Lee Dreyfus

30 Square Miles Surrounded by Reality

As the drafty bus rumbled out of Badger Village, the university’s married-veterans’ housing complex at the Badger Ordnance Works near Baraboo, Lee Dreyfus Sr. BA1949, MA1952, PhD1958 was focused on getting an education.

The bumpy, 25-cent ride was the first of many for Dreyfus, who earned three speech degrees while tending bar, selling insurance, and washing walls on campus.

With a red vest, a flamboyant but plainspoken manner, and a grassroots political drive, he propelled himself to Wisconsin’s governorship.

Lee Dreyfus' well known vest.

Armed with his doctorate, Dreyfus managed the radio station at Wayne State University and helped to establish its communications department. He returned to Madison in 1962 to teach at the UW and to manage WHA-TV.

Five years later, Dreyfus became chancellor at what is now UW–Stevens Point, where he began wearing a red vest so that students could recognize him.

By 1978, Dreyfus — galled by a tax surplus — campaigned for governor as a Republican. Using the slogan “Let the People Decide” and an attention-getting bus dubbed the “Red Vest Whistle Stop Special,” he beat Robert Kasten in the primary and then Democrat Martin Schreiber (attended 1956 to 1960) to claim victory.

Dreyfus never issued a news release, and he gave eloquent speeches, often off the cuff. “Madison is 30 square miles surrounded by reality,” he famously quipped.

He learned the virtue of service early. “It was absolutely taught by my mother and father that if you had more capability, you were obligated to give more,” he said.

When Dreyfus jolted Wisconsin with his decision not to seek re-election, reporter Frank Ryan wrote: “Unlike many of the new breed of 24-hour-a-day pols who populate the state and local governments, Dreyfus is not a political junkie. He believes he can live happily without the constant jabbering, tinkering, bickering, and overbearing egos.

“Dreyfus should be remembered as an honest, humane governor of high moral character, a genuinely nice man who seemed to have life’s real values in perspective.”

After Dreyfus’ 2008 death, Governor Jim Doyle BA1967 said he “led us, educated us, entertained us, all at the same time. He showed us that politics do not have to be harsh or overly partisan.”