Ed Durkin

As a union leader, Madison's fire chief and an activist, Ed Durkin worked to make this world a better place. Durkin, 88, died Friday at his Lake Poygan home.

Photo by Anne Durkin-Dibble

Ed Durkin was out in the garden at his house on Lake Poygan (near Oshkosh) last Friday afternoon, spreading straw on his garlic plants as the onset of winter loomed when he was stricken.

Before the ambulance got there, Ed had passed away in the arms of his wife of 65 years, Winnie.

"He died with his boots on," remarked his son, Pat, the outdoor writer whose column appears in papers across the state and in the State Journal on Sundays.

Yes, with his boots on, a description that defined Ed Durkin's life and the incredible influence he had on Madison during so much of his 88 years.

Madison's younger generation probably doesn't know of Ed and the role he played is shaping the city's Fire Department, fighting for the rights of unions, and working for peace in a world that doesn't seem to want it. He was truly a Madison original, an icon to be long remembered and revered.

Those who were here during the 1960s and well into the '90s remember him as the fireball unionist who got Madison's firefighters a more sensible workweek and decent wages and then as the fire chief who tore down barriers and conquered prejudices by hiring women and minorities to make our department one of the most diverse fire departments in America.

After he retired as chief he became the leader of Madison's Link Friendship House and the Soviet-American Friendship Society, where he sponsored several exchange trips between the two countries in an effort to get longtime foes to better understand each other. He proudly brought noted Moscow television journalist Vladimir Posner to Madison and spent hours of fascinating discussion with him in my office a few years before the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. How we could use some of that mutual understanding today.

His work to forge American-Russian understanding, coupled with his early distaste for the Vietnam War, earned him the nickname "Red Ed." Those who labeled him did so derisively, but Ed, the always affable Irishman, wore the title proudly. For one, it showed he was opening doors. Besides, unlike all too many of his detractors back then, he had served proudly in the military, joining the Army at age 17 in 1946 and serving with the U.S. occupation force in Japan after the war. He didn't need to make any apologies for working for peace.

His most controversial days were during his tenure as president of Firefighters Local 311. During the height of student demonstrations against the Vietnam War in the 1960s, he and the firefighters made it clear they wouldn't train fire hoses on the students, a move that defused animosity toward firefighters and was credited with preventing the demonstrations from erupting into riots. When the City Council refused to allow one of those infamous Mifflin Street block parties, Durkin invited students to his house and four acres of property in west Madison.

The event was covered not only by Madison's media, but the national press as well. The New York Times headlined the next day: "A Party in Madison: Peace Breaks Out." A few days before, Local 311 at Durkin's direction bailed out student leader and Madison Ald. Paul Soglin, who had been arrested during one of the antiwar demonstrations.

Many politicians and veterans organizations were outraged and in phone calls to the paper and letters to the editor demanded Durkin's head. But Ed knew that what he was doing was what was needed to help defuse a volatile situation and never backed down.

Then there was the strike in 1969. He led the firefighters out because the city refused to continue paying firefighters wages on par with the police, which had been the practice for 100 years. The strike lasted three days before the city relented. Fortunately, there were no serious fires in those three days, but Ed conceded later that had there been, his firefighters would have sprung into action.

Ed wasn't all business. He loved a good time, his Irish wit always on display. He was a fanatic Badger fan and the very definition of family man. In his later years, he and Winnie would hold family gatherings at the summer home at Lake Poygan and then hole up for the winter in Florida.

One of the last times we got together was at my tailgate party near Camp Randall, where a couple of times a year he'd enjoy a bloody mary and a plate of Sandy's egg casseroles before one of those 11 a.m. Badger games. Son Joe, daughter Anne and sometimes a grandkid or two would accompany him. Invariably, despite my protestations, he'd slip a $20 bill into my jacket pocket because he wanted "to pay my own way."

Ed always paid his own way just with his willingness, often against great odds, to help make this world a little better place.

Winnie, the kids, Anne, Joe, Pat, Terry, Tom and Jaci, plus his 12 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren should always know how much he meant to so many people.

And he did it all with his boots on.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com

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Dave is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.