Changing of the Guard

Ordinarily when summer is on the wane,  there is cause for melancholy in Madison.

Granted, our autumns are spectacular, but the colored trees warn us that the gray and cold of winter are not far off. The leaves, as splendid as they are, are dying.  A reminder that the year has aged, and the death spiral of our garden has begun.

But this late summer is different. Even though it is ending, it feels like spring.

Not because of the weather, but because of a newness of spirit in Madison. It comes in the form of youth; more specifically, youthful leadership. Madison is witnessing a generational changing of the guard.

And it feels good. Because it’s about time.

The most visible example of this change is the new Madison public schools superintendent Jen Cheatham. Smart, energetic and affable, Cheatham has already breathed a sense of possibilities into a school system struggling with chronic problems. She has approached our issues with fresh eyes, a certain wise exuberance and hope. She has yet to set things in motion, but her first steps give us reason to think that we can be a better Madison. Maybe even a new national model of educational innovation for other cities struggling with the gap between the rich and the poor.

On another but equally visible front, the UW football team will take to the Camp Randall turf with a new man leading the young Badgers onto the field. Gary Andersen has entered town quietly, politely and sans bombast. He seems a far cry from his predecessor who, though successful, always seemed just moments away from an embarrassing pratfall.

Joining these two youthful leaders is a growing cadre of Non Boomers who view the world in a new way, free from the weed-hazed, tie-dyed cultural biases of the sixties. Zach Brandon is the new head of Madison’s Chamber of Commerce. City alder Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, former school board candidate Ananda Mirilli and YWCA Madison’s CEO Rachel Krinsky are emerging as strong community leaders. Fitchburg mayor Shawn Pfaff is breathing life into our increasingly more important collar communities. Bob Dunn is finally digging a big hole at the Edgewater. And Kaleem Caire has provided a thoughtful new voice to Madison’s growing and important African American community. All of these younger leaders have given Madison a new face and attitude.

We even have a new UW Chancellor, Rebecca Blank, who though a seasoned Boomer comes to town with fresh eyes and solid chops that include a cabinet position and stints at Princeton, Northwestern, the University of Michigan, MIT and the Brookings Institution. Not a bad resume. All the better because she was born in Missouri, the state that gave us Harry Truman, a man who wasn’t afraid to blurt the truth.

So why does this fall feel like spring? Because Madison needs change.  Healthy, smart and youthful change.

We need to get something done to address the achievement gap in our schools. The football program, as successful as it has been, will benefit from a newness of spirit and values.

But most importantly, Chancellor Blank aside, it is about time for new generation to take the stage in Madison. For the last few years it has seemed Madison has been engaged in a silly hippie slap fight, battling over Gov. Walker and unions and Solidarity Singers at the Capitol and endless zoning feuds. If you can remember those things called record albums, we have been like a 45 on skip, continuously playing the same fragment of a song.

We need some young people to change our groove.  Fresh minds that aren’t battling the same old feuds. Young brains unafraid to try something new.

For all of our intellectual capital and reputation as Mad Town, the truth is that we have become stodgy. When the most interesting thing in Madison is actually happening in a former cornfield in Verona, you have to start thinking that we need to reboot.

One way we can do it is to realize the transition that we are in. For the last six decades we have been subjected to what the research firm Yankelovich, Skelly and White once called “the social tyranny of the baby boom generation.”

But guess what? The world is moving on. Madison was once an epicenter for what passed for Boomer Culture.

Now Boomers have to face reality. Bob Dylan can’t sing. Half the Beatles are dead. And grandfather Mick Jagger looks silly in tights.

Change is good. Youth must be served.

No better time than now.

And if you’ll please excuse me, I’m going to take a nap.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at johneroach@mac.com

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