September 30, 2002 - The Journal Times: Meet Jim Doyle, the man

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Tunisia: Peace Corps Tunisia : The Peace Corps in Tunisia: September 30, 2002 - The Journal Times: Meet Jim Doyle, the man

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Meet Jim Doyle, the man

Meet Jim Doyle, the man

Meet Jim Doyle, the man

by Rob Golub

Rob On The Road

The Democratic candidate for governor was born a Democrat. He was raised like a Kennedy, but without Kennedy money, growing up in smoke-filled rooms amid political chatter.

He is the current attorney general of Wisconsin, with a life story which seems part destiny, part design. It's even a story of romance.

Jim Doyle, the Democrat who will win or lose the race for governor in five weeks, was a college student at Stanford University in the mid-1960s. He came home for college break, his little sister picked him up at a Madison bus station, and he told her of his life plan.

It was bold. It was so sweet. It was, perhaps, a little crazy.

"I was what, 18, 19?" remembers Catey Doyle, now an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee. "I just thought that it was the most romantic thing I had ever heard."

Jim Doyle had met his future wife, Jessica, at Madison West High School. After trying life out at separate colleges, the lovebirds concocted a plan to transfer together to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, followed by marriage and a stint in the Peace Corps.

He left Stanford University. She left Northwestern University. True to their plan, Jim and Jessica Doyle married on Dec. 21, 1966, one month past Jim's 21st birthday. They left for Peace Corps work in Africa after their Madison graduation, inspired by John F. Kennedy's call to public service.

To Jim Doyle, Kennedy "was like the coolest guy anyone had ever seen becoming president."

Jim and Jessica Doyle served two years in the Peace Corps, in the North African nation of Tunisia.

"We went to a very tiny, little village, where we lived for two years," he said. "We had days there in the village where there was no food. We learned how warm and welcoming people who have nothing can be. We went there to save the world and I learned in one day I wasn't going to save anything. We certainly learned how fortunate we are in the United States."

"Many of our kids actually lived in caves," said Doyle, who taught children with his wife in an African schoolhouse. "I learned even those parents who were living in caves saw that schoolhouse as the way for their kids to have a better life."

After Tunisia, Jim Doyle attended and graduated from Harvard Law School, passing up all the big-dollar corporate legal jobs he could have had.

Doyle hadn't been raised to pursue money. Jim Doyle's parents were focused on public service, and in particular, politics. "We grew up on it. It was the topic of the dinner table, and lunch table, and breakfast table conversation," said his sister, Mary Doyle, now a professor at the University of Miami Law School.

Today, Jim Doyle's mother, Ruth, is lucid but ill and disabled in a Madison nursing home. In 1948, a strong, determined Ruth Doyle was the first woman to be elected to the state Assembly from Dane County. She was the fourth-generation Bachhuber (her maiden name) to serve in the Wisconsin Legislature.

Jim Doyle's parents founded the modern Democratic Party in Wisconsin; there really wasn't one after World War II, Jim Doyle said. His father, the late James Doyle Sr., drafted the Democratic Party's state constitution and served as chair of the party. He lost a race for governor in 1954 and became a federal judge in 1965.

Mary Doyle has memories of busy, exciting election nights in her parents' home.

"There would be all these people and all this smoke," she said. She remembers some thick cable running from outdoor telephone poles to inside the house, which she thinks were set up by her dad to power a ticker-tape report of election results inside the home.

She attended her brother's modern-day primary election night, where television, wireless phones and the Internet were used instead of ticker tape. The current Doyle campaign brings back memories.

"I wish my dad were here for this," Mary Doyle said.

Her dad was a quiet, unassuming man who sat dutifully at his son Jim's high-school basketball games. Dad's cheers were more inside the heart, rather than at the top of his lungs, as he sat with his coat neatly folded in his lap.

The attorney general still likes the occasional pickup basketball game. His high-school basketball career ended when he fell on his wrist.

"I think if he could have been anything he would have been a basketball star," said Mary Doyle.

"I saw myself going on to great things," Jim Doyle in a separate interview. "I thought I was a pretty good basketball player. I went for my shot against Janesville. A guy undercut me and flipped me up in the air. I'd like to think I'd have ended up playing in the NBA if not for that."

Instead of basketball stardom, he has sought political stardom. In a rare political move, he announced his race for governor early.

"I announced at the Democratic Convention in 2000," he said. "The reason I did it was not to be coy. People always play this game of, 'I'm thinking about it and people are asking me about it.' I like to think I'm pretty straightforward that way."

"Jim chose public service. That's what he chose," said Catey Doyle. She feels all four of the Doyle siblings have followed their parents' lead -- all four are lawyers who teach, defend people or work in government.

With a trained-from-birth sense of progressive service, after Harvard Law Jim went to work at an Indian reservation in Arizona. Some of his clients spoke only Navajo.

Jim and Jessica adopted Gus while at the reservation. Gus, 27, works at Madison West High School with kids in need of extra help and at night he works a second full-time job as teen director of a Boys and Girls Club in Madison. His younger brother, Gabe, 23, recently moved to Elgin, Ill. Gabe was adopted in Wisconsin.

Jim and Jessica's two sons are African American. Jim said he never cared about ethnicity.

"I'd like to tell you it was a big thing, but it was not. We knew we wanted to adopt children," he said.

"We were asked if we had any preference about race or ethnicity and we said, 'No.' It's been a wonderful thing for us. We are a multiracial family.

"God makes families in different ways, and this is the way he made our family."

If God's hand is in the evolution of the Doyle family, the Doyles themselves are certainly offering an assist. It seems the Doyles tend to produce a certain kind of person. The youngest of Jim Doyle's three sisters, at age 5, started a "Dogs of America" club to help dogs in need. Catey Doyle keeps an 8-by-10 photo of John F. Kennedy on her office wall.

Who is Jim Doyle? He is a through-and-through Democrat, reared from birth in a tradition of progressive public service.

No, you don't have to wonder where the Doyles are coming from. Maybe it's why Dorothy Shannon, an 84-year-old who once worked on the Walter Mondale presidential campaign with Doyle, who once co-chaired the Dane County Democratic Party with him, isn't surprised at Jim Doyle's reach for the governorship.

She said plainly: "I've always expected this would happen."

Rob Golub is a reporter with The Journal Times and he tells someone's story in this space weekly.

Next week: Gov. Scott McCallum's life story.

Contact Rob Golub at (262) 631-1718 or via e-mail at:

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