Carefully selected parts of my biography
I was born in Washington, D.C. and grew up in its suburbs. As a boy, I knew the front end of a cow from the rear – but just barely. Ever since junior high school, I have chased after people with a microphone in my hand. I got a degree in anthropology and wrote my honors thesis on the dramaturgy of political demonstrations. (It was the 1960s after all.) In that paper, I combined interviews with participants in the current unrest, with historical research. Using stories from the past to help me understand the stories of the present, became my intellectual métier.
In 1966, I took a year off from college to work as a community organizer with The West Side Organization and the Southern Christian Leadership Council in Chicago. I was greatly influenced by Dr. King and Big Bill Clark, both of whom taught me new ways to be myself.
Eschewing an academic career, I became a city bus driver in Evanston, Illinois. Driving a bus was the second best job I ever had and a source of some very good stories.
I was a member of the Phoenix Fellowship, the group which opened the Ovens of Brittany and, if I do say so myself, changed the landscape of food in Madison. Our group owned a 240-acre dairy farm in beautiful Crawford County. There I became a dairy farmer, the best job I ever had. As I write in Creating Dairyland:
I got mud, manure, and milk on my boots for the first time in 1973 when I became a novice dairyman on a thirty-cow farm in Crawford County. And although I no longer wear boots, that milk remains indelibly on my soul.
I always say that I loved every minute of being a dairy farmer, which means of course, that I was never a real one. I came to quickly admire real farmers however, and fell in love with our cows. Well, during the 70s it was difficult to keep body and soul together on a small dairy so . . .
In the early 80s, I helped to bring professional baseball back to Madison after a 40-year absence, by creating the Madison Muskies, a Class A affiliate of the Oakland A’s. During these heady times, baseball in Madison became more than a game: it became a summertime outlet for community-based zaniness. So popular were the games and the zaniness, that CBS Nightly News, CNN and National Public Radio reported on them in their “aren’t-they-funny-in-the-Midwest” segments.
During these years, I was plotting to become the Auggie Busch of Madison by starting a brewery. At the time (1983-84) there was only a handful of new local breweries in the U.S., so I and my partners decided to create German beers such as might have been brewed in Wisconsin early in the century. We wanted a brewery that would pay homage to craftsmanship, individual taste and small-scale enterprise.
Since micro-breweries were an unknown business at the time, investors did not know what to make of our idea. We decided that rather than raising money privately, we would go right to the beer-drinking, brewery-loving people of Wisconsin. In a series of humorous radio and print advertisements and public meetings around Wisconsin, we were able to raise more than $1.5 million from state residents in a most unusual stock offering: an IPO connected only to a business plan, not an on-going business. For my chutzpah, I was nominated by the state securities commissioner for an Arthur Young Wisconsin Entrepreneur of the Year award.
Capital Brewery brewed its first beers in 1986. In 1998 it was named as the top brewery in the U.S. at the Beverage Testing Institute’s World Beer Championships in Chicago.
Alas, among humans things don’t always work out as planned – they often work out better. In 1990, I began my career as an interviewer, writer and audio journalist. Since then I’ve interviewed hundreds of people on topics ranging from education, to the environment, business, health and language. My programs have aired on Voice of America, Marketplace, and thousands of CDs and websites.
In 1999 I created You’re Not Alone: Conversations with Breast Cancer Survivors and Those Who Love Them, a first-person audio book which was awarded top honors by the Audio Publishers Association. In 2004, the German publishing company Langenscheidt, published Living in the U. S., my series of books and audio interviews with representative Americans created to aid Germans in understanding everyday spoken American English.
In 2006, I was offered the chance to revisit dairying by creating a series of audio stories about dairy farmers and cheesemakers for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. While interviewing these folks, my brain cells began to produce whatever neurotransmitters make a person want to know more about cows, silos and dairy history. I got addicted to sitting around kitchen tables with farmers.
As I put each of these stories together, I was searching for ways to place them in a kind of “deeper soil,” a context or understanding that would examine not only what something was—a silo, for example— but also why it was, what problem it had solved and what changes it had wrought. I came to realize that the past is that deeper soil, that things planted in the past of Wisconsin dairying have grown into our landscape of today and our way of life.
Remarkably, this past has allowed many of our fellow citizens to keep body and soul together on the land in the present. It has also created and preserved our landscape of prosperity and contentment.