Persons of Interest

A look at our Persons of the Year past and present

This cover marks the fifteenth time we’ve celebrated (or in one case, shamed) a Person of the Year. In 1998, we began an annual tradition of honoring outstanding community minded and forward-thinking citizens—fifty in all. Why fifty and not fifteen, as the years would suggest? Because we honored a diverse group of “philanthropists” last year, recognizing the extraordinary impact giving has on everything we do.

Tom Linfield of the Madison Community Foundation, one of our thirty-five persons of 2011, told me that during the recession years he was seeing more non-profit building projects than for-profit. You could say the generosity of others sustained our economy when we needed it most. The same phenomenon appeared in fundraising for the United Way’s annual campaign—exceeding each of the previous year’s goals when all of us, rich or poor, saw our earnings and savings diminish. We still volunteered, served on boards and wrote checks to worthy causes.

So it’s fitting that our inaugural Person of the Year back in 1998 was—and still is—one of the greatest philanthropists of our time, Jerome Frautschi. Back then he’d just donated $50 million (his total gift would eventually exceed $200 million) to build Overture Center for the Arts, which, despite its detractors and financial woes through the years, has become an enormous economic and cultural driver in our region.

Frautschi’s gift underscores the notion that Madisonians place a very high value on the arts and their unique contributions to this community: enriching and a whole lot of fun. Whenever anyone asks me what makes Madison “Madison,” I name the usual suspects, and then I point to Overture as an underappreciated asset. Pop in for the free Kids in the Rotunda on a Saturday morning, see a performance in the spectacular Overture Hall, or climb the steps of the art museum as you behold the view outside, and you know what I mean. While Frautschi is best known for this monumental edifice, he gives generously to more community causes than would fit on this page—and his wife, Pleasant Rowland, may even give more.

One of the more unique picks for person of the year occurred in 2007. Richie Davidson’s research on, as he puts it, “how transforming the mind can change the brain and body,” was groundbreaking—in 2006 he was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.

Davidson credits His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a longtime friend, for encouraging him to pursue the unconventional scientific path of finding the key to happiness. His work continues to be prolific and important—he’s currently studying whether meditation can help veterans with PTSD, and his new book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, is a New York Times best seller.

I hope you find this year’s Person of the Year, The Dairy Farmer, surprising and the story stimulating. For a quick trip down memory lane, here’s the Person of the Year Hall of Fame (links to stories available starting in 2007): Jerome Frautschi (1998, philanthropist); Paul Soglin (1999, politician, dubbed “Man of the Century”); Sue Ann Thompson (2000, women’s health champion); James Thomson (2001, stem cell pioneer); Chuck Chvala (2002, former lawmaker/lawbreaker); Kathleen Falk (2003, former Dane County Executive); Dave Cieslewicz (2004, former Madison mayor); Susan Goodwin (2005, chief of staff, former Gov. Jim Doyle); Russ Feingold (2006, former U.S. Senator); Richard Davidson (2007, UW–Madison researcher, author); Noble Wray (2008, Madison police chief); Steve Stricker (2009, PGA golfer); Dr. William Rock (2010, Agrace HospiceCare); 35 philanthropists (2011); The Dairy Farmer (2012).

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