Tommy Thompson BS1963, JD1966 helped pay undergraduate and law school tuition as a bouncer, bartender, and manager at the Varsity Bar on State Street in the 1960s. He joked with “Var Bar” patrons, greeting them with a vigorous handshake and announcing, “I’m Tommy Thompson, and I appreciate your vote and support.”
The son of an Elroy, Wisconsin, grocer and teacher, Thompson deployed that handshake to become Wisconsin’s longest-serving governor and President George W. Bush’s secretary of health and human services.
As governor from 1987 to 2001, Thompson was an unabashed, Harley Davidson–riding cheerleader for Wisconsin — and a political champion of his alma mater.
“I realized the university had to be my ally,” Thompson said years later. “I had to make the university much more responsive to the needs of Wisconsin. And I said to myself, ‘I have to do it in a collegial way. I don’t have the political power to do it alone. I’ve got to make sure the university knows I’m going to be its best friend. And for that friendship — quid pro quo — they’re going to help me build every part of this state.’”
Support for medical research and biotechnology, money for buildings, and cooperation between state government and university experts all experienced a heyday.
“Going to a university transforms you,” Thompson said. “The stimulus, the intellectual capacity that you interact with — it makes you a whole different person. It gives you the opportunity and ability to do just about anything.”
Thompson first ran for a seat in the Assembly in 1966, scoring a GOP primary upset. He served there for 20 years.
In 1987, he was elected governor and occupied the governor’s mansion until Bush appointed him to the cabinet in 2001. Thompson embraced the job, though he sometimes chafed at dealing with White House staff. Still, Thompson stayed on until 2005.
Thompson again aimed for political office in the 2012 U.S. Senate race but was defeated by Democrat Tammy Baldwin JD1989.
In a 2016 honorary-degree address to UW–Madison graduates he advised: “Do something you want to do. Life is too short to be at a job you don’t like.”