Michael J. Cudahy, a businessman, philanthropist, tinkerer and visionary who helped build one of Wisconsin’s most successful businesses and then gave away tens of millions of dollars to aid the renaissance of Milwaukee’s arts, culture, education and civic scene, died Friday.
He was 97.
Joel Brennan of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, former CEO of Discovery World which was created by Cudahy, announced Cudahy’s death before the start of a mayoral candidates debate Monday morning at the Italian Community Center.
“I would ask for a moment of silence but that really wasn’t Mike’s way of doing things,” Brennan said.
“Mike would have looked at the two candidates here today and say, ‘you better not screw things up.'”
Tim Sheehy, president of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Association of Commerce, called Cudahy “Milwaukee’s entrepreneur,” whose influence will be felt for decades.
“Marquette Medical Systems was a longtime MMAC member, and its legacy lives on today in the success of GE Healthcare,” Sheehy said in a statement.
“Throughout our interactions over the years, I saw firsthand how Michael’s spirit of curiosity drove him to learn more about big-picture economic development issues and how they affect Milwaukee. He was always looking for ways to improve our region. He will be missed greatly, and we send our deepest condolences to his family.”
Throughout his lifetime, Cudahy inspired a raft of adjectives, including eccentric, outspoken, crusty, free-spirited and feisty. Press accounts called him everything from a millionaire curmudgeon to a civic saint. When it came to his business, Cudahy described himself as a benevolent dictator.
With start-up money of $15,000, Cudahy and friend Warren Cozzens co-founded Marquette Electronics Inc., later known as Marquette Medical Systems Inc. The firm became recognized as the worldwide leader in patient monitoring systems.
Marquette Electronics sold to GE
It was sold to GE Medical Systems for $810 million in 1998, a move that pointed Cudahy into a new role as one of Milwaukee’s most high-profile philanthropists.
His millions launched the project for the permanent home along Lake Michigan of Discovery World Science and Technology Museum and helped underwrite the restoration of the Pabst Theater.
Through his foundation and personally, Cudahy donated millions to the Boys & Girls Clubs, the YMCA, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and a trio of local educational institutions, Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Milwaukee School of Engineering.
“I’ve given a lot away, that’s true,” Cudahy said in 2014, shortly before his 90th birthday. “And I deplore the people who make it big and just say, ‘Well, now I’ve got to take care of my children, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren.’ “
Marquette University President Michael Lovell said Cudahy ” was a pillar of the Milwaukee community through his work and his philanthropy.”
“On behalf of the Marquette University community, I extend deepest condolences to his family, his friends and those he touched through contributions to education, local institutions and the arts,” Lovell said in a statement.
“Mike was a great friend of Marquette and of mine. He shared Marquette’s commitment to keeping higher education accessible, and his gifts to the university were transformational for the students they impacted. His support of our mission and guiding values will forever be a part of his legacy, and the invaluable guidance and wisdom Mike shared will stay with me throughout my career. His support has been a true blessing in all of our lives.
Cudahy knew that “many think I inherited gobs of money from my rich and successful meatpacking grandfather.”
His grandfather was indeed Patrick Cudahy, an Irish immigrant who quit school at 13, and went to work for a meat-packing company, later known as Patrick Cudahy, Inc.
But his Grandpa Cudahy also believed in primogeniture, the practice of the oldest son inheriting the family business. That left Michael’s father, younger son John C. Cudahy, to find other ways to support his family.
John Cudahy became a lawyer, then ambassador and journalist. He and his wife Katherine had three children. Michael, born in March, 1924, (he always insisted he was born on St. Patrick’s Day), was the most rambunctious.
As a boy, young Mike once dismantled his father’s prized gold watch, looking for the secret of its chime. Tiny springs flew apart, but his mother saved the day. She hustled him off for watch repair, and the jeweler gave him an old watch to study and a few lessons, too.
Young Mike traveled with his family, still fascinated with how anything mechanical and electrical worked. He also created a certain amount of mischief, once falling through an embassy skylight in Ireland while messing with a transmitter on the roof.
Another misadventure, involved manufacturing exploding cigarettes, one of which surprised a grim Polish general at an embassy function.
After high school, Cudahy was drafted in the Army in 1943. He put in for radio and communications training, then radar school. Cudahy excelled, becoming a stateside Army Air Corps instructor.
Cudahy was still in basic training when his father died suddenly. Then ambassador to Ireland, John Cudahy was fatally injured while jumping horses on the family’s 80-acre horse farm in Milwaukee.
Starting Marquette Electronics
Once out of the military, it seemed there was always something more interesting or important to do than go to college. Cudahy worked at a number of jobs until he and Cozzens began Marquette Electronics.
Years after its humble beginnings, Cudahy would explain what inspired he and Cozzens to start their business.
Then salesmen of technical equipment, they began commiserating that they could end up like Willy Loman, the down-on-his-luck salesman in the 1949 Arthur Miller play “Death of a Salesman.”
The two decided that they would “manufacture something.” They decided on the name Marquette Electronics because it sounded classy and cutting-edge.
That was in 1964. The first effort involved the idea of building an electric bass fiddle that could be played by a pianist. Real bass fiddles were in no professional jeopardy by their would-be invention, Cudahy later admitted.
Instead, prompted by a physician’s call, the shoestring operation ended up producing a centralized electrocardiograph system for Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Next came a sale to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
A host of increasingly high-tech medical equipment followed, inspired by conversations with doctors and medical personnel.
They had, in fact, “No business plan. No product line. Almost no money. No engineers,” he later wrote in his book, “Joyworks,” published in 2002 by the Milwaukee County Historical Society.
“Just an idea that if we didn’t do something, we’d end up like the guy in ‘Death of a Salesman’ ” he wrote.
One of the firm’s inventions really got off the ground. In 1996, a $300,000 gas analyzer went up with the Russian space module, Priorda. Destined to rendezvous with the Mir space station, the device was designed to help NASA study the effect of zero gravity on human hearts and lungs.
The company operated by a different philosophy, one of empowering not controlling employees. It had,little corporate hierarchy, no time clocks, no assigned parking even for the owners. The cafeteria was top-notch. The coffee was free. Employees could buy beer or wine with their meals.
In 1982, Marquette Electronics opened the first industrial daycare center in the state, one of the first corporate centers in America. The center was inspired by Cudahy’s daughter, Julie, who worked with the firm. Pregnant with her first child, she pushed her father for on-site day care.
It soon became part of the firm’s unique corporate culture.
Cudahy bought a corporate jet — the better to fly busy doctor clients to and from Milwaukee — and later used the same concept for civic projects.
He would shuttle local officials to study mass transit elsewhere or the Milwaukee Art Museum to Spain for a problem-solving visit on the Calatrava addition. He later arranged other air transportation to fly the museum’s signature wings to Milwaukee, saving weeks of sea-faring delay.
Cudahy and the firm long turned down assorted purchase offers, including a 1982 offer from GE. Instead, Marquette Medical purchased GE Medical System’s fledgling medical monitoring business.
The company sold its first public shares in 1990.
Launching Discovery World
As time went on, Cudahy began worrying what would happen to the firm if he would get “hit by a truck.” He tried out other executives-in-training, but had a hard time finding the right match.
Cozzens died in July 1998, just months before a deal suddenly came together for the sale of the firm to GE Medical.
“It’s an emotional thing,” Cudahy said of the sale that November. “It’s a big deal the day you seel your baby. But the baby is grown up. Life goes on. This is the thing we should have done.”
His 3.4 million shares were then worth $153 million in GE stock. As a result of the firm’s long-standing practice of sharing stock with employees, some became millionaires and many others were financially set for retirement.
If he had any regrets, they would come later. It became increasingly clear to Cudahy that the old corporate culture of Marquette Electronics — one of invention and creativity without bean-counting and bureaucracy — had been lost.
Cudahy also began suffering from what he first believed to be health problems.
Much of that proved to be stress for the abrupt change-of-life following the sale of the firm. Prompted by the advice of a friend, Walt Robb, Cudahy became increasingly active in his favorite causes.
That brought new meaning to his life. Asked in 1997 if he would ever retire, Cudahy snapped: “Yeah. When I drop dead.”
Cudahy did suffer a heart attack in September of 2003, though he did not immediately realize it. He began to experience a jaw ache while at the funeral of attorney John MacIver, not recognizing the problem as a symptom of a heart attack.
Weeks later, he realized something was really wrong. A doctor friend put Cudahy on one of the cardiography machines his patient’s firm had manufactuered.
He underwent a triple bypass on Oct. 8, 2003.
Among his greatest philanthropic ventures was developing Discovery World’s permanent home. But it was not without controversy. The building’s original design too closely resembled the Milwaukee Art Museum’s expansion designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.
“This will kill the project,” Cudahy declared as opposition grew.
The project survived when a new design was chosen.
Later, Cudahy’s vision of Milwaukee’s lakefront was extended when he and restaurateur Joe Bartolotta partnered on the Harbor House Restaurant, perched between the art museum and Discovery World.
Buying Pabst Theater for $1
Cudahy would also have an impact on a younger generation, helping transform the Pabst Theater into a centerpiece of the city’s flourishing musical scene.
First, Cudahy, at the behest of lifelong friend Fred Luber, donated $1 million to the $9.3 million renovation of the historic theater. The donation was used to build Cudahy’s Irish Pub, a unique wrinkle since it was attached to a German theater.
Then, in 2002 he bought the theater from the City of Milwaukee for $1, pledged to use his money for further upgrades and established the Pabst Theater Foundation to run the place.
The foundation grew to lease Riverside Theater in 2005 and Turner Hall Ballroom in 2007.
Cudahy once said: “It gives me a good feeling to run into all the people I do who say, ‘Thanks for fixing the Pabst Theater,’ “
Gary Witt, chief executive and co-owner of the Pabst Theater Group, recalled Cudahy telling him that he had just “bought the Pabst Theater for a buck and I don’t know what to do about it.”
“That one moment of time, who else does that?” Witt said. “Mike believed. There is something to be said about that generation of believers in a city.”
As successful as he was in business, marriage proved much more problematic. Cudahy included what he called “My many wives” in the dedication to his book.
“I’m not particularly proud of it,” he wrote of his four divorces. “In fact, it seems to demonstrate that I have been careless in my judgement of women, or intolerant, or immature, or impossible to live with, none of which appears to be a very nice quality.”
In 1990, at age 66, Cudahy married fourth wife Lisa Ann Henningsen, then 28. They divorced a few years later but later reconciled and lived together for decades. They remarried in 2019.
He married his first wife, the former Mary Lee Webster, in 1948; they divorced in 1951. Cudahy married Audrie Brown in 1956, but that marriage ended in divorce in 1962. Nancy Downing Daggett became his third wife in 1964; they divorced sometime after 1985.
Cudahy became the father of six children, including an adopted son, as well as stepfather to another five children.
Cudahy was often quick to share his business and life philosophy.
In May 2003, as keynote speaker at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee graduation, he said: “Never say ‘I can’t.’ “Don’t even have it in your vocabulary. How many times have I heard, ‘Oh, I can never do that?’ “
He added: “I want to tell you there were many times in my career if I had said that, I never would have accomplished what I did. If you think you’re going to fail, rethink your thinking. Just analyze your problem, then fix it. Flat out refuse to fail.”
Amy Rabideau Silvers is a former Journal Sentinel reporter.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Business leader, philanthropist Michael J. Cudahy has died at 97