When Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders came to Baraboo in 2014 to deliver a rousing “Fighting Bob Fest” address to thousands of progressives — and to give a sense of what was to come with his 2016 presidential run — Ted Shannon was upset.
The 96-year-old retired University of Wisconsin-Extension professor and dean had been at an event the previous evening to hear Sanders outline his economic and social justice agenda. But on the way home, Ted had fallen ill and ended up in the hospital.
When Ted called to apologize for missing the Saturday rally in Baraboo, he explained that the doctors would not let him attend.
Then, with the sly wit and political insight that endeared him to everyone who ever met this charming academic, Ted suggested that once a single-payer “Medicare for all” health care plan was adopted, then, surely, there would be more flexibility.
That was Ted Shannon.
Always politically engaged.
Always amused — and amusing.
Always looking for the teaching moment — even when he was ailing a bit at age 96.
Ted recovered quickly in 2014 and was back in the fight through the 2016 election, cheering on all his favorite progressive candidates — especially former Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, whose candidacies Ted and his late wife Dorothy began cheering on in 1982.
The election results last year were a deep disappointment to this worldly thinker and doer. But disappointment did not slow Ted down. The last time we spoke, he was already plotting new projects in Wisconsin and Arizona, where the former UW administrator and Ford Foundation higher education adviser spent winters with his second wife, Kate Foster.
Every March in recent years, when I have appeared at the Tucson Festival of Books, I have done a number of community events in the area with labor unions and progressive groups. Ted always asked me to come down to Green Valley, south of Tucson, to speak with the community of activists he had joined there. So I got to see him in Wisconsin, where he was a revered figure in local and state politics going back to the days when Gaylord Nelson was a rising star, and in Arizona, where young social justice and immigrant rights activists hailed the 90-something fireball as an ally and an inspiration.
Before we could rally together once more this spring, however, Ted passed away at age 98 on Dec. 11, 2016. His death was oddly unexpected. Despite the fact that he had experienced a few health scares, I assumed that Ted would just keep on campaigning until we had a better president — and a single-payer health care system.
We still gathered in Green Valley in March to honor our remarkable friend and comrade — a son of Lebanese immigrants (Ted loved telling stories about how the Middle Eastern family name, Shanin, somehow evolved into the very Irish-sounding “Shannon”) who enlisted in the U.S. Army before World War II began, served as a key administrator during the Allied occupation of Italy, and finished as executive officer at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force in Paris.
Ted was a proud beneficiary of the GI Bill, and he took full advantage of the opportunity it afforded him — earning a Ph.D. from Yale (where he met and married Dorothy, a fellow graduate student and U.S. Navy veteran). Ted arrived in Madison as part of a new generation of postwar academics who were prepared to renew and extend the promise of the “Wisconsin Idea.” He embraced the work of the UW-Extension with a passion, thrilling at the opportunity to realize the vision outlined by UW President Charles Van Hise in his 1905 announcement: “I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the university reaches every family of the state.”
Ted lived the “Wisconsin Idea” faith by engaging personally and passionately with campaigns and causes. He blended idealism and pragmatism in the best tradition of Robert M. La Follette’s progressive movement. This meant that Ted joined fellow Democrats Gaylord Nelson, Bob Kastenmeier, Russ Feingold, Tammy Baldwin and others in a constant crusade to make the party more anti-war, anti-corporate and anti-racist, and more socially conscious, environmentally responsible and internationalist.
Ted did not always succeed in that mission. Yet he never relented. His optimism was genuine, and infectious. As with all the finest academics and activists, he was open to ideas and welcoming of debate. He was gracious and good-humored. But Ted always recognized that the pursuit of knowledge and the great discourse that extended from that pursuit carried with it a duty. When a North Star ideal emerged, it was necessary to steer in its direction — and to urge others to do the same.
For more than 60 years, Ted was a reader, a friend, an ally, a comrade of The Capital Times in this newspaper’s pursuit of the mission outlined by its founder, William T. Evjue, when he declared 50 years ago that “The Capital Times will always fight for justice and for peace.”
Like so many of our readers, Ted Shannon was in that fight with us. And we were in it with him.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. email@example.com and @NicholsUprising
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