Mad City 30 Years Later

It was great to be back in Madison.  I’d gone to grad school here at the University of Wisconsin's Geography Department in the 1980s and hadn’t been back to Madison since 2001, but from what I’d seen the previous night during my drive in, the city hadn’t changed much.  After I had checked into my motel room, I stayed up until about 2 a.m. working on a presentation.

A presentation, you ask?  Several months earlier while I was still in Qatar, I’d sent an email to a woman named Tanya who led a class of computer mapping students in the Geography department, told her that I’d be driving through Madison in September and wondered if I could give a presentation.  We corresponded these past few weeks as my plans firmed up, and I agreed to meet her today, Friday, at 11:30 a.m. to give my talk. 

My presentation was going to be four-fold:  1). The “old days” with some slides of the Geography department back in the 1980s, 2). Doing computer mapping in Qatar and living in the Middle East, 3). My current “Extreme Geography” road trip around America, and 4). Career advice in computer mapping.  I hadn’t had time to put together a presentation yet, which is why I was up until 2 a.m. the previous night in my Madison motel room working on the slide show.

I got up around 8 a.m. and after breakfast I called Tom, my former graduate advisor, who’d long since retired from the Geography department but was still living in Madison.  His wife answered the phone and was happy to hear my voice, then she handed the phone to Tom and we talked for a few minutes.  Tom had been my favorite professor during my grad school days, as well as a great advisor.  Indeed, he had been more like a friend than a professor.  We’d kept in touch all these years and it was great to talk to him again.  I was hoping to get together with him but, like me, Tom can be a bit reclusive and I totally respected that and didn’t want to push it.  Maybe I should've -- maybe not.  But instead we had a nice talk and it was great to hear his voice again.

Around 10 a.m. I drove over to the campus.  I thought it might be difficult to park my truck somewhere and I was right.  Not only is parking severely limited in Madison, given the 40,000+ students here, but the problem was compounded by my Thule cargo box on the top of my truck’s canopy, which is so high that I can’t enter most parking garages.  I love my gray Thule (pronounced “too-lee”) cargo box and I store lots of things there, mostly items I don’t need every day but that I still want to carry, like a gas container, extra clothes, an extra sleeping bag, and my Coleman grill.  But the box makes parking in a city challenging because it sits so high on the canopy.

Consequently I decided to drive over to the west side of campus, where I found a spot in a surface lot, then I walked into campus.  And walked.  And walked – yep, it was a long way.  But it was nice to walk among the college students again and see how things had changed.  Not too much since the 1980s, I’d say, except that college students now walk with their heads down, scanning their cell phones.  That’s about the biggest difference I noticed.

After walking all the way across campus, I finally reached Science Hall, the old red brick building landmark on the University of Wisconsin campus and home of the Geography department.  Back in the 1980s when I was a grad student here, I spent my entire life, it seemed, in Science Hall, so it was nice to be back.  I had a half-hour before my presentation, so I walked up to the fourth floor to see my old TA office.  The door to my office was locked but the hallway looked pretty much the same, and I was glad to see that the huge 3D plaster maps from the early 1900s, of places like Glacier National Park and Alaska, still lined the hallways of Science Hall.  Jeez, everything was still pretty much the same, so it seemed like I was in grad school here only yesterday.  Had it really been 30 years?

Finally around 11:30, I meandered up to the mezzanine and introduced myself to Tanya.  I was glad to see that a fairly large group, perhaps 15 students, had gathered – though I’m sure the pizzas Tanya had ordered for lunch explained the large turnout more than any desire to hear my scintillating words of wisdom.  I spoke for 90 minutes about all things geographic and it went pretty well – at least no one walked out – and hopefully I conveyed some useful information to these budding computer mappers.

The University of Wisconsin... 30 Years Later

 An Afternoon with an Old Friend

After I finished my talk, I walked around campus a bit more and then at 2 p.m. I headed up to the third floor of Science Hall to meet one of my former professors, Martin.  Martin, who’d recently retired, was the only faculty member who was here back in the 1980s, so he was probably the only person in Science Hall who remembered me.  He greeted me with a warm handshake and a big smile, and I could tell that he was sincerely happy to see me again.  I felt likewise because Martin was always one of my favorite professors and was always a genuinely likable fellow. 

We walked into Martin’s office and he said, “We’ve got all afternoon, Del.  What would you like to do?”  I was flattered that he’d given up his entire afternoon just to visit with me.  We chatted in his office for an hour about the “good ol’ days” and then walked over to the Terrace.  The Terrace, by the way, is a University of Wisconsin institution.  It’s the huge “backyard” of the Memorial Union and sits on the shore of Lake Mendota, so it provides an idyllic setting for an afternoon get-together with friends and colleagues while drinking beer and eating popcorn.  And during my grad school days, I spent many warm afternoons in the early fall and late spring here doing just that.

Martin and I had a nice talk, then around 4:30 we strolled back across the street to Science Hall where I said goodbye.  Martin embraced me warmly and told me how wonderful it was to reconnect, and I felt exactly the same.  Martin was always one of the kindest and most sincere professors I ever had the pleasure to meet at the University of Wisconsin, and I was glad to see that he hadn’t changed.

After saying goodbye, I headed up State Street, the vibrant commercial hub of Madison with dozens of cafes, bookstore, clothing stores, and bar-and-grills, walking nearly a mile to the state capitol building, then turned around and headed back to campus.  It had been 30 years since I was a student here but, once again – and except for the abundance of cell phones that students carried – it seemed like I was back in 1986. 

I continued walking across campus about a mile to the sporting complex and took a peek inside Camp Randall football stadium. When I was a student here, the UW football team was terrible and the stadium seated 55,000.  Now the football team is terrific and the stadium, accordingly, seats more than 80,000.  I spent a few minutes here, then wandered next door to the Field House to watch the Badger volleyball team play Ohio State.  I’m a big volleyball fan but was too busy in grad school to come over here and watch it.  This was, in fact, only the second time I’d ever been inside the fabled Field House; the first was during my graduation in 1986.  It was a great match, by the way, and the Badgers beat Ohio State 3-0.

It had been quite a day – with lots of walking – and it brought back a lot of good memories.  Though grad school was a challenge for me at times, my years at Wisconsin were some of the best of my life and it had been wonderful to relive a bit of that today.

An Afternoon with Martin, then Volleyball


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