A Superior effort

A sense of disconnect and a missing link led to the first Superior Days event in 1986. "It was 1985," said Geof Wendorf, one of the Superior Days founders. "We were running double digit unemployment." Northwestern Wisconsin was stuck in recession...

Superior Days old
Forged a trail to Madison that has been traveled for 25 years. The annual event showcases grassroots political action at its best, said legislators in Madison. (Submitted photos)

A sense of disconnect and a missing link led to the first Superior Days event in 1986.

"It was 1985," said Geof Wendorf, one of the Superior Days founders. "We were running double digit unemployment." Northwestern Wisconsin was stuck in recession as the rest of the state recovered.

Area leaders met and decided the best way to stimulate the local economy was by linking to the state and nation via a four-lane U.S. Highway 53. At the time, a 44-mile "missing link" of two-lane highway created a transportation stumbling block, and state administrators proclaimed it would never be a four-lane expressway.

"Because we feel so far away, isolated, removed, we can either complain or we can do something about it," said Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, who was a state assemblyman at the time.

A state committee had recently stopped by Superior for a meeting, he said, and been impressed by the area and its people. Since the state wouldn't pay to transport the entire Legislature north, the north came to them. Residents from all walks of life drove 335 miles to bring their concerns and needs to Madison. Next week, for the 25th time, Northwest Wisconsin citizens will bridge the gap during Superior Days.


"I perceive it as one of the most positive efforts in Wisconsin politics," said Frank Boyle, former state assemblyman and a Superior Days founder. If there is any optimism or hope to be found in the political system, he said, it is in the grassroots effort. Many similar delegations have sprung up over the years from different regions of Wisconsin.

"I think it's very helpful for every legislator to get views from every part of the state," said Rep. Marlin Schneider, D-Wisconsin Rapids. "To hear from people who live there is incredibly useful."

Douglas County Supervisor Lew Martin has taken part in Superior Days since the second year. He said it helps to have other areas of the state lobbying, because many of the issues they have affect the entire state.

But of all the events that have sprung up, Schneider said, Superior Days is still the best.

It began with about 90 people from several Northwest Wisconsin counties.

"It was a regional effort right from the start," said event coordinator Fariba Pendleton with Douglas County UW-Extension. "The strength of Superior Days is eight counties coming together and being a voice for northern Wisconsin."

With no template to draw on, pioneers opted to visit legislators in their offices and serve a wild game feed for informal socializing. Fish, venison and wild rice were on the menu. Over the years, the delegation has brought along Northland rock and roll bands to perform and even a University of Wisconsin-Superior play called "Superior, You Can't Get There From Here."

Wendorf said when the UWS actors and jazz band traveled south to perform, legislators took notice. A youth delegation began making the trip in 1990.


"We started with four 4-H kids," said longtime educator and 4-H leader Pat Luostari of Cloverland.

Today, 35 to 50 youth from Ashland, Washburn, Bayfield and Douglas County schools as well as college students make their voices heard in Madison each year. They bring a freshness to the process, asking questions no one else will, Luostari said. And they put adults on their best behavior.

"We are not just lobbyists and community volunteers, we're role models," Luostari said.

Youth delegates also get the chance to learn by doing. Along with lobbying, they spend time shadowing legislators and agency staff to get a first-hand glimpse at government in action.

"It's such an empowering process," Pendleton said.

For Martin, the high point of the trip is watching the young people walk into the Capitol and crane their necks to see everything.

"It's helpful for them to see how difficult the legislative process is," Schneider said. "To take a lesson home as well as to bring a lesson to us."

"These kids are our future leaders," Luostari said. "If we want to have future leadership, this is the kind of thing to support."


Superior Days is about connections, patience and perserverence. Completing the "missing link" of Highway 53 was on the agenda for more than a dozen years before the final section was built. Other achievements that received a nudge from Superior Days include the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center, numerous construction projects on the UWS campus and legislation controlling the spread of aquatic invasive species.

"I think we really accomplished something," Martin said, although it takes time to get results.

Rep. Nick Milroy, D-Superior, said that is the strength of Superior Days. Delegates plant seeds early.

"The legislative process can be slow and cumbersome," he said, but "Good people working hard on issues, with time it pays off."

For the thousands of participants over the years, Boyle said, Superior Days has been a window into the legislative process; a lesson in making a difference. While making friends in Madison, delegates also form stronger bonds with members of the group.

"It's all about relationships," Pendleton said.

Luostari's husband, Larry, is chairman of the Cloverland board of supervisors. By cultivating relationships with legislators and agency staff, he knows who can help Cloverland, Maple, Poplar and other towns with their issues.

"Superior Days has benefitted Cloverland in unbelievable ways," he said. The Cloverland chairman said he may not bring back something next week, but he's gained knowledge and made partnerships that will serve the town for years to come.


For Milroy, Superior Days is also a chance to see friendly faces from home. During one week of the year, Boyle said, the capital is filled with local people.

Youth, seniors, government officials, everyday citizens and business leaders from Northwest Wisconsin will converge on Madison next week. As Superior Days celebrates it's silver anniversary, organizers expect it to someday reach a golden 50 years.

"We are always going to be 335 miles from Madison," Jauch said. "The real key is linking decision-making to the north."

As Douglas County Supervisor Mary Bergman, a one-year veteran of Superior Days, put it, "We can do much better together than we can do on our own."

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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