Doug Moe: Stu Levitan, feeling lucky at 60

2013-11-24T07:00:00Z Doug Moe: Stu Levitan, feeling lucky at 60DOUG MOE | Wisconsin State Journal | dmoe@madison.com | 608-252-6446 madison.com

“We’re all old,” Mrs. Moe said the other night. Lately, it’s one of her favorite sayings.

“Speak for yourself,” I replied, although at the time I think I was watching an episode of “Perry Mason” that first aired in 1960.

You can find “Perry Mason” and other classic shows on MeTV (Charter 967), which is a good network once you get past the fact that many of the commercials concern what to do if you fall and can’t get up.

Anyway, my point — yes, finally, the point — was there’s no use dwelling on age, because what are you going to do about it?

Of course, that was before I received my invitation to Stuart Levitan’s 60th birthday party.

“We’re all old,” I said.

Happily, the man himself, Stu Levitan — Madison historian, journalist, radio host, author, civic activist, erstwhile politician, and the man who bought Nixon’s balls — said he feels about 35, and then quoted Wavy Gravy on why birthdays with a zero should be no big deal. For you children out there, Wavy Gravy was the emcee at Woodstock.

The party was Saturday night at the Brink Lounge, though Levitan’s actual birthday is Nov. 29. We sat down to chat two days before the party, which was one day later than originally scheduled because — and I’m not saying this is age related — Levitan forgot about our first appointment.

For me, it was worth the wait. The fact is, Madison has been a livelier place these past 35 years for having Stu Levitan on the scene. Even when he was only a cab driver, things happened around him. One night in March 1980, Levitan left his Union cab at the curb of the Inn on the Park and went in to fetch his fare. He found Francis Ford Coppola drinking in his suite. The famous director had just presided over a disastrous live political broadcast for presidential contender Jerry Brown.

“Would you like some wine?” Coppola asked.

“Even at Union,” Levitan replied, “we’re not supposed to drink with the passengers.”

Later, at the airport, and after a spirited discussion about the meaning of the ending of “Apocalypse Now,” Coppola tipped Levitan $50.

It was gonzo journalism, and not the movies, that originally brought Levitan to Madison. He thought he wanted to be Hunter S. Thompson. This was 1975, and Levitan had just graduated from the New College of Florida, a highly regarded liberal arts college in Sarasota (he grew up on the north shore of Long Island, N.Y.).

Levitan decided to spend the summer following Democratic presidential hopeful Fred Harris, a former senator from Oklahoma, with the hope of writing about him for Rolling Stone, which had launched Hunter Thompson’s political reporting career.

In the cities he visited, Levitan checked in with the local newspapers. In Madison, a Capital Times editor, Dave Zweifel, mentioned that the paper’s Washington, D.C., correspondent, Erwin Knoll, had recently resigned (Knoll would become editor of The Progressive). Levitan wound up taking that part-time position. Two years later, still with the paper but based back in Madison, Levitan covered the controversy over a proposed mine in Crandon, sharing a room in northeastern Wisconsin with Channel 3’s Tedd O’Connell.

A short time later, Levitan left The Capital Times. There was a strike and Levitan’s parents had taught him never to cross a picket line. He later felt it was among the most important decisions of his life, getting him out of daily journalism, and, eventually, into law school at UW-Madison, which led to a staff attorney position with the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission, a post he has held for 26 years.

He loved “spreading labor peace,” as Levitan described the job for most of those years. The commission’s reach has been curtailed under Gov. Scott Walker, and the work for Levitan is less rewarding. He figures to give it another year or two.

Yet, as he looks at 60, Levitan feels lucky to have worked at a job he enjoyed for so many years, and lucky, too, to have had the health and energy to also be a presence in Madison’s public life across more than three decades. Levitan served on the Dane County Board of Supervisors — spearheading a fair housing ordinance and newspaper recycling program — and remains chairman of the Madison Landmarks Commission.

Many of Levitan’s freelance newspaper and magazine articles — he also hosts a radio show, “Books and Beats,” on 92.1 The Mic, with guests that included Joan Baez and Robert Redford — deal with Madison history. His passion for the subject culminated in a widely praised 2006 book, “Madison: The Illustrated Sesquicentennial History, Volume 1, 1856-1931.”

Levitan’s humor has served him well through all this, which brings us to Nixon’s balls. Mike May, long before he was city attorney, began hosting parties in Madison celebrating the resignation of Richard Nixon, the former president. May auctioned a variety of items and at the 20th anniversary event at the Avenue Bar, Levitan bought for $16 two golf balls emblazoned with the logo of the Nixon library.

Last week, I had to ask. “Do you still have them?”

“Yes, I still have Nixon’s balls,” Stu Levitan said. “Thanks for asking.”

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

Copyright 2014 madison.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(6) Comments

  1. Samantha
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    Samantha - November 28, 2013 7:58 am
    Stu Levitan - what city could live without him? What city wouldn't want to?
  2. MrNatural
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    MrNatural - November 24, 2013 1:53 pm
    Happy Birthday Stu. Sorry I missed the party!
  3. Solstice
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    Solstice - November 24, 2013 1:06 pm
    *sigh* Such envy on display for a life (thus far) well-lived! Thanks for all you do, Stu. Madison's a better place for your efforts.
  4. Austin J
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    Austin J - November 24, 2013 11:01 am
    This has got to be one of the creepiest articles I've read in quite awhile. If the repeated references to "Nixon's balls" are supposed to be some kind of humor, I've got real bad news for Dougie and Stuey both - it's just creepy.

    But only in Madison could a desire for gonzo journalism and a career as a cab driver and fairy tale writer for the Cap Times be parlayed into a lifetime sinecure with the WERC. I'm sure he's totally impartial on the WERC, and I'm also sure "spreading labor peace" is code for shilling for the unions. Too bad that gig's been reined in a bit. No wonder it's "less rewarding" under Walker. On the Landmarks Commission, he serves to further his own views only.

    Yes, a "Madison classic" for sure. And a "self-aggrandizing twit" beyond all doubt.
  5. Ariel12
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    Ariel12 - November 24, 2013 10:35 am
    Good Ol' Stu - another Madison classic. A lifetime with his snout in the government trough, and no end in sight.
  6. Stan
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    Stan - November 24, 2013 9:16 am
    I realize we're all supposed to think that Stu Levitan is some glorious Madison institution to be hailed...but as chair of the Landmarks committee he has time and again revealed himself as an unelected, self-aggrandizing twit committed to obstructing reasonable development in favor of self-appointed "preservation experts" promoting a ridiculous and unrealistic view of Madison's future. Madison's taxes are a reality, not an abstraction, in a city where a considerable percentage of property is off the tax rolls. No company seeking to add jobs and property tax base in this city should ever have to kiss this man's ring.
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