Terry Collins | La Crosse, WI
My dad was a railroad worker and my mom was home with us. At the time, the regularity and frequency of railroad work was based on union seniority rules. You only made money if you got assigned a train, but you needed seniority to have a spot in the pool to guarantee you got a train.
For a lot of my childhood my dad was on the extra list and his income was irregular. Until I was 8, we lived in a small house on the northside of La Crosse that didn’t have running hot water. My mother was constantly warming up tea kettles of water so we could all bathe on Saturday night. By the time it was my turn, the water had turned black.
We were raised to be proud Wisconsinites. Our University system and the Wisconsin Idea were national trendsetters. There was a big streak of progressivism. We had a reverence for the outdoors; and hunting and fishing were a big part of it. My parents believed in education. Believed in voting. Believed in being a good citizen. And they thought owning a home was key to that life. When I was about ten my dad got seniority and started making more money. My mother pushed hard to buy a house because she felt this was the key to a middle-class life. Now they could afford a house and bought a home in 1961 for $12,500. Because of our home and my dad’s more stable income, my younger sisters had a more ordinary suburban middle-class upbringing then the rest of us.
Coming from a large working-class family gave me and my siblings the kind of freedom that kids don’t really have now. One of my brothers says we had a Huck Finn childhood because we got to grow up on the Mississippi River. We had the freedom to be out on the river by ourselves from the time we were 10 years old, learning the river, learning to fish, just learning in the water. No-one taught us; we learned by making mistakes. I knew every corner of the river: the backwaters, the sloughs, and the fallen trees. It was a wonderful upbringing.
My brothers and I grew up with minimal oversight. Our freewheeling childhood meant I spent more time in nature than I did school. All six of us boys went into the military right after high school and later we were college educated on the GI Bill. My oldest brother identified this as a path to take, and we all followed. This gave me a lot of freedom in high school because I didn’t have to buckle down to get ready for college. I mean, I did whatever I wanted, which was mostly to raise hell all the time. I knew I would go into the service straight from high school, prove myself in the service, and then come back and get an education on the GI Bill. And that’s exactly what happened.
When I was 17, I enlisted. I was in the armed forces for four years, from 1965 to 1969. I was in basic training when they sent the first group of ground troops into Vietnam, but I was never sent. For the first half of my enlistment I was stationed in Southern California, quite a place for a young man to be in the mid 1960s. I spent the second half of my enlistment in a remote part of Turkey and was an Air Force Communications Specialist. When I was 20, I was made Sergeant and given tremendous responsibility to run my own operations. After my enlistment was over, I could have pursued a career in the military, but I didn’t want that. The two years I spent in Southern California were some of the best years of my life — I mean, I had a blast beyond belief there. But I didn’t want that. I knew it couldn’t nurture me. I was 21 years old and wanted to go back to La Crosse and go to college. I wanted to go home.
I met my wife Karolyn at the nursing home where I worked for all four years of undergrad. My older brother had worked there when he was in college and told me about it because with this job, I could arrange my schedule around my classes. Karolyn was a nurse’s aide and I was an orderly. Our love affair blossomed after more than a year of working together and we got married.
Next I went to law school and got lucky. If you start a new academic program with any GI Bill eligibility remaining, your tuition for that whole year was covered. I paid for year two. Then during his reelection campaign, Ford extended the benefits from 36 to 48 months, so I got my third year covered too. Because it paid for my undergraduate studies and two years of law school, the GI Bill meant I wouldn’t be looking at a pile of loans when I graduated.
During my second year in law school I decided to run for an empty State Assembly seat. I was 26, very interested in policy, and decided this was a good idea. Turns out I was possibly the worst politician that ever lived in the sense that I thought a campaign was just about policy and not politics. I didn’t temper my remarks and angered some of the powerful influencers. I thought people would hear all my policy ideas and say, “Boy, this guy’s got a lot of great ideas”. But I lost by about 150 votes.
That same summer I clerked at a law firm. I bartended at one of the firm’s cocktail parties and one of the lawyers told me that he and another lawyer were starting their own firm, and asked if I would be interested in joining up with them after I graduated. Well, Karolyn and I had been married for about three years. She dropped out of college to financially support us while I went to law school. She was now pregnant with our oldest daughter. I thought this would be interesting work and that I could make a living, so I said “hell yeah” and started the week after I graduated.
We opened our law office on the north side of town. Neighbors knew they could stop by the office to get help. As a lawyer, I was a sucker for the underdog. I like to think, and I can mostly defend this claim, that there was some social good in every case I did. My biggest and highest profile case was when I brought an action against the corporation that purchased the G. Heileman Brewery. In this case I represented 100+ local employees who lost their jobs when the business was sold off and the new investment banker owners didn’t want to honor their contracts. I was up against some of the most hard ball litigators you can ever imagine. We tried the case for three weeks. Me and my one young assistant against, I dunno, 10 lawyers in the courtroom. It’s hard to describe what a three-week trial is like, but you are on your feet 24 hours a day for 21 days, listening very carefully to every word that is said by the opposing side. If you’re a brain surgeon, you don’t have an equally smart brain surgeon trying to screw up your surgery while you are trying to fix the problem. But that is what happens in a courtroom. The outcome of the trial was disappointing. My clients were awarded actual damages but we had asked for a punitive damage claim that was disallowed. But as one of my clients said, “we let them know we were here and alive.”
I had many cases like this. It seemed like we were always the underdog. I was privileged to be a trial layer and it was satisfying work that I enjoyed very much.
Become part of the Love Wisconsin
Life was busy in those years. Once the kids were in school, Karolyn finished her education and started working as a health educator. This seemed like the best route for our family, for me to get my education first to prepare to be a lawyer. I honor her for the sacrifice she made. I keep saying that if she ever wanted to divorce me because of the fact that she deferred her education for me to go first, she could clean my clock. I used to joke that there were at least 20 lawyers in town that I have been in court with who would represent her for free.
As we raised our children, we tried to ground them with basic Wisconsin values: hard work, education, love of the natural world and civic engagement. We took our girls out on the river and taught them to fish. It must have took because they still love the river and like to fish. Additionally, we took the girls to a lot of Brewers and UW games. I believed—and still believe—that sports teams are unifying. Wisconsin has given us much. We all hold degrees from a Wisconsin public university which have further prepared us for our intellectual, vocational and public life.
Oktoberfest is a big deal in La Crosse. We have the longest running Oktoberfest in the Midwest. Karolyn and I had not been very involved in Oktoberfest except for going and drinking a lot of beer and once in a while running a road race. Every year a Festmaster is selected and they become part of the Oktoberfest royal family. In 2006 two former Festmasters stopped by my office and I remember thinking “this must be some sort of legal trouble with a couple of Festmasters in here.” I later learned that all the previous Festmasters have a series of five secret ballots in which they narrow down their choice for the next Festmaster and I somehow ended up being their choice. I thought it was an odd choice because I was never in a civic booster club or held previous positions with Oktoberfest. But I am very involved in the community and the Festmaster based on contributions to the community. So, in that way it made sense.
After they name you, they prepare you for the job for about six months and then they announce you at the Oktoberfest Ball. Karolyn was announced as the Oktoberfest Frau. On that night there were 1200 people at our dinner, and I like to say that 600 of them were my relatives. During the festival I led the Maple Leaf parade, a four-hour event with the parade route filled with hundreds of thousands of people. My kids came back for it and rode or marched alongside the Festmaster’s float. It was an amazing experience. For the next year Karolyn and I went to all the parades, all the other festivals, and made many community appearances. I don’t want to brag about this, but I think it’s the very highest civic honor given in our community. It’s been a great honor for me. We’ve made so many friends and it opened up so many avenues for us. Being Festmaster was a hell of a year. It was a hell of a year.
That got me thinking that these buildings were going to need advocates to survive. Many years later I was appointed to the heritage preservation commission. I was particularly interested in preserving the boat houses along the river, because the laws and regulations governing them were making it so that eventually they would all disappear.
Most of these houses were built at the turn of the twentieth century, they have spud poles that keep them in place. The first houses were used for people that worked on the river, they lived there to be close to their work. La Crosse had been a huge logging town and a huge button town. Clams were harvested from the river and every button you would see on every shirt was actually from little parts of these clams. So, you had clamming, you had commercial fishing, you had logging, until those jobs started to die out. Then people moved into these houses during the depression, because you could live in them for practically nothing. It was a cheap form of housing, but no longer related to the work on the river. After WWII they became working-class vacation cottages and that is how they’re used now. For working class people this is such a huge part of our culture on this river and I thought it should be preserved.
Our committee decided to preserve these boat houses. We battled with the DNR over regulations and state statutes. My experiences as a lawyer and as a river rat were useful and we eventually were successful in declaring these boat houses a historic district. Our main argument is that there are so many places that show how the wealthy people and the influential people live. We wanted to value the contributions and experiences of working-class people. These boat houses were a real working-class phenomenon, and we think they deserve to be preserved too.
Having lived near the river for most of my life, one of biggest changes that I’ve seen along all the waterways is the development of the shoreline for housing. The river itself hasn’t changed that much to me, but the gentrification of the shoreline is remarkable. Recently Karolyn and I bought a condo up on the Black River a tributary of the Mississippi, so I can’t really criticize this. I mean we’re now ankle deep in this lifestyle. It’s been the best. Our kids and grandkids are using it and we bought a pontoon boat for everyone to use. It is very important for me to inculcate this love of Wisconsin, the outdoors and the river with my grandchildren. Also, the river is cleaner since the Pigs Eye disposal plant in the Twin Cities was forced to stop dumping untreated sewage into it in the 1980s.
When I was a kid on the river, I would see maybe ten boats a day. Now I might see 200 boats a day, and some of them are big and expensive. But I still see kids on the river. Last Saturday Karolyn and I were out in the Mississippi backwaters, in a place called ‘running slough’, where I had a lot of my early experiences. We were turning a corner and 4 kids, about 12 years old, in a modest fishing flat boat came bombing by us and cut us off. Immediately thought, well, “that was me.” You know? And so, I see kids, working class kids, who have very modest boats and motors who are allowed to do this at a very young age, sort of carrying on the tradition. It is important to me to know that the tradition of learning the river and its backwaters still goes on.
-Terry Collins | La Crosse, WI