It was 1989; I was living in "sunny Southern California." It had been years since I left Wisconsin, physically, though never spiritually. My heart was still in my home state, as was much of my learning. I was influenced by many of the events that were my life. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin I became an active progressive. While living in the Midwest, I marched in my first protests with family and Father Groppi. I spoke up in class; civil rights, human rights, and animal rights were more than a passing interest for me. Even in the 1980s, and soon to be 90s, they still were. Some things do not change; nor would I want them to. Others do. Wisconsin United States Senator, Edward William Proxmire announced his retirement.
It was an inevitability, though one worthy of note. The Senator had been influential in many lives and was well known for his service. This senior Senator changed my life personally, his service not withstanding.
Early on, Senator Proxmire was an outspoken detractor of the Viet Nam war. He was openly critical of the war policies adopted by President's Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Milhous Nixon. He insightfully considered their foreign strategies deceptive.
Most memorable for some was the way in which Proxmire used his seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee to focus the nation's attention on wasteful military spending. Senator William Proxmire worked to end pork barrel spending. He was the originator of the Golden Fleece Awards. These were awarded to projects that were deemed expedient by Senators and Congressman; however, in truth, and upon investigation, it was discovered that they were often measured by self-indulgence.
Mr. Proxmire was a careful man, a caring man, and one known for clean living. He had morals, scruples, and he lived by these. In his last two Senate campaigns, Proxmire refused any campaign contributions. He shockingly, used his own money to cover the cost of filing for re-election, and nothing more. Nevertheless, he was more, at least to me.
After hearing of his retirement I decided I needed to tell him. I wrote to the Senator. I shared this story.
I was a sophomore in high school; my age was sixteen. I attended school in a suburb just outside of Milwaukee. Ironically, the same one that Chief Justice William Rehnquist attended. This is laughable to me, for politically, the Chief Justice and I are from different universes. However, I digress.
One afternoon, while I was in the kitchen, the telephone rang. I answered it. The man on the other end asked to speak to "Lee," my Dad. I politely said, "May I ask who is calling." My Dad had indeed trained me well. The voice replied, "Bill Proxmire." Bill Proxmire? Oh my!!!
I grew up in a family that read and discussed politics as often as we took a breath. I knew of Bill Proxmire; yet, I never guessed that I would hear his voice coming over my own home telephone line. I quickly went to find my father. I announced the call and he very casually went to the phone. He and the senator spoke for quite some time. The conversation seemed light, jovial, and not unexpected, at least to my Dad. For me, this encounter was absolutely bewildering, surprising to say the least.
After its conclusion, I asked my Dad of it. Apparently, my dear father and United States Senator, Bill Proxmire were working on a venture together. My father was working for United Way at the time and the Senator's Milwaukee office was across the street, in the Federal Building. The two had come together often and were enjoying their shared endeavor. Wow! Who knew; it certainly was not me.
This exchange made quite an impression on me. It solidified a belief that government, is indeed, of, by, and for the people. We are all an integral part in effectuating change. Even the most common man, the one that shared a roof with me, was uncommonly powerful. This call defined authority and leadership for me. I realized that we all are experts, specialists, informed and can make a difference. Senator Bill Proxmire made a difference in my life.
While that tale may be interesting to you, or not, what followed for me was more so. When I wrote my narrative and sent it to the Senator, he was not running for office, and even if he were, I was living and registered to vote in California; he in Wisconsin. Yet, he responded. Only a week later, I received a lovely reply from the Senator. That is a true man, a person of character. Bill Proxmire, in my life proved to be, communicative, caring, responsive, and responsible. This man was and is my mentor. He has taught me much; I can only hope that I live up to his standards.
* Please peruse, New York Times, William Proxmire, Maverick Democratic Senator From Wisconsin, Is Dead at 90, By Richard Severo.
Betsy L. Angert Be-Think