The Wisconsin Years

I grew up hearing stories from my Dad and grandparents about the “Wisconsin years” referring to the three year stint they spent in Madison, WI while my grandfather completed his Ph.D. in American History.

They would banter endlessly about the snow storms and how they longed for their native moderate Texas winters, as well as fond memories of the people they met who turned the foreign city of Madison into a beloved home away from home.

I had never been there myself until we rolled in on the big bus as state number 32 of our national, 50-state adventure.  It had a strange familiarity, just knowing my family had spent precious formative years here, taking a big risk to pursue another kind of dream, not unlike the one that brought me here today.

As we explored and found the humble two bedroom apartment where my dad, his two siblings and my grandparents lived while my grandma worked to support the family and my papa completed his doctoral work, it struck me that this place marks my life as a barrier breaker.

My great grandparents were not educated, and had no expectation of their children pursuing any type of education post high school. So here was a son, who by no expectation of anyone in his life, decided to pursue a Ph.D., and at one of the most prestigious schools in the country, setting his children, and their children up for a mindset of “I can.”  Its really that simple.  I never questioned whether I’d go to college or get good jobs.  I didn’t even have much pause when I decided to go out on my own and launch two businesses from scratch.  I had seen my parents do it, so I knew it could be done.

Seeing someone do something does a world of good for anyone thinking about what is possible.

This is unspoken, deeply psychological stuff that we rarely acknowledge is happening, yet all around us, our possibilities are being defined, from the moment we open our eyes to the time we step foot into our first classroom, our first job interview, or our first entrepreneurial venture.

Another word that came to my mind as I stood in front of that old apartment was “sacrifice”. I’ve heard my papa talk about the opportunities and incomes they laid down to go after the dream of getting a Ph.D. They sacrificed a lot, yet he always says it was that season when they had the least, living in the smallest space they’d ever had as a family of five, remains to this day his most cherished memories.  He says, “that was when we were the closest as a family.”

It gives me pause as his words ring in my ears, to make sure I treasure these moments of feeling squeezed living on a 450 sq. ft. efficiency apartment on wheels.  It makes me think about how much I want to cherish this time of closeness for our little family of five. And it makes me eternally grateful for the chance he had to attend that school, to achieve his dream and leave a legacy for generations to come to believe that anything is possible.

As we were leaving Madison, I was grateful for the chance to get to talk with my papa on the phone and share all of this with him. I asked him what inspired him to go after this dream when no one in his family expected it of him.

He said, “You know, I almost ended up a high school drop out, until I realized I had a dream to become a pastor, and I realized you can’t do that with out a degree.  So I went back, finished high school, went on to college and then to grad school.  A professor there encouraged me and believed in me.  He was the one who said I could go to Madison and become a university history professor.  And that’s all it took, just one man telling me I could, and so I did.”

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