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by Stephen Freese

Tales from Under the Big Top

Last month I started to introduce myself but ran out of space just as I was about to tell you about my years after the Legislature, when I ran away and joined the circus.

Actually, I took over as executive director of Circus World Museum Foundation in Baraboo. Circus World was the original winter quarters of the Ringling Bros. World’s Greatest Show from 1884–1918. Along with the National Historic Landmark buildings in Baraboo, there is an extensive collection of circus artifacts, including the world’s largest collection of circus wagons. 

During my time with Circus World, we had circus performances every day during the summer, which really brought the museum to life. I also got to help bring the third largest parade in America back to Milwaukee for what was likely its last appearance. The Great Circus Parade® was staged for the 40th time in America and the 30th time in Milwaukee during Circus World’s 50th Anniversary, which was a unique opportunity for me to be part of Wisconsin history. 

Just when I thought I couldn’t top that experience, I had the opportunity to work with Twentieth Century Fox in filming the movie “Water for Elephants.” Circus World provided 15 antique circus wagons, technical advice, historical photographs, and manpower for filming of the movie. From April through July I made regular treks to California to stage the wagons for filming. If you watch closely, you can see me in a scene with star Robert Pattenson for about 15 seconds while circus wagons are being unloaded from the circus train.

When I left Circus World I had the opportunity to work for Wisconsin’s largest farm organization for almost two years. So my resumé includes stints as a farmer, legislator, circus ring master, and ag leader.

I have had the privilege of working in two big tops: one marble and one canvas, working with presidents, prime ministers, legislators, and spiritual leaders. Having spent time in front of lights and cameras of both press conferences and a movie set, I now get to come home to a job that is very important to me. 

Don’t get me wrong, it was really cool doing all the fun things at the circus and meeting and working with presidents and prime ministers, but I would count them only as highlights. The Seven Cooperative Principles really guide me and the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association, and I especially like #7, Concern for Community: “While focusing on member needs, cooperatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies accepted by their members.” 

This very principle was the reason why I ran for my local town board when I was 20 years old—to make a difference for the community I lived in. As your new WECA manager, I know your association will have a significant impact on the lives of people who live in rural Wisconsin by helping assure safe, reliable, and affordable electricity by the work we will do with you and on your behalf at the state and federal capitols. I look forward to us working together and making a difference for our communities.




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