Not more than a week into my new job as the CEO of the Greater Madison CVB, I met a man that would both help define my role in the Mad City and teach me life lessons that would steer my career as a Destination Marketing consultant.
As I was introduced to George Nelson at the venerable Madison Club (and, ironically, where George and I last spoke), he cocked his head and said, with a wry smile, "so you're the new guy at the Convention & Visitors Bureau, ehh? Would that mean that you would be supportive of a Con-ven-tion Cen-ter?" He strung those last couple words out as one would for a child struggling to grasp a new concept. You see, the CVB I had just inherited had sat out the recently failed convention center referendum. George was taking his measure of the new kid in town.
I smiled, shook his hand and assured him that I would be very supportive of such a concept. He clasped his other hand on my shoulder and said, "we'll get alone just fine," as he turned to leave.
Two years later, as the victory party for the razor-thin Monona Terrace Convention Center referendum win wound down and the clean-up crews moved into the ballroom at the Concourse Hotel, he clasped that same hand on that same shoulder, smiled, and said, "You know what I like about you, Billy? You haven't lived here long enough to know we couldn't do this."
How could I have not, with George Nelson leading the way?
In those two years, I had learned so much from the man that, I quickly learned after our first meeting, was the driving force behind realizing Mayor Paul Soglin's vision for turning an old movie house into a spectacular Performing Arts Center on State Street years before my arrival. And, in 1990, the Mayor had once again turned to his "go-to" guy to lead the fight to realize Frank Lloyd Wright's vision of Monona Terrace.
It was George who put the smartest minds from both sides of the political spectrum together to strategize how the referendum would (not could) be won. Never mind those two people would have rather participated in a Polar Plunge than spend two minutes in the same room together. George simply expected them to put aside their differences for the good of Madison.
George expected that a lot. He didn't expect people to do what he wanted. He simply expected they would do the right thing for the future of the city, county and state.
He expected, even in the darkest moments of the campaign (and there were several when many around him believed all hope was lost), that we would all personify his eminent positivity in the face of overwhelming challenges. Not unlike the old Donna Karan commercials, George willed us to never let the opposition (or the electorate) see us sweat.
He taught us how to collaborate and how to connect the dots in a city that didn't like its dots connected. He taught us that touching Madison's soul wouldn't be done with the logic of statistics and impact figures. Indeed, it was about communicating that the downtown had lost a magical spark that those who came of age in the '50s, '60s and '70s desperately missed…and that our message of downtown salvation had to come from the heart.
And, he did it all with that confident smile...and an occasional wink that bordered upon conspiratorial when among friends. George Nelson willed Madison to be sensational.
He was, as my Dad would say, a prince. Madison Magazine called him the "Godfather of Big Ideas."
Two years after I left the GMCVB to launch Zeitgeist, I was as out of the local public consciousness as one could get. When George saw the list of the 30 or so people that had been selected to cut the ribbon at the Grand Opening of Monona Terrace, he reportedly asked, "where's Geist?" He certainly didn't need to add me to the already bloated list. I never would have been any the wiser and I certainly didn't expect the honor…but he wouldn't hear of it. So, there I was…one of the first private sector people to scissor the oversized ribbon. That FLW-orange piece of cloth hangs framed today in our office. That's just the kind of guy George was.
Not that I think it really mattered to George...but it's sad to think that so few people know that, while Mayor Paul Soglin presided over the renaissance of Downtown Madison, it was George Nelson we all should have thanked for greasing the wheels for the city's rebirth.
We lost an amazing man last week at the all too young age of 76.
But, each time I see Monona Terrace glisten off the lake or the vibrant streets of Downtown filled with throngs of residents and visitors alike, I'll look to the heavens and return that conspiratorial wink.
Thank you, George. Thanks for so much.
Photo Credit: Madison Magazine