fodder.

“There’s such a fast turnaround,” Stack says. “Sometimes we’re doing rewrite until showtime, but when it’s 5:30 p.m., that’s the script. You want it to be as good as it can be, and you also have to let it go. There’s always a show tomorrow.”

Get Me Rewrite

Making jokes for the Late Show starts early each morning after Stack’s commute into Manhattan from his home in Sleepy Hollow, about 25 miles north of New York City, to his office at the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway. He and members of the writing staff toss around possible bits for Colbert’s monologue or “cold open” skits like the zany shark piece.

Stack’s improv skills come in handy during the collaborative writing sessions, where he and his colleagues build on each other’s ideas, even if what’s suggested doesn’t turn out to be all that funny.

“A bad idea can lead to a good one,” says Stack. “You need to feel free to toss out one that might be bad. That’s healthy brainstorming.”

Colbert is very much involved in the process. “He’s as much a writer as a host,” says Stack. “He’ll riff around in the rehearsal, tweak the language, or flat-out write new jokes on the fly.”

Those riffs can also occur when Colbert and Stack converse on camera, as when Colbert looks heavenward to speak with God, the animated character whose mouth moves to Stack’s voice-over. In one February sketch, Colbert asks God about the NRA president’s contention that gun ownership was a right granted from on high.

Colbert wonders if God is pro-gun.

“You created the Second Amendment,” God retorts. “I said a ‘well-regulated militia.’ That doesn’t sound like buying an AR–15 should be easier than buying Sudafed.”

Even on camera, Stack thrives on such nail-biting spontaneity. “I like it when we go off on riffs — when you go off the rails and know you won’t be left hanging,” he says. “That can be the most fun.”

Chunkable Comedy

At 53, Stack is tall and lanky, with a full head of red hair that can be slicked back and neatly combed on air. It’s somewhat untamed when he shows up to speak in late October at the Hudson Valley Writers Center in Sleepy Hollow, not far from his home. He’s around the same age as O’Brien and Colbert, part of the late 1980s and early 1990s generation that found inspiration in Chicago during what Stack likes to call the golden age for improv comedy, when he found his comedic voice alongside future stars Colbert, Steve Carell, Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey. Dressed in a gray button-down shirt with gray slacks and black suit jacket, he talks about how Americans may not stay up until midnight to watch his latest sketches. But many of his fans watch regularly on short clips that run a minute or two and get shared on Facebook or Twitter.

“People watch TV today in chunks,” he says. “You hope that you make something that’s chunkable, something that’s shareable.”

Colbert’s writing staff includes a slew of young writers, whom Stack says he relies on at times to keep himself up to date.

“I’ve been married since 1996, so certain areas of social media, like Snapchat and Tinder, which enter into scripts at times, are alien to me,” he says. “I sometimes worry about my references. But I’m pleasantly made aware every day that we are almost always on the same page. I relate so much to their sense of humor and what they find funny.”

That’s not to say that Stack shuns social media. He has more than 33,000 Twitter followers at @BrianStack153. A recent header photo depicted him in a goatee, mustache, and glasses, intently reading a volume titled Things Only Weenies Care About.

His feed is, as befits a comedian, hilarious — and sometimes moving. In a tribute to the late Anthony Bourdain, who tragically took his own life, Stack reveals that he has also had a brush with depression. He comments on movies, politics, and musicians ranging from Prince to John Prine. And he retweets other comedians and hysterical dog videos — including his own. There’s his dog, Darby, tailgating in a Badgers hat before the Orange Bowl, resting his head on a pillow while his master shovels snow, and lying inside the front door covered with mail because he was “too lazy to get up when the mail was dropped on him through the door slot.”

The Ark of His Career

Stack’s comedic journey began at the Ark Theatre in Madison, located in a converted garage on Bassett Street. A graduate of Indiana University, Stack had taken a comedy improvisation workshop in Chicago in the summer of 1986. He arrived in Madison that fall to pursue a master’s in communication arts, delving into the psychology of media and contemplating a career in academia or advertising.

In Madison, he mustered up the courage to audition at the Ark to give comedy a shot while hitting the books for his graduate studies.

“I was so scared to try,” says Stack. “Once I did it, I wished I’d done it earlier.”

Among those in the company were up-and-coming comic Chris Farley and longtime Onion writer Todd Hanson x’90.

“I connected right away with Chris, even though we didn’t seem to have anything in common,” recalls Stack. “He was a big guy from Madison. I was a skinny, unathletic kid. We bonded through comedy. Chris couldn’t wait to get to Chicago, and by 1990, he was in New York on Saturday Night Live. I went to see his first show. I didn’t expect to know someone on television.”

At the time, Stack couldn’t imagine a way to make money making people laugh. After graduation, he moved back home to Chicago to work for four years in an ad agency. But comedy still beckoned, so he performed improv for fun on weekends.

He was really funny. Maybe he could follow Farley’s path to the big stage, he thought. “While I always dreamed of having some kind of career in comedy, I never thought that seemed realistic at all, since [I thought that] show biz people came from another planet,” he says. “I really didn’t have any idea what ‘realistic’ career to pursue while doing improv for fun early on.”

That became a moot point after he landed a job with the touring company of Second City. Comedy led to romance, too. He met his wife, Miriam Tolan, in a Chicago improv ensemble called Jazz Freddy. They worked together at Second City, got married, and have two daughters, Nora, 20, and Colette, 16.

“The friendships and relationships formed through improv become so strong,” he says. “You are in the trenches together, relying on each other. It feels like you are going into battle together. You have each other’s backs. And back then, after the shows, there was socializing — way too much partying during those Chicago days.”

After four years at Second City, Stack had his big break, joining the writing staff at Late Night with Conan O’Brien for what was to be a 13-week stint. A sketch he wrote for Amy Poehler, with her playing a 13-year-old, helped convince the powers at NBC to extend his contract. His fill-in gig turned into 12 years with O’Brien’s show on NBC, and another five years after O’Brien moved to TBS.

It was a run that led to five Writers Guild Awards for Writing in a Comedy/Variety Series and an Emmy award in 2007.

That first year on Late Night wasn’t easy. Stack recalls the December day that O’Brien walked grim-faced into the writers’ room. He told them that Chris Farley was dead, at age 33.

“It was really hard,” says Stack. “I’d been so excited for Chris when he made it to Saturday Night Live, but also worried for him. He was childlike in his vulnerability. He was fragile and easily wounded. He had so much life in him. I couldn’t believe you could snuff that out.”

Although Stack’s sense of loss has lingered to this day, he continued to hone the sense of comedy that has landed him on late-night’s most highly rated talk show.

Late-Night Badgers

Stack isn’t the only Badger contributing to Colbert’s signature brand of laughs. Gabe Gronli ’04 and Aaron Cohen ’03, who had worked as interns with Stack at Late Night with Conan O’Brien, moved to CBS to join the writing staff with Stack when The Late Show with Stephen Colbert debuted in 2015. Cohen, now a writer and supervising producer for Colbert’s show, marvels at Stack’s range.

“There are very few people who can play both God and the devil,” he says. “When Stack plays God, he’s a bumbling, lovable God, and his full, red-body-painted devil is just as likable.”

Gronli, one of the Late Show’s writers, grew up on Madison’s west side. He remembers the first day of his Conan internship, when he met Stack, whom he calls the friendliest person he’s met during his television career.

“I was an avid Conan fan, and Stack was an idol of mine,” says Gronli, a founding member of Madison’s Atlas Improv Company. “He’d heard about me and greeted me by name when I came out of the elevator. I was so happy. Brian Stack knew my name!”

Gronli says Stack has an uncanny ability to create characters, each with a distinct point of view and mannerisms to match. This all comes out in the collaborative writing process, which Gronli says occasionally circles back to Madison.

“When working with him, he’ll go from something incredibly funny, to coming up with a great character, to shouting about old restaurants in Madison he’s eaten at, to his favorite rock band,” Gronli says. “He has a unique brain for characters. He inhabits them very easily.”

Stack believes that his knack for writing emanates from his training in improv, which he still performs monthly in Manhattan at the Upright Citizens Brigade show Gravid Water. The show features experienced stage actors who recite lines from a play, with the improvisor, who hasn’t read the script, responding to lines they’ve heard for the first time. In late February, Stack adopts a deadpan British accent in a scene from the play Mary Page Marlowe. It’s a scene in which a husband faces allegations of infidelity from his wife.

Stack’s character brushes off the allegations, but his disinterest in the marriage is revealed. The audience erupts in laughter after Stack tells his estranged wife that he’ll watch over their baby — whose name he can’t remember.

“It’s a way to keep my chops up,” says Stack. “Improv is my first love. It keeps your synapses firing.”

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Lester Graves Lennon ’73 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/recognition/lester-graves-lennon-73/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/recognition/lester-graves-lennon-73/#respond Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:09 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23763 Lester Lennon at the Memorial Union Terrace

Sarah Morton

If you were looking for Lester Graves Lennon ’73 back in the late ’60s, chances are you found him at Der Rathskeller.

“I basically haunted the Rath,” says the English major from New York who came to UW–Madison because that’s where smart characters in James A. Michener novels went to college. Lennon could spend hours hunkered down in the Memorial Union hangout, playing bridge or dabbling in poetry.

“When I finished a poem, I’d go around the Rathskeller showing my friends,” he says.

Beyond the Union, the written word played a defining role in Lennon’s UW experience. A standout memory is a Shakespeare course taught by English professor Standish Henning. “I love how he brought it to life,” Lennon says. And he’ll never forget meeting Gwendolyn Brooks; the first African American writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry served as the Rennebohm Visiting Professor of Creative Writing in spring 1969. Lennon took her class and came away inspired to keep putting pen to paper.

He continued writing as his path veered from the UW, first to San Francisco and Berkeley, where he worked in a student-owned record store he’d read about in Rolling Stone, and then in city jobs in the Bay area, where he picked up some finance skills. When a friend told him about an investment banking firm starting up, Lennon was ready for the challenge. He set down roots a few years later in Los Angeles, establishing himself as both an investment banker and a poet. The two pursuits, he has found, have a surprising amount in common.

“It’s all about energy, it’s all about creativity, it’s all about trying to find solutions for problems,” he says.

Lennon is working on his third book of poetry, with several pieces started at visits to the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, where he sits on the board of directors. He also serves on the board at Red Hen Press and was part of a mayoral task force that helped appoint Los Angeles’s first poet laureate in 2012.

Through it all, Lennon has maintained a connection to campus, returning twice a year for English department board of visitors meetings. In spring 2017, he was eager to visit his old stomping grounds. He checked out the revamped Memorial Union and searched for a personalized brick that he purchased to commemorate all the hours he spent there.

Its inscription: Poetry written here.

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Bridge Builder https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/bridge-builder/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/bridge-builder/#respond Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:08 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23619 After fetching ketchup for fries and plastic utensils, the group settles in for lunch around a table at Union South near the College of Engineering campus. Conversation flows easily as students share updates about how fall semester — now just a few weeks old — is going, which classes are favorites, and how summer internships influenced longer-term plans. The chatter is frequently punctuated by laughter.

You’d never guess that the meal’s host attended college several decades earlier than these students, or that he did so under significantly different circumstances. He has an admirable way of setting aside differences and coaxing out similarities.

• • •

Rod Hassett ’62 excels at making connections. It’s a skill he has brought to lunch tables and conference room tables since deciding — after a nudge from his father early in his college pursuits — that engineering would be a good fit. Engineers analyze problems and suggest solutions within parameters that include affordability and safety, enthusiastically completing complex puzzles while the rest of us may only see the pieces. These specialized skills came naturally to Hassett throughout his lengthy career at Strand Associates, a Madison engineering firm.

After retiring from Strand in 2002, he called upon his knack for mentorship, joining the UW faculty as an adjunct professor and, for 13 years, teaching the capstone design course, which challenges engineering students to tackle real-life projects.

Along the way, Hassett had been nagged by an industry dilemma that couldn’t be solved with carefully designed bridges constructed of steel and concrete. How could a profession heavily represented by white men adequately address the problems found in a broad range of communities and demographics?

“We have huge engineering problems to solve over the next 50 years,” he says, adding that it’s essential to include a diverse societal representation to solve them.

“Diverse groups are going to make smarter decisions than like-minded groups,” Hassett continues. “Those voices needed to be at the table. And many of the problems that we need solved are in the inner cities. There’s no one better to work with the people in the inner cities than the people who grew up there.”

• • •

Hassett knew exactly where to find young people who could be encouraged to follow in his footsteps from the inner city to UW–Madison’s College of Engineering. He graduated from Rufus King High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1958, just prior to the city’s dramatic shift in demographics. From 1960 to 1970, Milwaukee’s African American population increased by 68 percent, due in part to migration from Chicago and the South. At Rufus King, minority enrollment slowly grew, reaching one-third by 1964; today, minorities represent 79 percent of the school’s student body.

Now called Rufus King International, the high school’s nearly 1,500 students take challenging precollege coursework. U.S. News & World Report includes it in the magazine’s rankings of nationally recognized high schools. Eighty-five percent of the 2015 graduating class planned to attend college, with another 10 percent intending to enroll in two-year institutions — a significant change from Hassett’s student days.

“My dad was really pro-education, but he came out of the Depression and World War II, and he didn’t have a lot of formal education,” Hassett says. “I grew up in an area where probably less than half of the kids went to college when they got out of high school, but there was no question I was going to college. Education has always been part of my life.”

As Hassett pondered how to bring more diversity into his field, he talked with Jeff Russell, then chair of civil and environmental engineering and today dean of the Division of Continuing Studies. Together they decided to recruit students to be engineers “like Barry Alvarez recruits football players,” Hassett recalls. He worked with the UW Foundation in 2006 to establish a scholarship program specifically designed to support Rufus King students who had an interest in becoming engineers. He provides scholarships for a student’s first two years, and the College of Engineering supports additional years. So far, 15 Rufus King graduates have been named Hassett Scholars. Nine have graduated from the UW — a track record that makes Hassett especially proud — and are now pursuing careers ranging from jet pilot training with the U.S. Air Force to working as a computer programmer at Google. The other six scholars are currently enrolled.

“The scholarship is a means to solving a problem,” Hassett says. “Now there’s a steady stream of kids coming from King. We’re solving a problem one person at a time.”

• • • Coty Weathersby x’19 was among the students having lunch with Hassett at The Sett in Union South last fall. Now a fifth-year senior majoring in chemical engineering, Weathersby supplements her course work with time in a campus research lab. Her current research centers on analyzing bacteria in wastewater; during a stint in a UC–Berkeley lab in summer 2017, she explored harmful contaminants in groundwater.

Although she’d been juggling honor societies and athletics at Rufus King and leaning toward majoring in chemistry, Weathersby says her selection as a Hassett Scholar spurred her to change plans. And she marvels at the interest Hassett shows in the students. “I never thought I’d actually get to see the face behind the scholarship,” she says. “When I first received the award, Rod came to the ceremony [at Rufus King]. That in itself was exciting because he got to meet my sisters and my mom.”

She adds, “I remember getting an email from him at the end of my freshman year that said, ‘Congratulations. I’m proud of you!’ ”

“That individual touch is just very, very rare,” says Mary Fitzpatrick, director of the College of Engineering’s Diversity Affairs Office. “Rod offers mentoring as a seasoned professional. I would even say Rod has mentored us. He continues to make sure that we understand the intent and the goals [of his scholarship].”

Hassett Scholars are part of the college’s larger Leaders in Engineering Excellence and Diversity program, which is designed to support populations that are historically underrepresented in the field, including low-income or first-generation students, women, and students of color. The college takes steps to make sure incoming students are aware of scholarships for which they can apply.

“Engineering is very competitive, and the climate of engineering can be harsh at times,” Fitzpatrick says. “Our message is that you all can succeed, and we’re going to help you succeed. Yes, you have to do the work yourself, but you’ve got a net that’s going to work with you.” The diversity office provides a comfortable space where students can come to hang out and talk between classes, hold math study sessions, and gather over a meal.

Brian Núñez, former director of the Engineering Summer Program and now the director of career advising and wellness at the UW’s medical school, remembers the first time he met Weathersby. “She gave me her résumé and said she was going to run a company one day,” he says with a smile.

That company may well be in Weathersby’s future, but in the meantime, she is honing her leadership skills. She serves as the academic excellence chair for the campus chapter of the National Society for Black Engineers, and she attended the organization’s conference during her sophomore year. “I remember walking into the convention hall, and it was filled with so many black engineers and engineers of color, and I thought, ‘Wow.’ I just don’t see that on TV. I don’t see that in the media, so it was great. It’s a reminder in times when I’m struggling … that there are a lot of other engineers who felt the same thing, but they’ve made it.”

She was one of three students who helped start the UW chapter of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers. The chapter’s members — numbering about 15 undergraduate and graduate students — do volunteer work and sponsor professional development events.

Weathersby’s motivation for involvement in the organizations, she says, is “making sure future Hassett Scholars have these resources.” She attributes “caffeine and time management” — and learning to say no — to her ability to juggle classes, research, student organizations, and tutoring.

“I don’t want to do something and not do it well,” she says.

Weathersby, who is eyeing graduate school to earn a master’s degree and, possibly, a doctorate, expresses admiration for UW faculty members who both teach and conduct research.

But for now, she emphasizes the powerful force of community. That, she believes, has been the greatest gift of all, in some ways eclipsing the financial support. She keeps in close contact with other Hassett Scholars, including those who have graduated.

Hassett makes sure that current students have ongoing support from each other by scheduling lunch sessions twice a year. “I really want to make sure that the older kids, the more senior people, are sharing their experiences with the younger students,” he says. “They can help each other so much.”

• • •

During last October’s lunch conversation, Hassett encourages each student to tell him what’s new. Weathersby describes her summer at UC–Berkeley. Devin Lafford x’19, a computer engineering student, details an internship at a company that designs medical devices. George Akpan x’19 tells the group that he wants to focus on wind power in his career, plans that earn an enthusiastic “Good for you!” from Hassett. Alexus Edwards x’21 says she’s leaning toward the biomedical field and recounts her summer as an intern with the Milwaukee fire department unit based at the airport.

Hassett nods, smiles, and asks more questions, easily sliding into the mentorship role he enjoys. The topic shifts to Park Street, one of the main thoroughfares to the UW campus, and he tells the students, “Here you had this gorgeous campus, but everyone coming there had to go down this ugly street.” He notes that his firm worked on a plan to give the location new life.

“When you do something like this as an engineer, you have a vision,” he says. “I could see that this was going to be the gateway to the campus.

“That’s one thing that’s nice about being an engineer,” he continues. “You get involved in things like that and you put your footprints in the sand. Early on you can see something, you have a vision for something, and you get it done. And then the rest of the world catches up. You just smile and walk on.”

As the scholars grab their backpacks and head off to their next classes or study groups, Hassett calls out, “Good seeing you guys!” With a smile, he adds, “See you in May — you’ll be a lot smarter by then.”

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Beauty Vanishes https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/exhibition/beauty-vanishes/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/exhibition/beauty-vanishes/#respond Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:08 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23753 During more than four decades as a photographer, Michael Kienitz ’74 has worked in some of the most beautiful spots in the world — from Peru to the Hindu Kush mountain range near the Afghanistan–Pakistan border. But his camera was always focused on people at the center of armed conflicts, not their environments. The scenery was merely background.

That all changed five years ago when Kienitz visited Iceland for the first time. He was walking through a gravel area with a guide who took out his cell phone and shared a gorgeous photo of an immense ice cave. When Kienitz remarked on how beautiful it was, the guide said, “Two years ago, that cave was where we are standing.”

Iceland’s glacial ice is melting, due in large part to climate change. And that vanishing beauty is what motivated Kienitz to return to the island nation — so many times now that he’s lost count — to capture more of its breathtaking landscapes before they disappear. Last winter, he visited a stunning cave. “It’s already vanished. Collapsed,” Kienitz says. That sense of loss stands to be the gut punch for visitors who view his upcoming exhibition at the UW’s Chazen Museum of Art (September 14 to February 3), representing the subject that has dominated his work since that first visit to Iceland. His images — printed on long-lasting aluminum — as well as video he captured using drones equipped with HD cameras, are of places that may no longer exist or soon will be gone. And Kienitz hopes that pictures will have a greater impact on people than statistics from scientists.

“That, to me, is the most important thing,” he says. “I don’t want them to say … ‘Are these ever beautiful photos.’ I want them to contemplate the future of our planet and how rapidly it’s degrading in so many ways.”

Kienitz got his start at the UW photographing Vietnam War protests for the Daily Cardinal and later earned acclaim for his book and exhibit Small Arms: Children of Conflict. He doesn’t see an end to his efforts in Iceland.

“The beauty for me of doing photography is that I’m not going to be retiring,” he says. “It’s not in my lexicon.”

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