Why We Moved to Madison

In the summer of 1984, Betsy and I were living in Ann Arbor, where we met as undergrads. (Perhaps you’ve heard the story about the first time we met in our dorm at U-M, and she suggested we get married. No? Okay, note for future post in this blog.)

We were already married, both working, and figuring out where we’d land after Ann Arbor. Betsy, we figured, with her RN/BSN degree, would not have trouble finding a nursing job anywhere, and I was applying for MSW programs to follow up my BA in Psychology. The University of Minnesota was one of the programs that accepted me.

Just before leaving to drive to the Twin Cities so I could meet with people and we could arrange housing, none other than Carolyn Helmke, sister of my dear old friend George and a UW student, asked if we could stop in Madison for a night to take care of her friend’s cat and plants. (Friend having been delayed in getting back to Madison.)

Madison being right on the way to the Cities, we said No Problem. Check out a new town. We arrived late at night in a thunderstorm, found the apartment and key, and took care of things.

We awoke to a gorgeous August day, went outside (the apartment was on a street called State St.) and promptly fell in love with downtown Madison. The Capitol, the Memorial Union, coffee shops, friendly people, all that. While sitting on a bench at the campus end of State, we were approached by someone who seemed likely to be a student.

The descriptor “hippie” came to mind. Long braided hair with flowers, flowing sun dress, and a greeting that went: “Hey? Hi! Um, you two, like, aren’t by any chance looking for a sublet, are you? Like a sweet apartment I need to bail on because I like moved into this co-op.”

“No thanks,” we said. “Heading to Minnesota today. Good luck though!”

But she was not giving up. “Do you have to go to Minnesota? Don’t you love Madison?”

“We just got here late last night to do a favor – it’s our first time in Madison,” I said. “I’m going to grad school at Minnesota.”

“You JUST got here? You haven’t had time to really see Madison. It’s the bomb. The lakes, the vibe, the history, the campus. Can you at least stay one more day? Because you may not know this but my new coop – it’s called Nottingham Co-op – is having like a community dinner tonight. Clothes optional. You two can be my guests! Pleeeeease???”

This was getting interesting. ”Sure,” we said. We got the address and our new friend said we could pick up her apartment key and take a look later. “You can’t beat the rent,” she said, “and it’s a great location!”

Betsy and I started talking about what would make us change plans suddenly. “I mean,” she said, all hippie-like, “what if we like, love the apartment and we put off grad school and we both find jobs here? Maybe this was, like, meant to be!” We laughed.

I was thinking about the clothes-optional dinner tonight. Later that day we walked into the Nottingham kitchen, and there she was, the woman with (maybe) our new apartment key, kneading bread topless. Er, toplessly. Without a top.

Betsy and I arrived clothed, but we managed to feel right at home anyway. The food was good — lots of whole grains, veggies, and tofu. And then we saw the apartment, and man, what a small third floor flat. The most distinguishing feature was the bathroom, which had no sink. (You brushed in the kitchen sink.) Also, the shower was a rigged-up garden hose. But it had running water! And what a deal with rent.

It turned out to be a great home for our first year in Madison. Betsy got a job as a pediatric nurse at UW Hospital and Clinics (despite a hiring freeze, and lucky them, to get Betsy!) and I got my first 3 Madison jobs as 1) a personal care attendant, 2) a nursing assistant in a nursing home, and 3) pizza driver for Dominoes.

A few months later I’d get hired by Options in Community Living, a life-changer for me. Betsy, after some other types of nursing, is back at UW. I’m not working for Options, but did for 19 years and am on the Board and still very connected. And yes, we are still in Madison, after 36 years. And still together, after 36 years. Maybe I’ll go to grad school someday.

Thank you, Carolyn’s friend who needed some quick plant and cat help. Thank you, Nottingham Co-op woman, for eyeing two people who clearly were meant to be here. Thank you, Betsy, for making this life in Madison so good!



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