Dave Kreisman/AFSCME Communications
No job was too small for Dode Lowe (center).
The recent death of Darold "Dode" Lowe marked the passing of one of the most consequential Madisonians of the past 40 years. His influence over local affairs was vast, but mostly unheralded; one would look in vain for more than brief mention in the local media.
Beginning in 1971, Dode spent 23 years as the union staff representative for city and county employees in AFSCME. After "retirement," he spent a decade as an elected member of the Dane County Board and another decade as a retiree union leader and Democratic Party activist. Throughout his life, he served on civic and charitable organizations. I had the good fortune to meet him at the Madison Labor Temple during the late 1970s.
Public anonymity was a consequence of Dode's style: work hard and speak your mind, mostly one-on-one, with confidence but no discernible ego. His influence was doubled because he worked in tandem with his similarly talented wife, who survives him. No mention of Dode's civic contribution is complete without a nod to Gretchen, herself a former local union president; verbal references to either of them usually took the form "Gretchen 'n Dode."
Dode was a gifted negotiator and respectful union representative. He often outfoxed his adversaries, but never humiliated them. He knew that he would meet his opponents again, and braggadocio was simply not part of his personality. He had a profound grasp of the technical aspects of union contract negotiations and a few strategic principles that he doggedly applied to improve the pay and conditions of his union members. He routinely reminded these members that they were his boss and he was there to take orders. When asked, he offered wise counsel that was usually heeded.
In politics, Dode was a whirlwind. He served on the Democratic National Committee, but also took the time to know every issue and candidate for the Madison Common Council and Dane County Board. He sized up candidates and offered encyclopedic advice, and then made honest recommendations to the hundreds of ordinary people he met in the course of each election cycle. He seldom left home without nomination papers and yard signs. If there was voter canvassing anywhere in the vicinity, Dode ('n Gretchen) spent Saturday going door-to-door to turn out the vote. When slowed by serious illness, he took to the phone.
Over four decades of union and political work, Dode often had cause for disagreement with both friend and foe. He preferred conversation to the posturing of public meetings. He valued practicality and made his case plainly. If differences persisted, he concluded with a witty (but barbed) punch line intended to make his opponent laugh. With a wry grin, he would clasp your shoulder and sadly shake his head. Before the night was over, all was forgiven, for tomorrow there was work to do. Only rarely did Dode betray anger. He wisely held his tongue, but his broad face glowed red (and sometimes purple).
Dode never lavished adjectives, even in criticism of Gov. Scott Walker or the Koch brothers; he simply reported their machinations and let their record speak for itself. But woe unto the orator intoxicated with protracted debate; Dode's theatrical exasperation guided many a meeting toward timely adjournment.
And no job was too small for Dode. For decades, after meetings and events large and small, Dode ('n Gretchen) always paused to rinse the coffee pot and haul trash bags to the dumpster before heading home.
Today, the union movement is diminished and Wisconsin's public employee unions are all but outlawed. Not coincidentally, wage levels in Wisconsin have stagnated. In an age of hedge fund managers and Super PACs, it may no longer be fashionable to celebrate the backbones of the working class who devote their lives fighting for the underdog. I nevertheless join with thousands of ordinary union members and citizens to remember Dode Lowe with a smile and deep appreciation, and to offer sympathy to Gretchen for the loss of her true and constant partner of 55 years.
A memorial service is being planned for mid-November, but Dode would tell you to honor his memory now with your vote for Mary Burke for governor and Susan Happ for attorney general.
Neil Gleason is a retired union member.