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An Exemplar of Civic Conversation

Owen Coyle, a friend of over thirty years duration, passed away a week ago and the time since has been filled with memories of political collaborations and stories shared about our other adventures. The collaborations started with sharing the same office at the Wisconsin headquarters of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees for fifteen years. When we first met his life was already rich with compelling stories and he helped launch me on my way to many of my own.

Where to begin with his stories? Underage Navy veteran of World War Two? Progressive supporter of the farm implement strikes round and about Moline, Illinois? Budding investigative reporter of the early Civil Rights movement, after a detour through a fine arts program? Aide to a visionary municipal leader? Communications advisor to many officials and causes? Or citizen activist on matters large and small? Or picking up the Habitat for Humanity hammer at seventy-plus in the delta country of Mississippi?

This week of fond remembrance has helped me see that he was much more than the sum of these parts. I realize now that he was one of those who I regard as a model of active citizenship. He was constantly engaged and looking to leave things better than he found them. He certainly had a point of view: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. In the wake of shared difficulties (usually reactions from powers-that-be to our assaults on the status quo) he would assure me that one significant measure of a life was the types of people one had managed to make angry. In the wake of problems solved he was just as quick to point out that another measure of a life was the diversity of people one could work with. Let’s say Owen was blessed by abundance in both categories.

It was this abundance in his friendships, partnerships, and information sources that made me think of him as one of my models of civic engagement. For over forty years he participated in a weekly luncheon discussion of issues of the day. His conversation partners in these luncheons included Republican and Democrat leaders, business executives, government administrators, old Milwaukee socialists, labor union officials, peace and civil rights activists, and clergy. But at the end of the day those partners were exchanged for cab drivers, machinists, office workers, and nurses. He could bring something to and learn something from both conversational environments.

Owen had an abiding interest in helping people understand how government worked and what policy meant in every day terms. If you were his favored political candidate he could not abide ill-informed comments out of your mouth. If he was backing your cause he did everything he could to help shape a clear and compelling message based on facts. He held us all to high standards.

Wisconsin noted the passing of another notable character this week. One of the four co-conspirators of the bombing of the Army Math Center on the University of Wisconsin campus in 1970, Dwight Armstrong, died at 58. Owen and Dwight were both opponents of the Vietnam War. They obviously had very different ideas about how to shape public opinion about that fracas. Oddly enough their paths crossed a number of times in some fairly unusual ways, including Owen calling in a labor union favor to have Dwight transferred to a less dangerous cell block in the prison where he was doing time for a methamphetamine manufacturing conviction in the 1980s. No doubt some large part of Owen probably thought of Dwight as a total knot head. At the same time, he knew full well the passions of the time and the chain reactions of bad decisions that young men seem so prone to. Owen was a compassionate grouch.

Owen would have probably found it amusing and predictable that a week after he and Dwight died that the Sunday New York Times devoted forty column inches to Dwight. Owen tallied zero inches in the national record. But here in Wisconsin, Owen’s legacy runs deep. He shaped conversation and touched lives. He taught so many how to talk and argue in ways that brought out the best in them. And he never so much as touched a bomb after his World War Two service.