Tommy Thompson ’63, JD’66 is one of Wisconsin’s most colorful and accomplished public figures, and the state and its flagship university owe much to his leadership and unwavering support.
The son of an Elroy, Wisconsin, grocer and teacher, Thompson paid his way through the University of Wisconsin by working as a bouncer and bartender on State Street during the 1960s. He earned both a bachelor’s degree from the UW in 1963 and a law degree in 1966. He ran for the state assembly in 1966, scoring a GOP primary upset.
Thompson served in the state capitol for 20 years, earning the rank of assistant minority leader in 1973 and minority leader in 1981. He was elected to an unprecedented four terms as governor, serving from 1987 until 2001.
As governor, Thompson was a political champion of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Under his leadership, the UW saw strong support for medical research and biotechnology, funding for building projects, and cooperation between state government and the university.
Throughout his life, Thompson’s love for the University of Wisconsin–Madison has been undiminished.
Thompson left the governor’s mansion in 2001 when then-president George W. Bush appointed him secretary of health and human services. In that role, Thompson worked to increase funding for medical research, provide healthcare for the uninsured, and improve Medicare and Medicaid. He held the cabinet position until 2005.
It is fitting that UW–Madison is launching a leadership center named after the longest-serving head of state in Wisconsin’s history. The Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership will be bipartisan and will bring together people across the political spectrum. Throughout his life, Thompson’s love for the University of Wisconsin–Madison has been undiminished.
“Going to a university transforms you,” Thompson said. “The stimulus, the intellectual capacity that you interact with — it makes you a whole different person. It gives you the opportunity and ability to do just about anything.”