Mario Mendoza held his head in his hands. "Dave, I knew you were going to do that," he said.
Mario, my aide who oversaw the Overture Center at the time, had been through the preliminary interviews for the its new president. The search committee had sent me three candidates, and I wasn't supposed to pick Tom Carto. Mario informed me that they had sent Carto up only to show me how much of a gap there was between the other two and the rest. Tom was supposed to represent the rest.
But I liked Tom Carto immediately. He spoke plain English. He wasn't pretentious and full of himself as the other two candidates were. Tom was down to earth. He talked business. His tie and shirt combination were a disaster. I liked that about him.
There was no jargon or puffery about Carto. I wanted a guy who wouldn't grope his employees as the abrasive Bob D'Angelo had. I wanted someone who paid more attention to the bottom line than the bottoms of his employees.
I wanted butts in seats and a balanced budget. I didn't think it was my job to dictate the programming at Overture. So I was at a loss when a State Journal arts reporter asked me what kind of programming we could expect out of Carto. I had no idea because I never asked him. I was looking at it from a business point of view, not an artistic one. If we could fill more seats with World Championship Wrestling or Taylor Swift than Broadway musicals or opera, that would have been just fine with me. If monster trucks on Sunday! Sunday! Sunday! had fit into Overture Hall and filled it, I would have liked that very much.
Mario Mendoza, a long-suffering, smart, and decent man had been with me long enough to know what I would probably do faced with the choices I was given. I would just pick the guy I felt comfortable with, and whom I thought was the right person for what that part of city government needed at that moment.
The reviews, as I expected and enjoyed, were withering. Someone wrote a letter to the editor saying we had nothing to learn form Mansfield, Ohio from which Tom hailed. Someone else wrote a scathing letter explaining what a Philistine I was. (I had to look it up. Then I had to agree.) The interim director after D'Angelo, a particularly disagreeable man, refused to shake my hand when I met with him to tell him of my choice. Even years later when I saw him at an opera performance he refused my outstretched hand. All these things just underscored for me that I had made the right decision.
Tom Carto ended up doing exactly what I -- and most Madison taxpayers -- would hope. He brought great shows to Overture. (Not monster trucks.) He put people in seats. He increased and improved the profile of the facility. He brought calm and a lack of drama to a place that had had far too much of it. And while I'm not qualified to make a judgment on this, from what I can tell, he did alright from an artistic standpoint as well.
The unfortunate part is that Tom did a fantastic job of getting Overture through its toughest days, and now he won't be there as things are headed in the right direction. Tom will never get a chance to run the facility he did such a great job of putting back on a sound footing.
But Tom's an immensely talented guy who will get another job running a similar facility someplace else. Their gain will be our loss. He hands off the baton and it is gleaming.