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The Man in the Red Vest: Portage County

Did you know that former governor Dreyfus helped create today’s Wisconsin Public Television?

May 21, 2018
Lee Dreyfus

It was a simple idea: wear something that makes you stand out in a crowd. As chancellor of the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point in Portage County, Lee Dreyfus ’49, MA’52, PhD’58 wanted to make that students knew they could go to him for help, advice, or just to say hello, so he always wore a bright, red vest. But he did not need a vest to stand out: his straight-talking style made him one of Wisconsin’s most unforgettable political leaders.

A World War II veteran, Dreyfus enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, earning bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in communications. In 1962, he helped to create the UW’s Mass Communications Department and to develop the plan for Wisconsin’s six-station public-television network.

“His straight-talking style made him one of Wisconsin’s most unforgettable political leaders.”

That pioneering work opened the door for Dreyfus to become president, in 1967, of what was then known as the Wisconsin State University–Stevens Point. Under his leadership, that institution doubled in size.

In 1975, joined the Republican Party and announced he was running for governor. Party leaders weren’t exactly on board, and the state GOP put its endorsement and cash behind then–U.S. Representative Bob Kasten in the primary. That didn’t stop Dreyfus.

With virtually no money, he launched his unlikely gubernatorial campaign. He bought an old school bus and painted it like a locomotive and then, wearing his trademark red vest, addressed crowds from a platform at the back of the bus. A skilled orator, he always spoke off the cuff. He famously quipped, “Madison is 30 square miles surrounded by reality.” Dreyfus won the primary and the general election to become the state’s 40th governor.

Dreyfus announced that he would not seek re-election in 1982. Instead, he went on to serve as the chief operating officer of Sentry Insurance. He passed away in 2008.

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