Mayors, I mean. This weekend we lost Frank Zeidler, and the occasion caused me to review the other mayors we’ve had since: Henry Maier, John Norquist, and Tom Barrett.
Zeidler voluntarily walked away from office in 1960, after three four-year terms. It’s easy to lose track of what he accomplished looking through the mists, so let me touch on a few highlights: His record included convincing the UW to open a branch here (UW-M), raising the funds for the Museum, doubling the land size of the city (including purchasing land to be used to build the industrial parks that enriched the tax base and kept the citizens employed). He built nine (9!) new fire stations, imprpoved garbage collection, and doubled the size of the library. He pushed for the creation of Channel 10, the first educational TV station in the state. You may also remember County Stadium and the Braves? Yep, they’re his as well. As was the Milwaukee Arena. He also revamped the city park system. Almost every institution in the city was either begun or greatly enhanced by him.
He was also a champion of public housing: “If it is the philosophy of any that the forces of government should not be used to overcome these conditions, which private enterprise did not overcome, that philosophy borders on the immoral,” he said.
Before there was an Interstate system, there were freeways enabling travel around and through town. He personally would rather have expanded the public transportation system, but the people said they wanted freeways, so he built freeways. He was never a sore loser; his job was to serve the people.
In the forty years of politicians we’ve had sitting in City Hall since he left, we haven’t had as much done to improve conditions in Milwaukee as he did in just 12 years as mayor. And don’t try to excuse their inaction by saying the city is bigger now. It isn’t. In fact, city population has shrunk 20% since Zeidler’s day. The census of 1960 shows Milwaukee as 12th largest city in the nation, so by relative standards, the city Frank presided over was far larger than the one we have today.
Cities can work. Frank showed us that. He worked tirelessly (his reason for not running again was that the job was draining him; he felt always exhausted) for the public good. All the public, not just a small section. He made sure the city had land to support business development, because at an early age he saw what unemployment did to people. He made sure people could afford some sort of secure housing, because he knew what poverty could do.
He wanted to be remembered as a man who tried hard. I wish those who followed had tried even half as hard. He was, in truest sense of the phrase, a mayor for all the people. And they just don’t build ’em like that anymore.