Remembering Michael J. Cudahy

Read the official obituary from Milwaukee historian John Gurda.

Mike Cudahy, who died on March 11 at the age of 97, stood out in practically any gathering. Although he was slightly built and, later in life, slightly stooped, Milwaukee’s best-known philanthropist was instantly recognizable by his shock of tousled white hair, his typically casual dress and, above all, by his energy. At an age when most of his old associates were nodding by the fire—if they were still nodding anywhere—Mike Cudahy remained a vital force, brimming with ideas and overflowing with questions that wouldn’t have occurred to most people with half his years. Age is just a number? Cudahy offered living proof of that hopeful old adage.

It wasn’t that he had discovered the fountain of youth. Mike Cudahy was born with his motor running; his temperament, his family history, and his early experiences all predisposed him to a life of nonstop activity. But Cudahy followed his native tendencies in directions unique to him. Although his most visible success came as an entrepreneur, he was at heart a tinkerer, an inquisitive soul who loved to figure out how things worked and, if possible, how to make them work better—whether they were complex medical machines or entire communities. Cudahy viewed the world as an endless procession of problems to be solved, of opportunities to be seized, and he was happiest when he was in the absolute thick of solving and seizing them.

That approach reflected, even required, a certain degree of individualism. Although he was not entirely self-made, Mike Cudahy was largely self-taught and conspicuously self-willed. Quick to laugh and fast to make friends, Cudahy had a leprechaun’s store of Irish charm, but none of his co-workers would have described him as primarily a team player. He preferred to operate as a “benevolent dictator,” in his own phrase. The philanthropist began, every time, with a vision that was entirely his own; coalitions and compromises followed as the need arose.

Cudahy’s insistence on a particular vision earned him epithets like “crusty” and “cantankerous” at times, but he was simply being true to his own bone-deep instincts. His overriding goal was not to enlarge his fortune or enhance his reputation, but simply to get things done, to solve the problem at hand in creative, game-changing ways. As a result, he earned another epithet: “effective.” Working as a creator on some projects and a catalyst on others, Mike Cudahy was a force for tremendous good, both in the larger world and in his hometown of Milwaukee.

Cudahy distinguished himself in three distinct spheres of action: as a business leader, a philanthropist, and a citizen. His grandfather, the illustrious Patrick Cudahy, rose from abject poverty to become the head of a meatpacking empire, and his illustrious descendant followed the same entrepreneurial instinct in a different direction. In 1951, Mike Cudahy formed a partnership with Warren Cozzens, a rough-and-tumble Chicagoan whom he would eulogize decades later as “the mentor of all mentors … the guy who taught me the fundamentals of business, and how to live in the world.” Cozzens and Cudahy prospered as manufacturer’s representatives in the field of high-end electronics, but they were constantly on the lookout for a product they could call their own. After a series of modest successes, they received what both men would remember as The Phone Call. A doctor from Northwestern University Medical School wondered if Cozzens and Cudahy could supply him with components for a new type of electrocardiograph system, one that transmitted results to a central receiving station by phone line rather than relying solely on bulky paper print-outs. Warren Cozzens had

a rule ready-made for the occasion: “Get the order, and then decide if you want it.” Why, yes, he told the doctor, he and his partner would be glad to work on the idea. The result, after a few meetings, was an order for what Mike Cudahy described as “the world’s first central electrocardiograph system.”

In 1964, with $15,000 in start-up capital (half supplied by each partner) and 1,600 square feet of rented factory space on Milwaukee’s North Side, Marquette Electronics was launched. The name was borrowed from Marquette University to “give the place some sort of intellectual class,” recalled Mike Cudahy. He ran the Milwaukee plant while Cozzens continued to manage the sales office in Chicago. The fact that neither man knew anything about electrocardiography was only a temporary impediment. Learning as they went, working through an endless procession of trials and errors, Cudahy and his small technical team developed an EKG system that defined the state of the art in American medicine. The system was primitive by later standards (and the first units lost money), but Marquette had established a beachhead that it never surrendered.

With Mike Cudahy serving as managing partner and eventually majority stockholder, Marquette Electronics grew ladderwise; one success provided a solid rung for the next. Climbing higher each year, Mike Cudahy took his company from bulky transistors to integrated circuit boards, from microfilm to magnetic storage, and ultimately to full computerization. It was not unusual for Marquette’s engineers to tackle projects for which the technology did not yet exist; they counted on the field catching up with them by the time they went to market. The result was a steady flow of new products that changed the state of the medical art.

As its product offerings multiplied, the company outgrew a succession of factories, ending with one major facility on Milwaukee’s Northwest Side and operating others, at various times, in Florida, Connecticut, Ireland, and Germany. The number of employees who worked in those plants soared from precisely one in 1965 to 330 in 1982, 1,400 in 1993, and 3,400 in 1998. What kept them all busy was spectacular growth in the company’s sales figures. Annual revenue crossed the million-dollar threshold in 1969-70 and kept climbing to $9.7 million in 1975-76, $92 million in 1985-86, and $578 million in 1997-98.

What made the firm unique was not only its constantly evolving product line but the management style and philosophy of its CEO. For nearly thirty-five years, Mike Cudahy ate, slept, and breathed Marquette Electronics. The company was not the only thing in his life, but it was sometimes hard to identify whatever came second. Despite the long hours and the pressing demands, Cudahy was in his element as Marquette’s leader. The company was his “joyworks,” a term he coined and used as the title of his 2002 business memoir. It provided an outlet for three of his greatest passions—tinkering, free enterprise, and people—and it combined them in ways that were socially useful, financially rewarding, and consistently energizing.

The joy that Mike Cudahy took in his job proved infectious. Marquette both attracted and developed people who could work comfortably in a high-octane atmosphere of controlled chaos. Innovation, Cudahy believed, was his company’s lifeblood, and innovation could not thrive in a setting that was regimented and restrictive. Marquette was never as chaotic as it might have appeared to outsiders—even without a precise roadmap, Mike Cudahy always knew where he was going—but the company did take on a distinctive personality. Without for a moment losing sight of the need for cutting-edge quality or world-class productivity, Cudahy introduced a number of amenities that embodied a highly individual philosophy of employee relations. The list was impressive: generous profit-sharing through an employee stock ownership trust, the first on-site day care center in Wisconsin industry, a top-quality employee restaurant (complete with beer on tap), and “extracurriculars” ranging from company musicals (with scripts by Warren Cozzens) to an employee singing group named arRHYTHMia. Together the various initiatives helped to create a richly human organization with a tangible feeling of family in a context of creative freedom—precisely what Mike Cudahy had in mind. The co-founder’s approach

made Marquette unique in his or any other industry; it also earned the enterprise a place on the list of the 100 best companies to work for in America.

Marquette Electronics was the greatest of Mike Cudahy’s many creations, but the company was not destined to last. The CEO turned seventy in 1994, and he realized with crystal clarity that he could not run the business forever. In 1998, with a reluctance bordering on sorrow, Cudahy and his directors sold Marquette to General Electric for $810 million. GE Marquette remained a respected name in the medical equipment business, but the original Marquette Electronics lives on only in the fond memories of the thousands who felt both challenged and cherished as members of a remarkably close-knit corporate family.

If Mike Cudahy shifted into a lower gear when he sold Marquette, no one noticed. Just the opposite seemed to be true: without a 3,400-employee business to run, the entrepreneur was free to step up his activities on other fronts. He carved out a new role as a venture capitalist, but Mike Cudahy was much more visible as a philanthropist, particularly in Milwaukee. He recognized that his hometown had contributed materially to the success of his business; the city’s bright, hard-working employees had helped Marquette Electronics achieve world-class status in its chosen field. Now it was time to give back. In the decade following the sale of his business, Mike and The Cudahy Foundation donated more than $165 million to community causes.

Although his formal schooling ended in twelfth grade, education was a major emphasis. Cudahy provided major support for dozens of colleges and universities, including the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee School of Engineering, Messmer High School, Pius XI High School, Bruce-Guadalupe Community School, and, of course, Marquette University. Young people were another priority. In 1998, Cudahy gave most of Hilltop Farm, his family’s summer retreat on Milwaukee’s Northwest Side, to the YMCA. The young residents in a nearby housing project lacked positive outlets for their energy, and Hilltop Farm became the home of the YMCA’s John C. Cudahy Branch, a full-service community center named for Mike’s father. “I want kids to feel they belong,” Cudahy said, “especially kids on the Northwest Side.”

The performing arts were another passion. Mike Cudahy became the driving force behind the restoration of the Pabst Theater, an elegant concert hall built in 1895 on the European model. In 2000, a Cudahy gift funded a spacious lounge adjoining the lobby. (Mike took a somewhat perverse pleasure in attaching “Cudahy’s Irish Pub” to an old German landmark.) He followed up in 2002 by purchasing the entire theater, through his foundation, for a grand total of one dollar. A top-to-bottom restoration brought the venue back to its original glory as an entertainment destination.

The visual arts were served as well. Intrigued by the large-format, high-impact technology of IMAX films, Mike Cudahy was instrumental in bringing an IMAX theater to downtown Milwaukee in 1996. Five years later, when civic leaders engaged Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava to design an addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, Cudahy joined the effort, helping to solve technical problems in the movable sunscreen and funding an artful urban garden designed by legendary landscape architect Daniel Kiley.

Of all his philanthropic ventures, sung and unsung, none absorbed more of Mike Cudahy’s time—or gave him more pleasure—than Discovery World, a hands-on science and technology museum whose primary audience is young people. Cudahy shepherded Discovery World from makeshift quarters in the Central Library to a larger facility adjacent to the Public Museum and finally to an iconic home on the downtown lakefront. For well over two decades he was the organization’s single greatest source of both financial support and creative energy. There were controversies along the way, to be sure, but it would be hard to imagine an undertaking with more dimensions or greater ambitions. Discovery World honors and extends Milwaukee’s industrial heritage, connects local residents to the world of water, and adds a jewel to the city’s lakefront, but its

grandest goal is perhaps the one that lay closest to Cudahy’s heart: nurturing a new generation of thinkers and tinkerers.

The tinkerer-in-chief’s role at Discovery World mirrored his attitude toward philanthropy in general. Unlike most of his peers in the donor community, Mike Cudahy was never one to just give money and get out of the way. In project after project, he preferred a hands-on approach—hiring staff, fine-tuning programs, and weighing in on the smallest details of building design. Beneficiaries of his largesse found that they had taken on not just a funder but a collaborator.

The same insistence on participation marked Cudahy’s role as a citizen. Lending support and offering direction on issues ranging from mass transit to lakefront development, Mike Cudahy took on civic involvements that matched and at times even surpassed his philanthropic activities. Always the possibilist, Cudahy had spent his career at Marquette wrestling with technical challenges, and much of his success was rooted in his refusal to take “No” for an answer. Civic challenges were, on some level, analogous; bureaucrats and circuit boards could be equally maddening. It goes without saying that there was no place in the political realm for a “benevolent dictator,” Mike Cudahy’s preferred mode of operation; the problem-solving process was inherently more public and infinitely more contentious. But he still pushed ahead whenever he heard the word “No,” pressing his own point of view and berating politicians who dragged their feet. Cudahy was as undeterred by controversy as he was unfazed by failure. Never one to walk away from a good fight—sometimes, in fact, using his anger strategically—he tangled with public officials on issues ranging from marital property laws to museum partnerships to architectural plans. Cudahy became, along the way, a reporter’s dream—disarmingly candid, uncommonly colorful, and infinitely quotable. As he generated headlines, however, Mike Cudahy also generated momentum.

From first to last, both in the corporate sphere and in community circles, Michael J. Cudahy demonstrated a deep consistency of thought and action. He was an inveterate tinkerer, captivated by the way things work, whether the mechanisms at hand were technological or political. But there was an even more fundamental tie between Cudahy’s corporate and community careers. His efforts as a philanthropist and civic activist carried much more than an echo of his aspirations as a business executive. Just as he had worked to develop a sense of creative kinship within the Marquette Electronics fold, Cudahy saw the entire Milwaukee community as, in a sense, his extended family. His overriding but understated goal was to infuse that family of fellow citizens with the same energy, the same zest for innovation, that he had set loose at his old company. If Mike Cudahy had possessed a genuine dictator’s powers, he would have insisted that we all conduct our lives with the searching curiosity and rapt engagement that made his own life a chronicle of such vivid achievement.

To that end, he met each new day with enthusiasm, taking the stairs two at a time and heaping scorn on civic leaders who retired to a twilight existence of golf and bridge in Florida. Not many 80- or 90-year-olds could have kept up with Michael J. Cudahy in his later years; in truth, only a select group of forty-year-olds could have matched his pace. But Cudahy was simply doing what he had always done. He was one of those rare individuals born with a high intellectual metabolism. He had a primal need to be grappling, always grappling, with problems that cried out for a solution. If he was not particularly patient in finding one, he was remarkably persistent, proceeding by whatever route made the most sense to him. Mike Cudahy might be described, in that context, as a man who thought outside the box—if, that is, he had ever acknowledged the existence of a box.

And his legacy? Few individuals in this or any era have had such a prolonged and pervasive impact on the landscape of Milwaukee, and few individuals in Milwaukee or elsewhere have had such stellar business success on terms so uniquely their own. The medical machines that Mike Cudahy pioneered continue to save lives, and

the civic, educational, and cultural institutions he supported continue to change lives. But it is Cudahy’s spirit that constitutes his greatest legacy. Like Thomas Edison in technology, Duke Ellington in music, or Pablo Picasso in art, Michael J. Cudahy attained an advanced age without losing his creative spark or his inborn desire to know more, to do more, to be more. What marked Mike Cudahy, both early and late, was his refusal to settle for the status quo, his impatience to push beyond things as they were to things as they could be. His was a long life well-lived, and it made Cudahy both an inspiration and an example to all who followed—forever Mike, forever young.