Today is the 2020 Wisconsin Spring Election (for more information on voting, visit MyVote Wisconsin). Author and local journalist Rob Zaleski shares his motivation for writing Ed Garvey Unvarnished: Lessons from a Visionary Progressive.
In 2011, shortly after Republican Scott Walker was elected Wisconsin’s governor, Ed Garvey, a dynamic and widely respected progressive activist from Burlington, and I had 17 in-depth interviews. We discussed a myriad of issues related not only to Walker’s victory but to Garvey’s remarkable life—including his sterling accomplishments as an environmental crusader and three failed attempts at public office. Those interviews, we figured, would make for an engrossing, thought-provoking book.
In our final interview, Garvey revealed that he was about to seek a publisher for a second book he’d been working on about his time as the executive director of the National Football League’s players union. Fascinating guy that he was, I doubted there was a market for both his book and the one I was writing about him.
After Garvey succumbed to Parkinson’s in February 2017, I was taken aback by the many glowing tributes to him—not only from his many friends and admirers throughout Wisconsin but from media voices and politicians across the country.
“Ed Garvey was a hero to progressives in this state,” my colleague Natasha Kassulke pointedly noted over lunch. “And progressives have never needed a hero more than now. Rob, you’ve got to finish your book.”
She was right. So I went back to work, and in September of this past year—some eight years after Garvey and I met at his suburban Shorewood Hills home for our first interview—UW Press published Ed Garvey Unvarnished.
The Garvey name, I’ve discovered, still resonates. A number of readers have expressed their amazement at how candid and brutally honest Garvey was in our interviews. Several were intrigued by the access he afforded me—and the fact that he trusted me with many of his deep, personal feelings on a variety of issues.
But, as anyone who knew Garvey well can attest, brutal honesty was his trademark. It’s who he was. As for trusting me with his most sensitive inner-thoughts, I believe it had to do with the sense of urgency he felt from the moment we sat down for that first interview: he was fully aware that the clock was running out.
First and foremost, Garvey wanted to remind people of what he had stood for his entire life. But he also felt he hadn’t received his due for his work on behalf of the National Football League Players Association—a view that is shared in the book by two former NFLPA players’ reps: Pat Richter, who went on to become athletic director at the University of Wisconsin, and Mark Murphy, now president of the Green Bay Packers.
Prior to Garvey’s hiring as the NFLPA’s executive director in 1971, most players worked part-time in the offseason. They had virtually no job security. Then, the average NFL salary was $24,000. Today it’s about $2.7 million.
“Look at what players have now,” Murphy marveled. “This was Ed’s dream. People thought we were crazy when the players went on strike in 1982 and demanded a percentage of the league’s gross [profits]. Our rallying cry was, ‘We are the game,’ which of course is true. Now the players do get a percentage of the gross, and everybody views it as a great system that’s working well for everybody. And it’s mainly because of Ed.”
Much as I admired what Garvey had accomplished in his NFLPA days, it’s not the main reason I wanted to do this book. I have interviewed thousands of people during my 30-plus years in the newspaper business. But no one quite like Ed Garvey.
Yes, he had a hair-trigger temper. And yes, he could be viciously sarcastic. In heated debates, he wouldn’t hesitate to go for his rival’s jugular. But I’ve never met a public figure—certainly never a politician—who was as decent, as forthright, and as determined to speak the truth as Ed Garvey. And I wanted people to know what a fascinating and unique person he was.
When he took a stance on a particular issue, he never checked the opinion polls or conferred with a bunch of high-falutin’ consultants. He did it because he believed it was the right thing to do. While he felt the Republican party was controlled by selfish, bigoted, wealthy old men, he routinely criticized the Democratic party for catering to the same well-heeled special interests as Republicans.
Ed Garvey, I came to realize, truly was one of a kind. My hope is that younger Americans who read his words will be inspired to seize his mantle.
Rob Zaleski is a freelance writer and award-winning columnist. He spent twenty-six years writing for The Capital Times in Madison.