Lucey's legacy to Walworth township

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Margaret Plevak | May 14, 2014

TOWN OF WALWORTH—Ask state residents old enough to remember former Wisconsin governor  (1971-1977) Patrick J. Lucey—who died May 10 at age 96--what they recall best about him, and you might get answers ranging from his efforts to merge the state's university system to his run as vice-presidential candidate on the independent ticket with John Anderson in 1980.

Perhaps Milton Neshek's most distinct memory of Lucey is when the then-governor showed up at a town board meeting at the tiny Walworth Town Hall late in 1971.

Neshek, the general counsel for Kikkoman Foods Inc., and a member of the company's board of directors, was directly involved with helping the company, headquartered in Japan, come to Wisconsin decades ago. Kikkoman, which dates back some 400 years, felt Walworth would be an ideal production and distribution location for its U.S. market, which began seeing exponential growth in the 1960s.

By 1971, officials at Kikkoman had gotten approval from the Walworth County board to build on 200 acres of prime farmland northwest of the town of Walworth on Six Corners Road, but discovered final approval rested with the Walworth town board, which retained veto power on the decision. 

A town board meeting was set, and Neshek gathered a number of people to speak in Kikkoman's favor, including Walworth County board members, state Assembly representatives and state Senators.

“But the treasurer of the township was opposed,” Neshek said. "She was also an active Democrat.”

Neshek had consulted with Lucey in the past on the university system merger issue, so, looking for support, he called the governor again.

“I told him about the town board meeting. I wondered if he could call this (town treasurer) and see what her concerns were in the meantime,” Neshek said. “And Lucey said, 'Do you want me to come?' You know, of course, that governors usually don't come to town board meetings.”

Neshek was so taken aback at Lucey's offer, he managed to stutter a response, telling him the company would be honored to have him attend the meeting.

The town hall was packed that evening with board members and the community, who were evenly split on the issue, according to an article from the Milwaukee Sentinel, dated Nov. 9, 1971.

“We didn't tell anyone the governor was coming. There was this collective gasp when they saw him come into the hall,” Neshek said

According to the Sentinel story, Lucey, standing next to an oil burner stove, said, “I hope you don't consider my being here an imposition to the community, but the state has great stakes in this plant from a number of angles.”

Neshek said Lucey's presentation was well thought out, explaining the state's 14-month effort to persuade the company to locate here, the number of jobs the company would bring and the acres of soybeans and wheat produce that could be marketed.

The final vote, Neshek said, was 53-18 in favor of allowing the company to build.

Kikkoman is the world's largest producer of naturally brewed soy sauce, and was the first Japanese company to  locate in the United States, Neshek said. 

170 people are currently employed at the plant.

Art Anderson, a Walworth farmer who was one of Kikkoman's first employees, worked at the company for 13 years, learning the centuries-old formula for brewing soy sauce from Japanese technical instructors.

Initially, Anderson said, some residents—still thinking about World War II--opposed the idea of a Japanese business coming here. 

But the company came to be known as a good employer, generous to its workers and the community, he said.

“The work was good, the pay was good, and the managers from Japan were great,” Anderson said. “I still get Christmas cards from some of them.”

Nancy Lehman, president of the Historical Society of Walworth and Big Foot Prairie, said Kikkoman encouraged its workers not to isolate themselves in one community, but to integrate in the county, living in Elkhorn and Delavan as well as Walworth.

Joe Schaefer, a Walworth County supervisor, said Lucey also dealt with local politicians when trying to get approval for American Motors Corp. to build a vehicle crash test site in Lyons more than 25 years ago.

Shaefer, who owns Ye Olde Hotel in Lyons, remembered being at work when a bartender there told him the governor was on the phone for him. Initially, Schaefer says, he didn't believe it, but it was Lucey, who was calling to get support for the project.

Schaefer still has a decades-old photo of himself, his toddler son and Lucey, posing for a campaign photo for the governor.

“He was a good Democrat. He knew how to keep the two parties together,” Schaefer said. “There wasn't a lot of drama there.”   

“He was very pro-business, and his biggest concerns were jobs and the state of Wisconsin's  economy,” Neshek said. “He left a great legacy.”

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