The Tale of a Crowded Decade

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(Pictured: the Madison skyline from Lake Monona. The low building on the lake at the right is Monona Terrace, a project proposed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1938 that wasn’t actually built until 1997.)

There are two ways to read a book you find absolutely riveting. You can devour it in one or two sittings, or you can ration it out a chapter at a time in hopes of making it last. I have been doing the latter with the brand-new Madison in the Sixties by Stuart Levitan, a local journalist, historian, and broadcaster.

Madison, Wisconsin, is sometimes known as Berkeley by the Lake or 77 square miles surrounded by reality. It has a unique pull. Many of us who live here romanticize Madison (right or wrong) as better-run, better-educated, more diverse, and just generally cooler and more together than other places. (And if you think the image we have of the city doesn’t extend to ourselves for being smart enough to live here, think again.) Many Madisonians look back on the 1960s as the decade when the city—and by extension, ourselves—got that way.

Levitan’s book is not a cultural history. Its goal is not to narrate a barefoot, tie-dyed idyll of sex, drugs, and campus unrest soundtracked by the Beatles. Instead, Levitan follows several major themes that extended through the entire decade: the city’s struggles with civil rights and urban renewal; repeated attempts to build a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed civic center on the shore of Lake Monona; growth and change in the Madison public schools and at the University of Wisconsin; and the protest era. In the course of his research, Levitan read every 1960s edition of the city’s two major daily newspapers, the Wisconsin State Journal and the Capital Times, and the UW paper, the Daily Cardinal. Year by year, he follows his major themes, but he also includes other notes that provide added flavor. Some of my favorites follow.

—In 1963, a contest was held to design the city’s flag. Two teenage boys submitted the winning design, which has remained largely unchanged for 55 years. Right after the Common Council adopted the flag, they proudly hung it in chambers. Where nobody noticed it was upside down. For three years.

—In February and October 1967, there were two major anti-war protests against on-campus recruitment by Dow Chemical. But another protest that year, utterly forgotten today, was just as purely Madison. In 1966, University Avenue through the campus was converted to a one-way going west. But planners also built a single wrong-way bus lane to facilitate mass transit, separated from the rest of the street by a low cement divider. In May 1967, after a UW student was hit by a bus and lost a leg, students rallied to protest the wrong-way bus lane, but the protest turned into a riot with 5,000 students and 25 arrests. In response, city officials increased the number of stoplights on University Avenue crossings as a safety measure. The one wrong-way lane is still in use today as a bike lane; I had crossed it approximately a million times before I learned its history. (Fixed. Ed.)

—In January 1968, plans were announced for the Camp Randall Music Festival, to be held in the university’s football stadium in May. A Chicago promoter planned to bring Bob Dylan, the Doors, the Association, and Bill Cosby to town as headliners. It didn’t happen, although the Doors did come to town that fall.

—In April 1968, the UW needed a new basketball coach, and offered the job to the 28-year-old coach of Army, Bobby Knight. After the deal was done, university officials gave the story to a local reporter. But when it hit the paper, Knight balked, claiming he hadn’t yet told officials at West Point, or even his wife, and he backed out. One wonders how hoops history might have changed if Knight, who would take over at Indiana University in 1971 and win three NCAA championships, had come to Madison.

If you live here, or if you know this town, you’ll be as riveted by Madison in the Sixties as I have been. It may mean less to you otherwise, but it wouldn’t be entirely without interest. Many issues playing out here during that crowded decade were being worked out elsewhere too. Madison is not the only city in America that became what it is today during the turbulent, fascinating 1960s.

Levitan maintains a Facebook page with stories and pictures from the book. He’s also done a series of Madison in the Sixties features for local radio station WORT. 

4 thoughts on “The Tale of a Crowded Decade

  1. Gary

    I never lived in Madison, but heard stories from our Program Director who had worked at WISM radio in Madison and moved — reluctantly — to the first station where I worked. When I later lived in Dubuque, I visited Madison regularly, largely to go to Arby’s (to me at the time, worth the 180-mile round trip) and to visit a cool electronics/appliance store there. Still later, my Madison connection was through listening to “Whad’Ya Know?” on NPR.

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