Tuesday, November 27, 2007

People of the Year

Time Magazine does it (it's going to be Al Gore this year, by the way). GQ does it. I could go on and on, but the simple fact of the matter is that every magazine, trade association, political entity, charity, business enterprise -- in short, every organization of human beings that gathers to share a common interest or goal has a Person of the Year. Sometimes they get a nifty trophy (like an Oscar), sometimes they get a gift certificate to Chili's -- but they all share the admiration and praise of their friends and the bitter jealousy of their enemies.

So before the holiday season starts to swamp all of us with a hectic pace of awkward office parties, uncomfortable family dinners and the endless whining about the War on Christmas (the most devastating conflict to rock America since the Cola Wars of the 1980s!), why not look back at some of the Wisconsinites that have made the year memorable?

The people I tend to think of being worthy of end of the year praise tend to be innovators, as opposed to people who do their job well. This isn't to say that quality isn't a virtue worth celebrating, it's just that I dig innovation more. That makes this list pretty arbitrary -- but what are you going to do? It's my list, goddamnit!

So here they are, in no particular order, a group of folks with some kind of tie to the state who did something new in 2007.

Innovators of the Year:

James Thompson, Stem Cell Researcher, UW-Madison. Genetically Reprogrammed Pluripotent Human Skin Cells:

Thompson may be the most famous research scientist in America. His investigations into the nature of human cellular development during the last 10 - 15 years have transformed Wisconsin into an epicenter for stem cell research and they continue to pay off. Thompson has always stayed one step ahead of the stem cell critics whose obstinacy has done little to sway public opinion in their direction. Despite the heated controversy that erupted following his 1998 stem cell break though, Thompson did what ever great scientist does in the face of such debate -- he went back into the lab and let the science speak for itself. The stem cell debate is far from over, but is at least in the capable hands of a genuine man of science.

Jim VandeHei, co-founder and Executive Editor, the Politico.com:

The Politico is the kind of experiment thats want to have its cake and eat it too. It's new media in the sense that it relies on an almost entirely online platform, but it's also old media in that it relies on a stable of veteran reporters who are as much insiders as the people they cover. While that may sound like innovation the new venture ran a considerable risk of being hated by sources and its target audience alike. So far, it's not clear that's happened yet; and although the Politico has (naturally) been criticized for nearly everything imaginable, it can't be ignored and may be the media business model of the 21st Century.

Ambassadors Daniel Speckhard, Mark Green, and Richard Graber:

It's difficult to think of a time when so many Wisconsinites played such a important role at Foggy Bottom. All three of these men took very different routes to get where they are today. Some would argue that Graber was given his assignment in Prague as a reward for his service as Wisconsin GOP chairman; Mark Green's appointment to Dar es Salaam may have been the most inspired decision of George Bush's presidency -- Green has continuously demonstrated an interest and expertise in African affairs during his lifetime; and Speckhard, a career foreign service officer, certainly deserved the chance to lead the U.S. Embassy in Athens after several years of hardship duty in Baghdad. More importantly, these men are symbolic of an acknowledgment by the state that Wisconsin needs to become become a member of the global community and is doing what it can to see that happen.

Jeff Walz and James Burkee, professors at Concordia College & co-candidates for congress:

Their campaign to unseat an archetypal incumbent (and generally unpleasant grouch), even if it were merely an effort to depose the human embodiment of a cartoonish parody of a man in power alone, would be laudable. But Burkee and Walz decided that they'd both try giving a run for congress a shot ... together ... as members of opposite parties. It's an entirely counterintuitive concept that goes against every political instinct instilled in American voters from the time we take our first civics class in school and vote for the our first class president. For all the consternation that is devoted to "reforming elections" Burkee and Walz have come up with a campaign strategy -- as flawed as it may be -- that goes well beyond the standard public financing vs. free speech debate ground that the Left and the Right seem slavishly devoted to defending. States generally, and Wisconsin in particular, are frequently called the Laboratories of Democracy -- it's nice to see that a few people remember that phrase, no matter how quixotic their efforts may be.

Mike McCarthy, Head Coach, Green Bay Packers. The Five Wide Receiver Set:

It's gotten a lot of attention in the last few weeks, but it blows my mind every time the Pack lines up in this formation. Mind you that they aren't lining up with five wide receivers on 4th and 7, down by 4 with 1:57 to go in the 4th quarter -- they're doing it all game long! Just think about what is needed to pull this thing off: A quarterback who can do anything (check), a quintet of competent wide receivers that all have the skill to break away from their coverage (check) and an offensive line that can supply QB protection without blocking help from a tight end or anyone in the backfield (and ... check!). It's really indicative of how this season has worked out for the Packers, largely by letting Favre be Favre.

Buddhika Jamahaya, U.S. Army Specialist:

Jamahaya, a Marquette University grad, joined six colleagues, still serving in uniform at the time, to write an editorial published in the New York Times that was extremely critical of their collective experience in Iraq. The op-ed sparked a firestorm of controversy, and substantive debate, over the U.S. mission and purpose in Iraq. Just prior to publication one of his six co-authors was shot in the head during a reconnaissance mission and sustained critical, but not fatal, injuries. In the aftermath of the editorial, two others died in combat.

Tony Romo, Quarterback, Dallas Cowboys:

Romo is quickly becoming the George Clooney of the NFL -- men want be him and women want to be with him. It's absolutely painful to find myself praising the quarterback of "America's Team" (and I use that pharse as facetiously as humanly possible), but Romo isn't leading your older brother's "hookers and coke" Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s. Aside from being a tremendous athlete, Romo's demonstrated solid leadership skills by managing to develop a report with Terrel Owens (an immense talent with a notorious track record for clashing with his team's field general) and carried himself with a casual, self-effacing aplomb while in the public eye.


An obvious no-brainer. In a city that truly values community access television WisconsinEye should grow to be a big hit here in Oshkosh. One hopes that with its internet platform it will become just as important around the state as C-SPAN is to the rest of the country (... at least to the people who actually watch it).

Ryan Braun, Third baseman, Milwaukee Brewers.

With apologies to Sandy Koufax, Braun might be the greatest Jewish athlete since Sampson. Sports have always been one of the most celebrated aspects of Wisconsin culture -- there's little denying that -- but the contributions made by the state's Jewish community frequently go unheralded, despite a divers gamut that runs between Michael Feldman and Golda Meir. The NL Rookie of the Year's skill as a ballplayer may be the missing ingredient needed to bridge that gap and we should all look forward to the summer day when we can head out to the ballpark, drink a bottle of Ryan BraĆ¼* and cheer on the He-Brewers.

*Let me just take the opportunity to © and ® that while I'm at it.

State Reps. Tom Nelson and Frank Lasee, Publicity Hounds Extraordinaire:

Next year, John Gard and Steve Kagan are going to be rehashing their '06 campaign for Wisconsin's 8th Congressional District. It's going to be a nasty affair and will be made worse by how painfully typical (read: boring and off-putting) each campaign will be. Basically Gard and Kagan are ruining the fun for the rest of the state by depriving Nelson and Lasee from running for the WI-8 CD.

Lasee won justified nationwide scorn for his "Arm the Teachers" plan to prevent school violence -- but he pulled off this asinine idea with a straight face and got an appearance on the Daily Show out of it. Meanwhile, the shortest distance between any two objects in the universe this year has been between Tom Nelson and a reporter. Whether proposing his hamburger birthplace legislation or staging well-choreographed sit-ins, Nelson knows how to get the attention of the press. The two are contrasting personalties -- Nelson is an Ivy League uberwonk, Lasee exudes the mellow charisma of a sandy blond-haired California surfer -- with a knack for the creative political spectacle who would be guaranteed to run vastly more interesting , entertaining and engaging campaigns than the steady barrage of childish negative ads voters in the WI-8 can expect next year.
Oshkosh Innovation

It has not been a good year for fresh thinking and stellar city leadership at the city level, as has been evident by the recent mass exodus from City Hall and the seemingly endless squabbling over cosmetic issues by elected officials (sidewalks, appointments to boards, cottonwood trees, etc.), to the detriment of the absolutely important matters -- namely, the development of the Waterfront. Much of common council seems content to sit back and wait for an agreeable offer to be floated in their direction instead of actively soliciting development ideas and perusing possible leads. People who do this are more likely to buy monorails, as the 100 N. Main episode should have taught us all.

That being said, the face of UW-O has dramatically changed in the last few years and that has largely been due to the efforts of Chancellor Richard Wells. There's a snide joke that I've heard in several different circles that goes if Wells were as good a Chancellor as he is a developer UW-O would be Harvard by now, but that ignores many of the other efforts currently being undertaken to transform the University from just another satellite state school into a regional education center that is completely integrated with the rest of the city. That kind of institutional change is rare in these parts and thus far Wells has been extremely effective in achieving his goals. Wells' brand of vision and good old fashioned technocratic know-how may rub some folks in the Academy the wrong way, but it's exactly what is needed in the city leadership at large.

TerraMax Engineering Team at Oshkosh Truck:

Wired Magazine fell in love with this self-automated monster truck at the DARPA Urban Challange, and with good reason. The TerraMax was the largest vehicle in the competition, performed brilliantly in the time trials and was the unquestioned crowd favorite among the mega-shop-rats that gathered to witness the event. Unfortunately, the TerraMax was one of the first enteries to be eliminated from the competition, but that in no way translated into a loss: Oshkosh Truck designed the TerraMax to within almost military specs that were not required for the rest of the field. In the process the undoubtedly caught the attention of Pentagon appropriators looked to fund future programs, as well as the eye of a few young engineers looking for a place to ply their talents.

So there you have it ... a group of Wisconsinites who have demonstrated fresh thinking, broke new ground, or just did something different. All too often it's easy to get the impression that we're surrounded by people like the crazy lady from Seymour who wanted to change her last name to bin Laden.

Fortunately, that's not always the case.

If you've got more suggestions, feel free to throw down in the comments. In case you haven't noticed there aren't any women on this list, which means I must be missing someone. Consider this just a start.


CJ said...

I loved this post.

Jb said...

Thanks ...

I try...