Milwaukee Talks: Michael Cudahy

"It's Friday. We're having a drink." These were the first words Michael Cudahy said to me before our lunch at the Boulevard Inn. Early Times on the rocks is the comfort of choice for this charismatic community icon, and I also gladly welcomed an afternoon Tanqueray & tonic as we sat down to talk about Milwaukee, his life, his book and more.

The Milwaukee legacy of Michael Cudahy continues to grow. At a youthful 78, the founder of Marquette Electronics has transitioned from entrepreneurship to philanthropy. Not just standard philanthropy, but big-time stuff like the Milwaukee Art Museum, IMAX, Pabst Theatre, Pier Wisconsin and hopefully the Milwaukee Connector, a new rail transportation system for greater Milwaukee.

Cudahy thinks big, lives well and his generosity, curiosity and kindness will help Milwaukee's future residents live even better. The name Cudahy is one of the most prominent in Wisconsin; Michael follows in the footsteps of this father and grandfather, John and Patrick. Both were innovative and successful and knew how to tell a good tale. Mike spins a great yarn too, and his new book "Joyworks" tells his life story and The Story of Marquette Electronics. It also shows that Cudahy's success is more about people and culture than business plans and process.

Mike Cudahy still keeps a busy schedule, meetings, lunches, fundraisers, idea generation and story telling. He still has a lifetime of ideas in his head and he gladly shared many of them with us recently. Read on for a very special "Milwaukee Talks" with Mike Cudahy.

OMC: Give us the "nut-shell" Mike Cudahy story, please.

MC: The Cudahys came from Ireland, a county called Kilkenny in 1849. There were four brothers, a sister, mother and father, father-in-law and mother-in-law. They set out to the land for a very simple reason. In Ireland at that time, you could either starve to death or leave and maybe die on the ship going over. Patrick, my grandfather, was three months old when he left, he was six months old when he got here ... and the trip wasn't exactly a 747 trip across the ocean. Sometimes we forget that today.

The Cudahys settled in Milwaukee because it is said that they had some friends here. They landed first in Boston, and the problem with Boston was (that there were) too many Irish there. So, they weren't too well liked, if I may put it that way.

This group and a Ms. Shaw (from the Shaw family of County Callan) had a little more money -- three hundred pounds -- than most because old man Shaw had a pottery business he had sold. And you know what, I can't for the life of me figure out who would have bought a pottery business right in the middle of the potato famine, but they did.

Some of the group settled in Milwaukee, others in Chicago. My grandfather, Patrick, quit school at the age of 13 and went to work for a local meatpacking company by the name of Plankinton (later affiliated with the well-known Armour Packing Company of Chicago). He said 'we went into the meat packing business, because people always eat meat and it seems like a stable thing to do.' So Grandpa hooked up Mr. Plankinton and Mr. Armour.

OMC: So, where did you grow up in Milwaukee?

MC: I was born at St. Mary's Hospital about one block from where we lived on Terrace Avenue. Went to Milwaukee Country Day, sort of a snobby school (laughing). I have only one sister, who leaves in Sanibel Island. She's 81 and doing very well. She's a painting teacher still; a very neat lady. Of course, I didn't think that when we were kids.

OMC: Where did you go after Country Day School?

MC: To make a long-story short, I was asked to leave so I went off to Milwaukee University School on Hartford Avenue. I don't know all of the bad things we did, but ... Never went to college, but I did manage to finish high school. The diploma has a big stamp across it "Granted relative to the National Emergency." This means that we were at war and they made certain concessions. My concession was that I had flunked American History -- twice. I just didn't pay any attention, what a bore ... I was interested in science. This was 1942.

OMC: Did you know what you wanted to do with your life when you were in high school?

MC: No, does anyone? I did have a passion for mechanical and electrical things. I became an AM radio operator when I was 12 and living in Ireland (through a school program). In those days, you had to build everything from scratch, the transmitter and receiver. You also had to be very careful not to electrocute yourself which I almost did a couple of times. The thrill after building these radios and wondering how it could possibly work, rigging it up with the antenna and having someone answer your call on the radio was ... pow! Absolutely the most electrifying thing that had even happened to me in my life. I talked to other countries on my radio as a little kid. It was great.

As a tip to all parents, if you can find a thing to electrify your child .. do it. Try it. Let them find something, medicine, electronics, space science or whatever. This will launch your child's thinking!

OMC: You've been married four times? If I may ask, what's up with that?

MC: As to my four wives, I really don't have much to say except ... if I had it all to do over, I doubt if I'd change much. After all, I lived with #3 (Nancy) for 23 years, and I'm still living with #4, Lisa, after 16 years. And I have five terrific kids!

OMC: Give me some of your thoughts on Milwaukee of today?

MC: I have a wonderful picture of the Lakefront, circa 1955, taken from a boat, and (development along the Lake) was pretty grim. I think Milwaukeeans for way too long said, 'oh yeah, the lake, uh huh.' They really didn't pay attention to the tremendous asset that we have here. This is a part of the biggest natural fresh water area in the world, and it's right here in Milwaukee!

I am delighted with the Milwaukee Art Museum. I also am working very diligently, as you know, on a project called Pier Wisconsin.

OMC: If you could change one thing about Milwaukee today, what would it be?

MC: I would hope that we could get a whole raft of business leaders to step forward and take a lead in moving this city forward. We have been, but the lack of leadership has been reported. I think the leadership is here, but they need to continue to step forward and step up to the plate. The MMAC and Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC ) are doing OK, but where is the leadership that can mesh with the political leadership to make this city really great, like Minneapolis and Indy did!?

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OMCreader | June 17, 2006 at 4:49 p.m. (report)

Kim Pestana said: I worked for Michael Cudahy at Marquette Electronics. He is a WONDERFUL man. I found him to be generous, kind, and caring about his employees. His personal phone number is listed. Why don't you bring your dilemma to him? I bet you will be pleased at what you find. Good Luck.

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OMCreader | June 9, 2005 at 1:50 p.m. (report)

David Hemphill said: I became disabled working on the Wisconsin Flagship known as the "Denis Sullivan". Since that time I have been bullied and treated like a criminal by Pier Wisconsin and their insurance company. I suffer from depression and go to counseling. I have lost the ability to do many things. I am in pain every day. Is Cudahy chairman of the board for Pier Wisconsin? Is he spending millions to build another building on the shores of Milwaukee and allowing an employee (who literally gave both his arms to the organization) to be just thrown in the garbage and harrased by thier insurance company from New York City. I liked Mr. Cudahy. Seemed like a regular guy to me. Why is he alowing me to be treated so poorly? This should be known.

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