When Mike Cudahy was just 9 years old, he created an international incident. It was the mid-1930s and he lived with his family in Warsaw, where his father served as U.S. ambassador to Poland.
A restless and inquisitive practical joker, the boy pilfered his father’s silver cigarette box one day and carefully replaced a single cigarette’s tobacco with a combustible blend of tissue paper and glue. That evening, a general in the Polish army visited Cudahy’s father to discuss the sorry state of Polish-American relations. As he chatted, the general reached for a smoke.
The discussion grew tense; the general huffed and puffed. And the booby trap exploded in his face, singeing his mustache.
Somehow, Cudahy’s prank found its way into The New Yorker magazine: “The general was so mad that he departed without bidding adieu to his host or hostess – a real diplomatic incident.”
From early on, Mike Cudahy was mischievous, with little regard for authority and an itch to cook up ideas. “That’s the way his mind worked,” says Bill Browne, his oldest friend.
Browne first met Cudahy at University School of Milwaukee. Cudahy had “bounced out” of a prep school in the East, Browne says, and he soon bounced out of University School, too.
“Give him a literature course and he’d never open a book,” says Browne. “Give him a science project and he’d get an A-plus.”
Last September, Cudahy launched his biggest project of all, merging the science and technology museum Discovery World with the new Pier Wisconsin, a Great Lakes education center along Lake Michigan. Starting with the building’s first architectural design – publicly lambasted and ultimately abandoned – the project has been Cudahy’s obsession. He’s tinkered and tweaked, rewiring lighting, adding glass elevator shafts and insisting several nonstructural arches be removed from the south concourse.
He’s also raised the money, putting his own into the $64 million project and leaning on friends to pitch in. For the grand opening, he threw a black-tie fundraiser for Milwaukee’s upper crust. In a matter of hours, he raised half-a-million bucks.
Never at a loss for words, Cudahy was as humble as he gets.
“I must have had five gazillion people come up and say, ‘This is the greatest thing to happen to Milwaukee,’ ” he said the next day. “And I said, ‘Okaaay, but it’s not that great.’ ”
Though he’s Milwaukee’s most well-known philanthropist, Cudahy is hard to typecast. He was a geek before the word was invented, an American playboy before Hef personified the term. Four times divorced, he’s now hard of hearing, tilts forward when he walks and wears his snow-white hair over his collar. He turns 83 on St. Patrick’s Day but is still fired with ambitions.
“You look around Milwaukee and there are Mike Cudahy fingerprints all over,” says former Gov. Tommy Thompson, a Cudahy pal for three decades. “He’s a builder. He’s a charmer.”
In a city whose most prominent public figures are mostly bland, retired or dead, Mike Cudahy stands out as larger than life – crusty, colorful, cranky and very influential.
Some little-known facts about Michael J. Cudahy: He’s fascinated with Judaism and once considered converting after visiting Israel. He owns a seaside home in Florida but seldom visits because he doesn’t like hanging out with “old geezers.” He holds court each month with a cadre of friends at Lake Park Bistro, where he orders an off-the-menu “Michael Cudahy Special” of chicken with carrots. He seldom gives money to his children (“You’ll drown them in complacency”). He’s filmed a travelogue of Milwaukee for the IMAX theater from the seat of a motorcycle. He hosts a yearly jazz festival at his home for friends and once recorded Nat King Cole at his home studio.
“This is the Mike all his friends know so well,” says Browne. “I’m not so sure the public knows this side.”
A high-school dropout who never went to college, Cudahy was co-founder and chief executive of a medical technology company, Marquette Electronics. He made a bundle – $153 million – when he sold out to General Electric in 1998. Since then, he’s been giving it away, donating $60 million personally and another $30 million through a foundation he created in 2000. He’s funded cultural organizations, kids’ groups and schools. He’s helped build art centers, theaters and museums. And he has forged a legacy as one of Milwaukee’s greatest – and perhaps its most unorthodox – philanthropists in history.
Bringing Home the Bacon
Family patriarch Patrick Cudahy, Mike’s grandfather, arrived here from Ireland with his family in the mid-1800s. At 13, after quitting school, Patrick took a job at John Plankinton’s meatpacking plant, rising to general manager by age 25. When Plankinton retired, he sold the largest share of the company to Patrick, who moved the company to a city that would assume his name, Cudahy.
Following the now archaic practice of primogeniture, Patrick Cudahy handed down the meatpacking empire and family riches to the eldest of two sons, Michael F. Cudahy, young Mike’s namesake. The inheritance proved more curse than blessing.
“Uncle Mike took over the company and sort of let the thing erode,” says Mike Cudahy. “The company didn’t grow for a long, long time.”
John C. Cudahy – Patrick Cudahy’s younger son and Mike’s father – inherited less of the family fortune, but was hardly deprived. While his older brother ran the company, young John went to Harvard University and the University of Wisconsin’s law school.
After college, John Cudahy ran the family’s real estate company for a while, developing Cudahy Tower Apartments at the lakefront. But as Mike tells it in his 2002 autobiography, Joyworks, his father’s path became one of glamour and intrigue. Handsome and outspoken, John Cudahy loved politics and ran for Milwaukee alderman, state senator and lieutenant governor – without success. But with Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1932, opportunity knocked. Helped by his generous campaign contribution to FDR, John Cudahy met Jim Farley, FDR’s campaign manager and a fellow Irishman.
“Farley said to my father, ‘Don’t worry, John. I’ll get you in,’ and boom, next thing you know he was ambassador to Poland,” says Mike Cudahy.
With his wife Katharine and family in tow, John Cudahy went to Warsaw, “a godforsaken place in those days, dark and cold and still devastated from World War I,” Mike Cudahy writes.
After two years abroad, the family returned to Milwaukee, though Mike’s dad remained in Europe. The Cudahys lived alternately on Terrace Avenue and at a large summer home called Hilltop near Brown Deer and Swan roads. Surrounded by woods and fields, Hilltop was a sanctuary, comfortable yet not lavish.
Meanwhile, Mike’s inquisitive side flourished, nurtured by his mother’s father, Harrison Reed, who ran a hardware store Downtown. On Sunday afternoon visits, Mike would head to his grandfather’s workshop in the garage.
He learned how to work a lathe and handle a soldering iron. The budding inventor figured out how to turn on a radio with an alarm clock long before the days of clock radios, and he once rigged a hidden microphone in his parents’ living room so he could eavesdrop on their conversation with his headmaster.
“I was tinkering around, taking things apart. And sometimes putting them back together,” Cudahy says wryly.
In 1937, Roosevelt tapped John Cudahy to serve as Minister of Ireland. By then he was a well-known diplomat, a friend to Charles Lindbergh and Joseph Kennedy.
So the whole family moved to Dublin. With few friends, Mike took up the HAM radio as a hobby. One day, while stringing an an-tenna line across the embassy roof, he stepped through a glass skylight and fell into the attic. His parents were furious.
Years later, as his autobiography recalls, Mike returned to the embassy in Dublin with his Irish friend, then Gov. Thompson. Sipping tea, they listened to the embassy’s social secretary tell a familiar story: “There was a very small lad years ago – the ambassador’s son at the time, I believe he was – who fell through a roof skylight at this lovely house and tragically died.”
Thompson, having heard Mike tell the story before, grinned. “Madam, ghosts are with us today,” he joked. “The lad who fell from the roof is still living and sits beside you as we speak!”
On another occasion, the Cudahys traveled to the U.S. Embassy in London to visit Joseph and Rose Kennedy and their children. Joe Kennedy was then ambassador to Great Britain.
“I was a kid, and so was Jack,” Cudahy recalls. “Bobby was there, too.”
When Jack Kennedy ran for president in 1960, Mike asked his mother if she planned to vote for their old acquaintance.
“No,” she retorted. “Don’t you remember when we were in England? That boy Jack wouldn’t stand up when I came into the room.”
John Cudahy next went to Brussels as U.S. ambassador to Belgium. This time, the family remained at home as Hitler’s forces began marching across northern Europe. When the Luftwaffe bombed Belgium in May 1940, the State Department learned of the attack from John, who heard bombs falling near the U.S. Embassy.
The author of several books, John Cudahy took a job as a journalist after Belgium. He had befriended Clare Boothe Luce and husband Harry Luce, founder of Time and Life magazines. In early 1941, on assignment for Life, Cudahy was granted a rare inter-view with Adolf Hitler at the Nazi leader’s Bavarian hideaway, the Eagle’s Nest.
“My old man must have had some guts,” marvels Cudahy.
His father finally returned to Milwaukee, and soon young Mike was drafted into the Army Air Corps. Halfway through basic training, on a Labor Day weekend, Cudahy received a frantic call from his mother. His father had been killed in a riding accident at Hilltop, thrown while training a young colt.
Mike Cudahy was 19. “I grew up in a big hurry,” he says. “I realized I had to take over as the head of the family.”
Mike’s TV Repair Shop
A food label, Milwaukee suburb and apartment tower, “Cudahy” has been a household name since Mike’s birth.
“Did Mike ever flaunt that?” asks his friend Bill Browne. “God no. There was never – and still isn’t – any pretext of wealth.”
Nor was he destined to join the family business. He sold the Patrick Cudahy stock he inherited from his father for about $100,000, Mike says.
“Mike had available to him many of the privileges of the well-fixed,” says his cousin Richard Cudahy, son of Michael F. and a judge on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, “although he didn’t take advantage of them because we went off on a different track. There was always an aura about him, that he had these unusual talents.”
Mike Cudahy’s track led to the Army’s Truax Field Radio School in Madison and radar school at Chanute Field in Illinois, where he developed his “radio hobby,” as he called it. He returned to Milwaukee after World War II and fell in love.
“I was 23,” he writes. “Mary Lee was an incredibly bright, fresh and pretty young girl of 22. We proved later that we were way too young for marriage.”
After Cudahy’s first child, Susie, was born, the “shackles” of family responsibility, as he says, began to tighten. The marriage fell apart, and in 1950, he moved to New York City. A passionate jazz fan, he hung out in the clubs and found a job as an audio man for NBC television.
Mike left NBC when a friend who worked for the Muzak Company hired him to design and sell a magnetic tape player system to pipe music into airplanes. Soon after, a sales rep for another manufacturer lured him to Chicago to develop music systems in railroad cars. That sales rep, Warren Cozzens, became Cudahy’s friend and mentor.
Cudahy joined Cozzens’ rep firm and promptly moved in with Warren and his wife Barbara in Evanston, Ill.
“Mike stayed in the attic,” remembers the couple’s son, Todd Cozzens. “I thought he was the coolest guy … free and easy. He was living life.”
But he didn’t want a life in sales. Cudahy persuaded Cozzens to close the firm and try their luck as manufacturers in Milwaukee. With each partner putting up $7,500, they rented a 1,600-square-foot building near Capitol Drive, hired several engineers and a secretary, and christened their firm Marquette Electronics Inc. They borrowed the name from Marquette University to give the company a touch of “intellectual class,” as Cudahy puts it.
Born without a business plan – or a product – Marquette Electronics started prospecting for ideas. Cudahy had befriended jazz great Ray Brown (bassist for Charlie Parker), and the two dreamed up the idea for an electronic bass that could be played on pedals. They sold their first T-BASS, as they called it, to bassist Jean Claude Jones for $300, says Cudahy, and built nine more.
But jazz musicians did not provide the most lucrative or fiscally reliable customer base. The T-BASS was dropped.
Still searching for a product, Warren Cozzens received a phone call one day from Northwestern University Medical School. A doctor wanted to know how data from electrocardiographs might be captured and permanently recorded. The conversation led to more discus-sions, and though they knew almost nothing about electrocardiography, Cudahy and Cozzens invented a groundbreaking system. It used the hospital’s network of phone lines to measure and record the electric waves generated by the heart.
The partners delivered the world’s first central EKG system to Northwestern Hospital in a rented truck in December 1964.
And off they went, creating a niche in the cutting-edge industry of medical electronics: Cozzens – a charismatic, 6-foot-5, gruff but gentle giant of a salesman – and Mike Cudahy – an enterprising iconoclast who first learned electronics at his grandfather’s workbench.
“Mike was the brains of Marquette and Warren was the heart,” says Todd Cozzens, who worked as a Marquette sales executive in the ’80s. And often the head and heart battled. Employees could hear Cudahy and Cozzens screaming at each other from their adjoining offices, the secretary they shared caught in the crossfire.
Over the years, Marquette won hundreds of patents for new inventions. It purchased a Northern Ireland company that made defibrillators, and did so long before the electric-shock devices became standard equipment in emergency rooms. By cultivating doctors at top hospitals like the Mayo Clinic and New York’s Mount Sinai, Cudahy and Cozzens compiled a wish list of medical devices that doctors lacked.
Small and fleet, Marquette edged out leviathan competitors IBM and Hewlett-Packard. And as it grew, the company moved to a sprawling building on Tower Avenue on the Northwest Side.
Missing a high school diploma didn’t seem to hold back the entrepreneur.
“I think if I had studied science more deeply,” Cudahy says, “I could have done more things. Maybe. The truth is, if you don’t have the degree, that doesn’t get you off the hook of studying. I have studied and studied and studied. When I first started with Marquette … I had to know electrocardiography cold, or else.”
Cudahy’s gregarious style set the tone for the now legendary Marquette culture. He opened a bar in the employees’ cafeteria and helped form a company vocal group cleverly named arRHYTHMia.
With his “Ten Golden Rules on How to Run an Organization,” Cudahy preached a philosophy that went against the very grain of corporate America: “Don’t have meetings. Don’t hire consultants. Never make an organizational chart. Ignore the competition. Preserve your sense of humor…”
He credits his father for his approach. “I think it was my father’s attitude, ‘Let the boy tinker,’” he says. “Innovation by definition is an idea away from the norm. I created an atmosphere by example – no penalties, no humility, no fear of being fired or demoted or laughed at.”
The result was a company without meetings, time clocks or neckties, a loose and freewheeling incubator for fresh thinking.
Dr. Fred Robertson was a San Diego anesthesiologist when Marquette recruited him to head its monitoring division. One day, he went out for a sandwich with Cudahy. “He was trying to make me understand the company,” Robertson recalls. “We came back to the office and Mike parked about a block away. ‘Don’t you have your own parking place?’ I asked. ‘Absolutely not,’ he said. ‘If you want a good parking place, come early.’ I thought that said a lot about the man. And the company.”
Robertson left Marquette but was hired back as its president and CEO. He now runs TomoTherapy, a Madison startup that develops radiation therapies for cancer patients. Cudahy is on his board.
“I had a blast at Marquette,” says Robertson. “Mike loved technology. He loved to dabble, to get his fingers into it. He thrives on getting involved.”
By 1998, Marquette was a $500-to-$600 million business with 3,400 employees and a net income approaching $30 million.
The industry had taken notice, including General Electric’s $5 billion medical division in Waukesha. Following the death of partner Warren Cozzens, a 74-year-old Cudahy decided he was ready to sell his “TV repair shop,” as he called it. He phoned GE Medical’s Jeff Immelt to plant the seed. Weeks later, in September 1998, Cudahy and Immelt met with GE Chairman Jack Welch at the top of Rocke-feller Center in New York.
As Cudahy recalls it, Welch and Cudahy exchanged small talk over lunch about their Irish lineage, then got down to business. Cudahy had been instructed by his board to ask for $50 per share of Marquette stock. Welch offered $40.
“A hell of a handsome multiplier, you know,” said Welch. “Your stock is only selling at $26…”
From his wallet, Cudahy pulled out a 1926 Irish half crown.
“Hey, let me see that,” Welch said. “Nice coin. But I can’t flip. I had a board meeting this morning, and they authorized me to offer somewhere between $40 and $45…”
“Well, I guess you’re offering me $45 a share,” Cudahy replied.
Welch’s napkin fell to the floor. “I guess you’re right,” he said. “God, the board is gonna kill me…”
Marquette Medical Systems, the startup that once had no product to sell, was now selling itself to General Electric, one of the world’s biggest corporations, for $900 million. Under Marquette’s stock-option plan, 57 longtime employees made more than $500,000, and several became millionaires. Cudahy’s cut? A reported $153 million.
Six years later, 800 people showed up at the Pabst Theater for Cudahy’s 80th birthday party. Nearly all were former “Marquetters.” A woman followed Mike around with a giant shamrock fastened to a pole so guests could find him in the mob. In a videotape, employees saluted their former boss with showers of compliments for their maverick leader and benevolent dictator.
“What you see is what you get,” said veteran employee Steve Books. “What’s inside of Mike comes out.”
Giving It Away
Retirement didn’t suit Cudahy’s metabolism. It seemed to make him sick. Maybe he had pneumonia, he thought. Or a brain tumor.
He checked into a Florida medical clinic for a complete checkup. Nothing wrong. Back in Milwaukee, he had more tests at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Again, all negative.
“Maybe what I need is a new purpose in life,” he told himself.
In 2000, he founded the Michael J. Cudahy Charitable Foundation, with a particular focus on bettering the lives of Milwaukee’s children. His new job would be to give away his money.
He’d already given $2.5 million to the Medical College for a new cardiovascular center, and most of the funds for a $12 million math and computer science center at Marquette University, clad in marble and named after his mother.
The high school dropout was particularly generous to education. A lecture hall was named in his honor following his contribution to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s business school. His name graced the Milwaukee School of Engineering’s student center after he donated $5 million to the college. And his gift of $1.5 million to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore created the Michael J. Cudahy Professorship in Cardiology.
He was just warming up.
To help impoverished kids on the Northwest Side, Cudahy donated 50 acres of his Hilltop farm and $5 million for a new YMCA, named after his father. To clear the way, he disassembled the family house and reconstructed it plank by plank, doorknob by doorknob on a property outside of Milwaukee, where he lives today.
The one-time horse farm still evokes memories of his past. In the lobby of the “Y” hangs a painting of his father dressed in riding clothes. And, in tribute to his mother, Cudahy petitioned the city to change 91st Street back to its original name, Swan Road. “My mother cherished that name,” he says.
The Cudahy Foundation donated $3 million to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, the largest donation in the Club’s history. At the end of 2004, the foundation reported assets of $68.2 million, after contributing $8.6 million to 27 different groups, from Habitat for Humanity to Pius XI High School to the Latino Community Center.
Before launching the foundation, Cudahy made personal donations of at least $60 million, he says. He was one of the top contributors to the Milwaukee Art Museum addition, contributing $8.3 million for the fountains and garden bearing his family’s name.
But Cudahy’s style of giving has also generated controversy.
In 2000, his old friend, Super Steel founder and CEO Fred Luber, came looking for help in renovating the Pabst Theater. A Pabst board member, Luber told Cudahy of plans to add a bar to the theater’s lobby. “Why not name it Cudahy’s Irish Pub?” Luber suggested temptingly.
Cudahy loved the idea and kicked in $1 million. But most board members wanted to call the bar “Pabst Winter Garden.” Cudahy’s resulting ire made the morning paper, and after some public verbal sparring, the German-named theater decided to adopt an Irish pub.
Two years later, then-Mayor John Norquist suggested selling the city-owned theater to Cudahy – for $1. The Pabst had been subsi-dized for years by taxpayers. Let Cudahy eat the costs, Norquist figured.
Talk show hosts Charlie Sykes and Mark Belling, who had previously targeted Cudahy for his support of mass transit, assailed the deal as an undemocratic giveaway. But today, the Pabst is a successful nonprofit, overseen by Cudahy, with no city subsidy.
As with other ventures, Cudahy groomed a young unknown to operate the Pabst, a music promoter from Chicago named Gary Witt. Cudahy first came across Witt’s name on the Internet and invited him to Milwaukee.
“I put on a suit and came up, and in walks Mike in a pair of shorts with an Early Times whiskey in his hand,” recalls Witt. “It was 11 a.m.” After a tour of the theater, the two sat in Mike’s car and talked for a couple of hours.
Witt took the job.
“I had never run a theater before,” he says. Cudahy told him, “You’ll learn.”
Last year, Witt booked nearly 200 acts into the Pabst, up from 65 when he first started in 2002, and for the first time in decades, the theater turned a profit.
Witt and Cudahy expanded their reach in September 2005 and took over the Riverside Theater, which was owned by Towne Realty and had been shuttered for months.
It was two octogenarians – Cudahy and Joe Zilber, chairman of Towne – who sealed the deal. Cudahy, then 81, and Zilber, then 87, met for the very first time at Bacchus restaurant in the Cudahy Towers. Over drinks, they came to an agreement.
“We don’t need any goddamn lawyers,” Cudahy told Zilber, forgoing a written contract for a handshake. “Our word is good.”
Today, hanging in the Riverside’s lobby, smiling at each other from opposite walls, are portraits of the two pleased partners, Joe Zilber and Mike Cudahy.
There’s a sharp division between the public and private Mike Cudahy. He won’t tolerate a reporter’s phone calls to his home and insisted his place of residence not be revealed in this article. Yet the public Cudahy will ham it up in a crowd, with a self-deprecating “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” style.
The multimillionaire often buys clothes on the Internet, usually made to fit. His standard attire: striped Brooks Brothers shirts with a white collar, khaki trousers, black blazer, navy-blue knit tie. In summer it’s deck shoes and jeans, or maybe pink Bermuda shorts.
Another trademark: Cudahy’s choice of whiskey, Early Times. Far from top-shelf, the blended brand is something he began drinking 40 years ago just to annoy a snobbish friend. “It hasn’t killed me yet,” Cudahy says.
Cudahy also takes a lot of ribbing for driving used cars. He owns two Saab convertibles, both dark green with four-speed transmissions, both seven years old with around 100,000 miles on each of them. He keeps one in Florida, one in Milwaukee.
Cudahy also owns a private jet, a Hawker XP eight-passenger aircraft with a giant shamrock on its tail. The jet was a business expense when he ran Marquette. In recent years, he’s used it to fly governors and mayors and business leaders around the United States and Europe to study transit systems and models of economic development.
But if anything sets tongues wagging, it’s Cudahy’s marital history. Divorced four times, he doesn’t dodge the issue. In fact, “he brags about it,” says Luber. All four wives are named in the dedication of his book. “And they all thanked me for it,” Cudahy says.
In his book, he’s self-critical about his divorces. “It seems to demonstrate that I have been careless in my judgment of women, or in-tolerant, or immature, or impossible to live with, none of which appears to be a very nice quality,” he writes. “It was all so perfectly logical each time I stepped up to the altar…”
Today he lives with his fourth wife, Lisa, who is significantly younger than him. They got divorced, too, but reunited and now live together unmarried. They’ve known each other for 20 years. An equestrian, Lisa owns four horses and competes nationally. She also serves on the board of the Women’s Health Foundation, run by former first lady Sue Ann Thompson.
“He and Lisa are very well matched,” says Sue Ann, who calls Mike Cudahy “as close to me as my brother or father.”
“Most people only change careers four or five times, much less spouses,” Sue Ann continues. “But he respects all of his past wives and his children…”
Cudahy has six children, five stepchildren and eight grandchildren. His second daughter, Julie Cudahy, most closely followed in his footsteps: fascinated with electronics as a child, she’s a high-school dropout who got a GED.
In 1980, while she was working at a local manufacturer, her father asked her to join Marquette Electronics. “But I was an employee at the company, period,” she says. “And people respected both of us because of that.”
Julie says she and her siblings were never pampered. Once she asked her dad for money to buy a car. “First he said, ‘Hell no,’” Julie says. “Then he thought about it and said, ‘All right, I’ll lend you the money. But I’m going to charge interest.’”
She bought a Toyota pickup. “And I paid him back,” she says.
Julie Cudahy also reveals the humanity behind her father’s practicality. When she became pregnant with his first grandson, it didn’t take much for Julie and other mothers at Marquette to persuade Mike to start a daycare at the plant, one of the first of its kind in the country.
Crabby Old Man
A few years ago, a Milwaukee arts group applied for Cudahy Foundation funding.
Trustees made an appointment to meet the director and tour the small center. But the director was woefully unprepared for questions about the center’s budget, and after a thorough grilling was turned down by the foundation.
“They have a very short rope,” a Milwaukee fundraiser says. “If you don’t come across as fiscally sound and financially astute, they don’t come through with an investment.” Cudahy, the source adds, can be “a cross between an old-money philanthropist and a venture capitalist.”
In that role, Cudahy can be brusque and pushy. “You just have to push back,” says John Norquist. “That brusque thing is not a personal attack.”
Cudahy uses his temper as a tactical weapon, says Tommy Thompson. “He always tells me, ‘I lose my temper to get things done. If I’m nice all the time, people won’t take me seriously.’”
Attorney Franklyn Gimbel, chairman of the Wisconsin Center District, says that Cudahy’s demanding style gets results. “People who write checks are wonderful. But I don’t think the city gets the best bang for the buck … Mike pushes people around, and that’s OK.”
But some complain about that style.
“It’s always a shakedown with him,” says another fundraiser. Before agreeing to donate, Cudahy will often set conditions or demand contributions in return. When asked to consider buying naming rights to the former Milwaukee Arena, he wanted a skywalk linking the Midwest Airlines Center to Discovery World when it was located at the public museum, says the fundraiser.
By comparison, the late Jane Pettit, Milwaukee’s Grande Dame of philanthropy, gave with no strings attached.
“They certainly were opposites,” says Fran Croak, Pettit’s attorney and advisor. “Jane had no desire to micromanage anything.”
But Luber notes that Pettit’s wealth was inherited, whereas Cudahy’s fortune was self-made. “It’s his money,” says Luber, part-owner with Cudahy in the Cudahy Towers. “Michael primarily gives to projects he can manage.”
Pettit and Cudahy knew each other since they were teens through their fathers, John Cudahy and Harry Lynde Bradley, co-founder of the Allen-Bradley Co. In fact, Cudahy was one of the last people outside of Pettit’s family to meet with her before she died in 2001. Spreading out architectural drawings on a table at the Milwaukee Country Club, he asked her to give to Discovery World. She agreed to commit $2 million, but Croak “chiseled it down to one million,” Cudahy complains.
Though he has succeeded her as the city’s biggest philanthropist, his aggressive style doesn’t project the almost saintly aura of Pettit.
“He’s a very misunderstood person,” says Todd Cozzens, the son of Cudahy’s old partner, who now runs a medical software firm in Massachusetts. “But people who know Mike know he has no ulterior motives. Mike wants to improve the city’s culture, to strive for more than mediocrity.”
Weeks after it opened, Discovery World’s CEO Christine Rodriguez stepped down to spend more time with her family in Los Angeles. Rodriguez, a former vice president at Rockwell International, had agreed to work with Cudahy until Discovery World opened. “It was a challenge for me,” she says. “He’d get in my face and I’d get in his face.”
Her biggest challenge was establishing organizational governance: scheduling executive meetings, setting rules for board members, assuring donors there was accountability at an institution overseen by such a freewheeling personality.
“I said, ‘Mike, we are in the big leagues now. We have to show we can be sustained,’” says Rodriguez. “It kind of goes against his concept, being the entrepreneur he is.”
Yet she’d do it all over again, she says. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with a legend.”
The legend himself is now serving as Discovery World’s interim CEO while searching for Rodriguez’s replacement. Weekdays, weekends and evenings, Cudahy’s green Saab can be seen parked at the museum.
“I’ve been walking the building as the crabby old man, making notes about what’s wrong,” he says. “I’m sure somebody could say mind your own business. But that is my business.”
For months during the construction of Discovery World, a huge sign on the building’s stark, white exterior bore the message: “Who Runs the World?”
Some people joked that it was Michael Cudahy.
Nothing illustrates his toughness like his 16-year-old involvement with Discovery World. At the invitation of its legendary founder Bob Harland, Cudahy became board president in 1991 and promptly cleaned house, easing out the longtime trustees – “fossils,” as he describes them.
The science museum moved from its cramped space in the Downtown library to the Milwaukee Public Museum in 1996. The move coincided with the construction of the IMAX theater. Cudahy put up more than a quarter of the $16 million construction costs of the combined project.
But within five years, Roger Bowen, then the public museum’s president, began to question the partnership. “Discovery World was a marriage of convenience that didn’t make sense,” says Bowen, who now lives in Washington D.C. “The public museum coveted that space, and we were trying to make some arrangement with Discovery World.”
Negotiations ensued. “My pitch to Mike was, why not donate it to the museum?” Bowen says.
But Cudahy didn’t bite. “We said, give us enough money so we can build elsewhere,” Cudahy says.
Cudahy, meanwhile, had become enamored with the S/V Denis Sullivan, the 19th-century schooner replica being built at Municipal Pier. He explored the project while overseeing the Cudahy Gardens at the Milwaukee Art Museum next door. In May 2002, he proposed the construction of a new $30 million center at the lakefront to showcase the schooner’s Great Lakes education program.
But the proposed design of Pier Wisconsin, as it came to be called, was lampooned as a monstrosity. With 90-foot walls and a 140-foot mast at its center, the 70,000-square-foot structure cantilevered over Lake Michigan’s waters. Worse, the massive all-white building seemed a poor facsimile of the Art Museum’s acclaimed Calatrava addition.
“It was not a mature piece of work,” one architect says.
Cudahy claimed Calatrava told him he approved of the plan, but the architect said through a spokesman that the design “ridiculed” his building. David Gordon, the Art Museum’s executive director, called the design “a beastly blob,” and the enraged Cudahy called Gordon “a hothead.”
The Harbor Commission delayed approval, and Cudahy dug in his heels, his ego wounded. He swore he’d take the whole damn project to Racine if Milwaukee didn’t want it.
“This will kill the project. That I promise you,” Cudahy told the Journal Sentinel. “I’m the guy who’s given millions to this commu-nity. I’m not going to give anything more … if this is what I’m going to get.”
Eventually, Cudahy agreed to a compromise.
“I told him we had to change it,” says Norquist. “He was unhappy but I think he appreciated getting a straight answer… He can be stubborn, but that’s not his only quality.”
Cudahy consented to a design competition, serving as a judge with fellow philanthropist Chris Abele, who funded the contest, and Bob Greenstreet, dean of UWM’s school of architecture and urban planning.
But Cudahy’s role was crucial, says Jim Shields of HGA Architects. When Shields was picked as one of two finalists from among seven competitors, he put on a full-court press, sitting with Cudahy to come up with a revised design. After he won the competition, Shields camped out at Cudahy’s house for a month to complete the final blueprint.
“That’s not how most buildings go today,” says Shields, who first collaborated with Cudahy on the IMAX. “Most are done as they are drawn. Mike tweaks. He’s been able to improve the project that way.”
The new design also included space for Discovery World, which Cudahy had decided to move to his lakefront center. But by then, Public Museum president Roger Bowen had resigned, and MPM board chair Patti McKeithan oversaw negotiations.
Each side commissioned an appraisal of the four-story, 41,000-square-foot space. Cudahy says the two parties split the difference and settled on $6 million. But in fact, the museum’s appraiser came up with a market value of $4,030,000. It was Cudahy’s appraisal that set the value at $6 million.
“There really was no negotiation as far as I’m concerned,” McKeithan says. “We kept going back and forth to try to get him off the $6 million mark but he just wouldn’t budge.”
Worried that Cudahy would sell the space to some business or organization that wouldn’t complement the public museum, McKei-than and her board capitulated to Cudahy’s price in 2004. An initial payment of $5 million to Discovery World was set for September 2006, with the balance to be paid in $200,000 installments over five years.
But by 2005, the public museum was engulfed in an accounting scandal and in desperate financial straits. Officials now say they have no money to pay Discovery World. “With all the publicity, I think the community realizes the public museum is in no shape to buy that building,” McKeithan says.
Cudahy says his new facility had banked on the museum payment to pay its own debts. He offered to turn the IOU into a long-term loan. But by December, the debt was unresolved and Discovery World hung a “For Sale” sign on the exterior of its old facility, a not-so-subtle ploy to put pressure on the public museum. The asking price: $6 million.
“I don’t want to damage that museum, I really don’t,” Cudahy says. “Going to court and forcing bankruptcy, I’d be a lousy citizen if I did that. But six million bucks is six million bucks, damnit …They signed a contract. It was approved by the county. So the county has an obligation, too.”
To some, his approach in handling the dispute seems less like the beloved Marquette Electronics leader than Cudahy’s own description of how Discovery World should be run: “The hard bitten CEO to run this place has to be somebody like me – mean and ugly.”
“Michael’s going to do what Michael feels like he needs to do,” says McKeithan, still an MPM board member. “And ultimately the community is going to decide whether that’s good or bad.”
Meanwhile, the financial pressures for Discovery World rose with its price tag, which ballooned from the initial estimate of $30 mil-lion to nearly $64 million today. Discovery World claims it has raised $51 million as of mid-December, not including the $6 million owed by the public museum.
The new center is very much a work in progress. Just weeks after it opened, a few exhibits already had broken down, frustrating pa-trons. Other exhibits are still being constructed or planned. On a recent visit, a ticket clerk warned customers that the center was only 60 percent complete, a disclaimer to the $16.95 admission fee.
There’s still a lot of “rough tuning” to be done, Cudahy admits.
The aquarium is the biggest draw, a tunnel of underwater displays and a fish “petting” tank. A giant model of the Great Lakes dominates the main floor, and two high-definition theaters show movies continually. Nine labs offer classes and demonstrations in video and audio production. Yet to come: a video link to oceanic explorations through Titanic adventurer Robert Ballard’s institute.
“Everything here is designed to keep evolving,” says Paul Krajniak, executive director of Discovery World. Exhibits will be introduced on a staggered basis, with the intent to bring patrons back again and again, he says.
The building itself is a hit, winner of three design awards. The view from the circular Pilot House is unlike any in town, providing a 360-degree panorama of the lake, Summerfest, Art Museum and Downtown skyline. This summer, cruise ships will dock along the peninsula, and the Denis Sullivan will return to its home port along a lakeside amphitheater.
The new design nicely complements the Art Museum, but the museum now has a nearby competitor for events – weddings, receptions, private parties and the like. From June through November, Discovery World booked more than 200 private and corporate events, charging from $500 to $12,000 for the entire building and grounds. By comparison, wedding parties can rent the Art Museum’s Windhover Hall for $10,000.
The head of the Art Museum offers praise for Discovery World’s design. “It’s good,” Gordon says. “Straightforward … Good architecture.”
He even compliments his former combatant. “Michael stands out because he is vocal and controversial. He’s not your typical Midwesterner. Being somewhat outspoken myself, I think it adds to the rich mosaic of Milwaukee life.”
Ever aggressive, Cudahy has already set his sights on his immediate neighbor, Pieces of Eight. In November, he met with the restaurant’s California-based owner for six hours, trying to persuade him to give up his lease with the city, which is valid until 2018.
“We’d like them to go sooner,” Cudahy grouses. “Everyone would like them to go. That should be a park there … But he doesn’t want to budge. It’s ridiculous.”
Everybody has a Mike Cudahy story to tell. Especially Cudahy. He spins story after story, spiked with foreign accents and bad impersonations.
He likes one story in particular. It was October 2003. Cudahy was attending a funeral in Whitefish Bay for Milwaukee attorney John MacIver, a close advisor to Tommy Thompson.
“Tommy,” Cudahy said as he slid into a church pew. “I’ve got this ache in my jaw that’s killing me.”
“Don’t bother me, Mike,” replied a preoccupied Thompson. “I’m trying to write a eulogy.”
Cudahy suffered through the service and drove to the Towne Club for a glass of whiskey to kill the pain. Days later, the ache hadn’t let up. “I’m still feeling like hell,” Cudahy complained.
Finally he called his friend Dr. David Rutlen, chief of cardiovascular medicine at the Medical College.
Dr. Rutlen hooked him up to one of Cudahy’s own devices, a cardiograph machine manufactured by Marquette Electronics. On the readout, up popped the diagnosis: “myocardial infarction.”
Startled but skeptical, Cudahy called another friend, Dr. Alfred Tector at St. Luke’s hospital. Tector ordered Cudahy in for an exam: Three arteries were blocked, including 70 percent of his left main artery, a condition known as a “widow maker.”
“I think my expression was, ‘Oh shit,’ ” Cudahy recalls. “That was the most scared I’ve ever been.” Triple bypass surgery was scheduled for the following week.
Cudahy says he fully recovered. “I’ve never felt better,” he says over lunch, a Caesar salad with a tumbler of Early Times. He’s ready for the next innovation, an alternative school for high school dropouts, an idea he’s exploring with MATC and UWM. “I’ll call it the Cool School,” he says.
At nearly 83, his conversations swing from the past to the future and back again, from stories of his accomplishments to plans for up-coming projects. In words and deeds, he is shaping his legacy.
Determined to speak his mind for years to come, Cudahy in fact has put his words in a “Letter to Milwaukee,” sealed with wax and stashed in a drawer of a friend. “It’s not to be opened until my 100th birthday,” he says. “Whether I’m living or dead.”
The city really won’t need a letter to remember Cudahy, though. In his freewheeling, sometimes tough, sometimes tinkering fashion, he has left monumental contributions.
Still, he remembers the early days at Marquette Electronics, when people doubted his ideas.
“I would go around the room with naysayers and naysayers and naysayers,” Cudahy says. “And the only thing I had going was, I was the boss. And I’d say, yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it all. Let’s do it anyway.
“When I started I was on pretty shaky ground,” he adds. “Now I’m in a position where I can say things like that.”
Kurt Chandler is a senior editor with Milwaukee Magazine.