Dale Lipke was a union firefighter in Aurora, IL from 1966 until 1986. He then retired to build a log cabin in Wautoma, WI, which he sold to travel the country in an RV with his wife Irma building churches for the Lutheran organization Laborers for Christ. I was proud to be his son-in-law for countless reasons, and will treasure his example as a husband and a father. He called Kelly, “Peanut,” and she so misses his presence and the way he stood next to her with his hand on her back.
In going through his treasured possessions, Kelly found a hand-made plaque commemorating the Aurora firefighter strike of 1979. On the back Dale (whom we called “Buddy”) wrote, “112 men stuck together.” Buddy was instrumental in that strike, and because of its bitterness and divisiveness, refused to take the captain’s exam. For Buddy, leaving his brothers for a position in administration had become out of the question.
By February of 2012, Buddy had slowed down considerably, his breath seemed to be getting shorter and sometimes his coloring was less than flattering. He and Irma, a.k.a. “Sweetie,” started spending more time at our house. Along with many of you, Kelly and I spent most Saturdays in Madison protesting, and we were grateful that Sweetie and Buddy spent time with Joe and Emily on days the kids didn’t march along. Every time the firefighters played their bagpipes around the square, Buddy’s image came to mind and he was always eager to hear about the day’s events upon our return. On a special day early in the struggle, Jesse Jackson walked up the State Street entrance to the capitol lifting our Emily off my shoulders and shouting to the crowd, “This is what it’s all about!” Kelly got goose bumps of déjà-vu saying that she remembered Reverend Jackson speaking to the Aurora firefighters in 1979.
Buddy was far from a liberal or a progressive. In many ways he was politically conservative. In fact, I never heard him swear and he turned his head when people kissed on television! (Not that we liberal progressives necessarily swear or like to watch people kiss, but you get the idea). Nevertheless, Buddy believed that unions were essential to our society because they protected and defended workers while creating a vibrant middle class. We talked about it often and he would read articles I passed along.
You see in 1979 Aurora officials claimed they were broke and couldn’t meet union demands not to reduce engine crews. They claimed they were only looking for ways (“tools” is the word used today) to trim budgets and provide taxpayers with relief. But 122 men knew better calling the mayor’s bluff and winning the strike with the support of neighbors and friends. (Incidentally, today, Aurora seems to be getting along just fine and remains relatively safe from deadly fires).
A year ago, as the large Madison protests were waning, Buddy was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. He’d obviously been sick for some time, but true to his nature, fought like heck and never complained. As the illness progressed, there were minimal co-pays, and Buddy received wonderful care thanks to a loving wife and the well-deserved benefits negotiated by his union.
It’s a shame that today’s conservative leaders paint Buddy, and other public employees, as the “haves” in an effort to divide the middle class against itself while corporations and the economic elite conspire to eliminate collective bargaining, drive down wages, limit access to education, restrict voting rights, insure that money drives politics, and thus solidify their own power. It’s a shame that many Americans cannot see the many perils of our growing income disparity and the necessity of unions in protecting our squeezed and vanishing middle-class – just as Buddy did.
Of course to friends and family, Buddy was so much more. The love he had for his wife and family knew no bounds. He helped people in anticipation of their needing help, he built things he thought we needed or would like, he fixed things before we knew they were broke, and he made with his strong, beautiful hands this desk upon which I write.
Dale Lipke fought his cancer until the very end, and yet died peacefully on March 14th. Having had to come to terms with the realities of life and death long ago, and having lived an exemplary life of love and faith, he was unafraid and ready for his next assignment. We’ll never know if one or more of the fires he bravely ventured into, or which of the many chemicals and materials he breathed in over his career may have contributed to his demise, but we know for sure his union helped him to live a wonderful life that benefited countless others. It was the union that gave Buddy the means to raise four children who went on to become teachers and firefighters themselves. It was the union that allowed Buddy to retire, strap on a tool belt and spend another decade climbing ladders and building houses of worship for others as a laborer for Christ.
The plaque commemorating the Aurora firefighter strike of 1979 hangs next to our framed poster of the painting depicting the Milwaukee Technical College teacher’s strike of 1968. They serve as reminders of the importance of public worker unions and the legacies that those we love leave us hoping we’ll understand and follow.
Thank you Buddy – We love and miss you - Solidarity!
Kevin & Kelly Mulvenna are proud faculty members of Milwaukee Area Technical College and on the executive board of the American Federation of Teachers Local 212. They remain active educating and organizing friends and neighbors in the Wisconsin struggle. Though exempted from the legislation, Wisconsin firefighters have marched in solidarity against Act 10, and in support of Wisconsin's public workers, from the beginning.