Last Wednesday morning, I was at the airport in Fort Myers, Florida, coming home from vacation, when a good friend texted me three brutal words: “Ed Garvey died.”
The news took my knees out.
I’d heard that Ed was in the hospital. And I knew he’d been fighting Parkinson’s for a long time. And I’d seen him grow frailer.
But I didn’t know his death was imminent.
I met Ed 30 years ago, when I was just getting started at The Progressive under the tutelage of legendary editor Erwin Knoll. Erwin and his wife, Doris, would throw annual July 4th celebrations at their house, and Ed and his wife, Betty, would be there. Ed was always in good spirits, with a twinkle in his eye and a story to tell.
From afar, I watched with admiration as Ed ran principled campaigns for U.S. Senate and for Wisconsin governor, only to lose to the big money every time.
Then in 1989 I had the pleasure of editing a terrific piece he wrote for The Progressive, “It’s Money that Matters,” about how messed up our campaign finance system was. He was surprisingly easy to work with, and didn’t mind the meddling I did with his copy.
After that, I’d see him at parties and fundraisers, and I’d hear him on Wisconsin Public Radio, and I’d marvel at his delightful wit.
Here’s a favorite story of Betty’s: Their daughter Kathleen, who was raised a Catholic, married conservative Joe McNeil, a Lutheran. Soon after the marriage, Kathleen marched in and told Ed and Betty, “Joe’s decided to convert.” To which Ed responded, “You mean he’s becoming a Democrat?”
I admired Ed for his pioneering work representing the NFL Players Association. “He pushed the union philosophy towards issues he called freedom issues,” says DeMaurice Smith, the current executive director of the union, in a sweet three-minute video in memoriam that the union posted online. “The owners hated Ed not because he was smarter than they were and he was funny. They hated Ed because he challenged their right to ‘own’ men.”
I admired Ed for taking on Nestle in the fight against its subsidiary Perrier, which wanted to sop up some of Wisconsin’s water. Nestle lost. He also played a role in the fight against Exxon Mobil’s proposed Crandon mine up north. Exxon Mobil lost. Ed was kind of a corporate dragon-slayer.
I also admired Ed for taking on the Wisconsin Department of Corrections for its flagrant use of solitary confinement at the Supermax prison at Boscobel. Ed prevailed here, too, with the help of the ACLU. He told me — with indignation he always had at the ready — that “everyone’s worried about human rights abuses down in Guantanamo when we’ve got them right here in southwest Wisconsin.”
I got to know Ed better after he launched Fighting Bob Fest in 2002. It was a brilliant idea. Excavate and celebrate Wisconsin’s progressive heritage, embodied by Fighting Bob La Follette. Lubricate the event with beer, as Garvey’s friend Jim Hightower liked to say. And then recharge everyone’s batteries for the work ahead. The first year, Ed didn’t know whether anyone would show up in Baraboo, but show up they did, and some years the crowd swelled to over 8,000 people.
Ed was a worrier. Every year, as the event grew closer, he’d worry that we weren’t going to get big-name draws, and he’d fret about the possibility of rain, so he eventually brought Fighting Bob Fest to the Alliant Center for a few years. (Now it’s happily at Breese Stevens, under the auspices of The Progressive and the Cap Times.)
The last time I saw Ed was, fittingly, at Fighting Bob Fest last September, where his appearance was met with a standing ovation.
Ed was our organizer, our preacher, and sometimes our comedian. He was a happy warrior. On his old website, fightingbob.com, he always hung an old Irish proverb: “Is this a private fight, or can anyone join?”
Walt Whitman described himself as “garrulous to the very end.” Garvey was “principled to the very end.” Once when he was asked why he was so steadfast in his beliefs, he responded with characteristic self-deprecation: “I’ve got too many friends for me to sell out.”
I tried to call Ed a couple weeks ago. The number I had for him was disconnected. The new number I got for him went to his daughter, I think, who asked me if I wanted to leave a message. I said, “Don’t worry about it,” and didn’t leave my name.
I just wanted to see how he was doing. I just wanted to thank him for all he’d done.
Matt Rothschild is the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.