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Tuesday, October 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 44.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Already missed: LaMarr Billups
A friend recalls one of this town's great assets
LaMarr Billups
LaMarr Billups

Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has."

Especially if that small group includes LaMarr Billups. The go-to guy in so many causes and so many civic issues in Madison, Billups has left town for Washington, D.C., to be a change agent in one of the most troubled cities in the country.

Billups, who held key jobs in state and federal government before becoming Chancellor John Wiley's right-hand man for community relations, has undertaken one more challenge in his long career - as Georgetown University's new assistant vice president for business policy and as a member of the university's senior leadership team.

For me, his move to Washington is an enormous personal loss. Not just because Billups was the board president when I ran the Urban League of Greater Madison, but because he was a mentor and a fellow warrior in the trenches fighting to lift people out of poverty and despair. Not to mention a close friend and, like me, a devotee of Friday night fish fries.

Now he's gone, and the last time I felt so sad was when I was told I had cancer. Ever the stand-up guy, Billups called me every other week over the last six months to offer solace and encouragement as I traveled through my journey with the disease.

Almost comically, we were known at one time as "the Helios twins" when both of us suffered from respiratory illnesses. The name was bestowed upon us during the two years we strapped on portable oxygen tanks from the Helios Co.

He had emphysema and was waiting for a lung transplant, while I had blood clots in my lungs. It was comic relief to hear us, usually sitting next to each other in seriously intense meetings, breathe in counterpoint, his "shhh" followed by my "shh."

Fortunately, LaMarr received his lung transplant, and it allowed him to step up the pace of his already hectic life.

He could be seen at an Overture Center board meeting, or a Transport 20/20 meeting sorting out rail options for Dane County or serving on the board of directors of Edgewood College or at the UW-Madison office in the Villager Mall conferring with the South Madison Planning Council.

What I admire the most about my friend is his humanity. He's one of the special people who can see beyond the political divide haunting this country. He has good friends who are Democrats and good friends who are Republicans.

He'll praise certain Republicans in ways that progressives like myself would choke on. Take Tommy Thompson. He considers the former governor to be talented, politically astute and downright smart. Tommy got things done, he says approvingly.

Billups knows how the game is played as well. His political savvy is second to none. Ask Mayor Dave, who chose him to head his transition team when he took office in 2003.

With so much political rancor in our community, LaMarr Billups leaves a void that will be hard to fill. When I told him that, he laughed it off, predicting that someone else will take his place.

Nope, it will take more than one person to replace LaMarr Billups in Madison. "Hey, I'm only a little over 1,000 miles away," he protested. "Plus, I'll be back for Edgewood College board meetings."

Billups' résumé, with its bullet points for the Wisconsin Council on Criminal Justice, the state personnel commission, the federal job-training programs and more, only shows what he did, not how he worked to improve the lives of the poor, the abused and the unlucky.

Billups put his faith to work in the uplifting of others, and he did it with a sense of respect that is lacking in our society today.

Interestingly, he cites his tour of duty as a senior legislative aide for Wisconsin's newly elected junior senator, Russell Feingold, to be his most rewarding experience. Not because of Feingold's position but because of his character.

Ask LaMarr what comes to his mind when he hears Feingold's name and he clicks off these words: integrity, brilliance, courage, a true believer. Feingold is eminently honest, he says, a seeker of the truth as opposed to convenient ways to get things done. He understands the process of political debate, and he understates the patience it requires.

Working for Feingold was the most demanding job he's had in his life, Billups says. "But if you're in this business of public policy, then you can't work for a better person. Not just a better senator, I mean you can't work for a better person than Russ Feingold."

Now, it's time for LaMarr to move on. He'll be in a position to bring together the leaders of Washington's biggest private universities to better coordinate their efforts to improve the lives of D.C.'s residents.

This will be a hard job. Washington has decades-old crime problems, and its public schools are broken. Further complicating things, the city exists as a puppet of the U.S. Congress, lacking the power of home rule. What a challenge!

But if anyone can help turn things around, it's LaMarr Billups. Madison's loss is Washington's gain. I'm just happy that we've had him in Madison since 1988. Almost 20 years. A generation.

When you come home, LaMarr, be sure you bring your golf clubs and a bagful of stories. Hell, I miss you already, my good friend. So, when do we do a fish fry, huh?

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