This is Why

Because he called on the morning of February 17 to say he “might need some help with the kids today.” I said it sounded like he was in the car. He said he was, in fact, in the car and did I know a back way through Beloit because he was driving south and might need, also, to get off the Interstate.

Because he called dozens of times in the ensuing days, sometimes frustrated, sometimes stunned, sometimes truly sad—yet always hopeful. I listened to him and remembered what a sunny kid he had been and how even today he just can’t waste his time saying anything bad. About anyone. We talked about fairness, justice, trust and what his kids were up to at any given moment. I told him he should get some rest and wear a blazer on television; I’m a big sister and we say things like that.

Because we grew up close and because so many people needed information—friends, family, strangers, people I’d heard of, people I’d never met, people who knew someone who knew us— I spoke out. And was instantly radicalized. I chronicled the lies, documented the attacks, speculated openly about motivations and consequences, bore witness. I felt the same disbelief that I’d heard in his voice on that first phone call. He couldn’t believe he was dodging a state trooper. Now I couldn’t believe the ferocity of my opinions and my willingness to express them in public. But there it was, for both of us. He moved from hotel to hotel. We met in stateline parking lots to transfer a jacket, a kid, a hug. My voicemail filled up, my email overflowed, dust and dishes piled up as my heart lurched between fear, outrage, resolve, gratitude. I unblogged for weeks while I tried to help him and he tried to help me and we tried to help everyone make sense of what was happening and see beyond the next bend in the road. 

Because in the end, after I had lost one client and gained two over what I did as a result of what he did, we realized we had made it. We had been tested and met challenges with our humanity intact. We saw the future unfurl in front of us, knew we would have to stand and be strong. He went home to catch up with his kids. I turned back to my company and caught up with my work. When he called we talked not about which hotel he was at in a different state but about what was to come in our own.

Because between that time and this, we stepped into a holding room, the eye of the hurricane, before the biggest rally ever. Everything was calm, one wall of the storm was behind us, the other not yet here. He said “We get to bring a person on stage. I want mine to be you.” We turned around to look back after we’d climbed the steps to the stage. The cheering was deafening, a roar that boomeranged around the capitol square again and again. Someone on the ground raised a camera, lifted it from the backdrop of 180,000 cheering people so that we stood framed against the blue sky of Wisconsin.

Because only a little brother, an adored little brother who grew up to become a strong, intelligent and kind man, who did something so brave that neither of us could hardly breathe for weeks, can get away with giving you bunny ears at a moment like that.


46 thoughts on “This is Why

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  1. I just want to say how much I’ve admired your “little” brother, as I’ve watched this drama unfold from across the country. He’s a remarkable man.

    And kudos to you for putting a priority on doing the right thing for him and for your state. Too many folks — especially progressives — hesitate to be politically active lest it cost them business. But I expect you’ll gain far more clients than you lose. Standing for something can be attractive.

    Thank you … and I look forward to staying in touch on Twitter.


  2. Great story! It is nice to hear from the side that was taking care of our Fantastic 14 while they were out of state.

  3. Loved reading “This is Why”. We here in Madison could not have asked for a stronger leader and ally.

    I benefited positively from my older sisters’ collective influence over the years, so I’m sure you, in no small part, are responsible for much of the qualities you admire in your little brother. Thanks for posting this. (And glad to see you were a good sport about the bunny ears)

  4. Thank you for being an amazing and supportive big sister to a courageous and honorable man. Those of us who understand why he did what he did also know how hard it was, on the Senators and their families. Thank you for making it a little easier for Jon.

  5. This beautifully describes the incredibly powerful bonds we share with our siblings. Thank you for putting it down in words what so many of us feel. We are all human and in this together; this is what keeps us sane and moving forward. We will not give up the hope that we all felt in that crowd on the Capital grounds on March 12th, 2011.

  6. You sound like an incredibly supportive and loving big sister for your wonderful brother. You guys looking to adopt?

  7. That is a beautiful writing. Thank you for taking such good care of our Jon of Erpenbach while he was in his cave. We know we can count on you to continue to lift him up because you are an incredible big sister.

  8. Thank you for sharing your incredible story. What the Wisconsin 14 did was brave and heroic and applaud them for their solidarity and fight. The battle is not over, it is just beginning. If this Republican party thinks they are going to change the way government in this state and others and in our country is run they need to think again. We need more people like the Wisconsin 14 who are not afraid to stand up to them. Negotiate? Walker never wanted to negotiate and still does not. Thank you for being their and being a wonderful support to Jon and the Wisconsin 14.

    1. love these pictures. when i look at this awoseme family i can’t help to smile with them. You guys did a great job capturing that bubbly personality there whole family has. love love love these.

  9. Thank you for posting this. I hope your “little brother” runs for governor. He and the other Senate Democrats are my heroes.

  10. What a beautifully-written piece! Thank you so very much for writing it and for all you have done to help your brother and our entire state during all this turmoil.

  11. Love both of you and your courage and intelligence and everything you’re doing for the State of Wisconsin and all of us. Thank you so very much!

  12. Mary The Writer! You wrote this beautiful piece and I love it!
    Thank you for helping Jon, helping with our kids, and for calling me to talk and check on how the kids were doing.
    I have had to apply your “3rd man out” parenting advice again and say, ” I know you will handle it with as much kindness and responsibility as you can” and walk away-brilliant! You’re like a big sis I never had- so wise- comes from lots of trials and life experiences, I know, so I know you paid a high price to get the goods 🙂
    It’s a sweet thing Jon chose you to stand by him on stage at the Rally. Jon is doing good work in politics. You 2 make a good bro-sis team and the bunny ears can always be cropped out of the pictures. Just sayi n’

    1. Cropping — I never thought of that: brilliant! Thanks, Kathy. You and I share a special bond, so any time I can help I will be glad to. And, as you know, you did all the heavy lifting on this last go-round. By the way, LOL — it’s “3rd man IN,” dear. 🙂 Glad it’s helped, though — wish I’d have known about it many years before I did. Now let’s gear up for the next exciting battle, whatever that may be!

  13. I live in London, UK, so I have no idea what/who are the Wiscosin 14, (yes, I will google) but this was beautifully written, full of such love and support for family. I am an only child and sometimes I wish I had siblings like you- you share a very special bond.

  14. I am proud to have this Senator represent me! I am so very grateful for all he has done for WI and all you have done for him (and WI) No words can truly express the way I feel right now but I will be passing this on to my friends, family and anyone else I can to show the huge sacrifice for us, the people!!!

  15. Late, but I just came across this – what a lovely piece of writing and the love you two have shines through! Thanks for doing your part in all of this!

  16. Beautiful piece of writing but it left me confused. You ARE referring to Scott Walker, right? The man who is trying to systematically destroy the hopes and dreams of the people of Wisconsin? The man who doesn’t believe in labor being organized, unions, fair pay for the teachers of his own children…THAT Walker?

    1. I love Jon’s post. It’s raw and real. When I was readading it I found it to be, at times, a litadtle harsh. But you know what? Livading with someadone like me (and Heather, in this case) can be a litadtlea0harsh.My husadband and I have a wonadderadful relaadtionadship. We are honadest and open with one another, but this truly proadvided me with new inishgt into what my husadband goes through when I “foradget” to take my meds. (Or decide that maybe I don’t need them righta0now…).Thanks for thea0link.

  17. Such a wonderful story of how a bond created in childhood lives on throughout one’s life. Life, it starts and ends with the family. I’m proud of your brother and am thankful we have leaders in politics that are not afraid to voice their opinions and stand up for the working people of Wisconsin. Thank you for being a strong older sister that helped in shaping who your brother is. You wouldn’t happen to have another brother that is available would you? 🙂

  18. Your “little brother and 13 other very brave and dedicated public servants deserve all the praise and accolades for helping the rest of us to put forth the great effort needed to get the recall rolling and try to oust the nest of snakes that has hijacked our state government. We need to fight them at every turn. This war was one they started and declared against all hard working tax paying residents of this state. They have vilified people who are the very backbone of our system and our civilization, people whom we are proud to call our friends and neighbors, and in doing so they have shown themselves in their true light as greedy, power mad bought off paid off criminals who will stop at nothing to feather their own nests and gain ground in a political power play that is nation wide in its full scope. THANKYOu Senator Erpenbach for giving us the space to find the truth, and begin to push back the evil that has tried to overcome our beautiful, peaceful state. (And thank you big sister ! For standing strong with your brother, and the rest of us in the face of grievous adversity. This fight we have all enjoined here is a classic battle of Good vs. Evil, It is a cut and dried black and white issue for most of us. There are no shades of gray in this task we have all set ourselves to. ) RECALLLLLL!

  19. Beautifully written. Thank you. I’m an ex-Pat cheesehead, gone since 1990, but I first heard about Jon from a friend (Thayer) who worked with him doing something for the UW Foundation. I’ve been following WI politics for a few years (my parents still live there and many of my friends).

    All I know is that Jon upholds the finest traditions of our Progressive State, from Fighting Bob LaFollette, Governor’s Davidson & McGovern, Ed Witte (author of the 1935 Social Security act), Charles Van Hise, to Russ Feingold and now, Jon Erpenbach.

    Behind every strong man and/or woman is strong family & strong friends. One is doubly fortunate when they’re the same.
    Thank you for helping Jon, helping our state, and helping the Nation.

    Andrew Sather

  20. Thank you very much for writing this essay about your brother, State Senator Jon Erpenbach. Even from New Jersey, I have admired the courage of the Fabulous 14 and their work to make Wisconsin a better place. Even the families of these state senators should be equally recognized for their sacrifices on the domestic front. Thank you again for writng. Good luck with the recall efforts.

  21. he is the voice of the forward thinker. all the time i spent away in the service and people making fun of wisconsin, i could always tell them that, though, stuck in a midwest of conservative thinking, was actually very progressive and forward looking. he has been a tough fighter for that return. i hope he has the mental stamina to keep fighting because we need him.

  22. Thank you so much for being there for Jon, so that Jon could be there for all of us! It can’t imagine the sacrifice on everyone’s part… It was a crazy time – a nightmare that just wouldn’t stop and it continues today. It’s so hard for me to understand why people can’t or won’t see clearly on why the Heroic 14 were forced to leave the state so that we had a chance to take time and see what was truly happening – a massive power struggle not for the people, but against the people and all of the ideals that we hold dear. Recall and reclaim!

  23. I became your friend, on twitter. You don’t know me, and didn’t know me, but you followed me, and I followed you. I cried, almost daily, with ALL of you in Wisconsin. I prayed for all of you, without ceasing. I knew, through all of you, what was taking place because evil “took office”. I tweeted hugs and encouragement. I retweeted and reposted TRUTH for others who didn’t know, and who wouldn’t know, because the media wasn’t reporting it, outside of the bits that MSNBC would share, thanks to Ed Schutlz, Rachel Madow, etc..

    Daily, I tweeted *hugs* to so many of you. I sat in tears, filled with pride, when I got the tweet that a “public display of #_huglifehugs” was done in my honor, in the Capitol rotunda. Daily, I worked to encourage and cheer up the weary… restoring laughter to a woman I’ve never met, as she lamented her exhaustion & disenchantment, by asking her, “but are your socks dry?”. And many other things… anything I could do to support you from Illinois. I’ve never felt a greater sense of purpose.

    This morning, I read this to my husband. I literally bawled through the entire reading. I love you. I love Jon. I never knew that I could love people I’ve never met, and perhaps may never meet, but I do. Thank you for sharing this. You’ve given us insight to some of the real-life toll. God bless you.
    @TruthSucceeds – Truth Prevails
    (Previously @JCwasGOD)

  24. Yeah! to Jon and a great sister for being there when he needed someone. I admit the only name in the group of 14 that I recognized in the beginning was that of Dave Hansen. I applaud the 14 for the difficult choice they made to stand of up for the majority of people in our fair state. I have been especially impressed by the way Mr. Erpenbach handles a crowd. I would love to see him run for governor when the one we have losses the recall election.

  25. Cheers to you and your brother from L.A. — I love reading accounts of people with the fortitude to do the right thing when others would sit back and wait. Very brave indeed. I will continue to keep tabs on the recall effort and hope it works out in favor of the public employees of Wisconsin — and in favor of sane leadership.

  26. Please ask him to run for governor!!! I met him the day of ‘The Great Return,’ shook his hand as he came out of the long press conference. He was still wearing the same leather jacket that he had on for all those Rachel Maddow interviews. I was so moved by all 14, including my own fresh young Senator, Chris Larson. Then I heard your bro speak at the big rally in May. He lifts the spirits of all us beleaguered Wisconsinites! What an antidote he would be to what we now have in Madison!!

  27. I’ve watched the events in Wisconsin with great admiration from here in Pennsylvania. The courage and resolve that you’ve all displayed is truly inspiring. The best of luck to you.

  28. Thanks for sharing your story of your brother- Last February/ spring of 2011 was one of significance. So glad that he is my wonderful WI State Senator! He is an excellent leader & WI needs many more people just like him!

  29. My words don’t adequately express my gratitude for your brother, his wisdom, and his calming presence. Jon represents all that is good in our wonderful state. Thank you Mary for your beautiful words. Your mother must be so proud of you two!

  30. Thank you Mary and thank you John. I’ll never forget the day we met at the Old Fashioned, after a recall rally in August, you saw my little homemade name tag with my Twitter handle and avatar and the familiar hashtag #WIunion. I was so happy when you jumped up and said I know you! Then you and your brother both stopped to say hi to me and my daughter.

    I’ll never forget how proud I was to tell others that John was my State Senator and I got to meet him and his incredible sister!

    Great story, Great Legacy.


  31. Loved your writing, it is nice that you have each other. I have 5 sisters and 4 brothers and it is a bond you can’t break! I too would like to thank Jon and the others as well, I know it was a great sacrifice, they made for us. I along with 2 of my sisters made it to Madison to several rallies, and got to shake all their hands. It was one of the proudest moments in my life to stand with all those wonderful people from all walks of life, from all communities, big and small, from all over this great state. We owe all of you who helped, and the children of these Fabulous 14. I think you should publish this in the state papers, to let everyone understand the sacrifice they made, they didn’t just run away(as I have heard so many times), they did it FOR their constituents, and the good of all!

  32. Mary – Thank you for taking the time – a year later, to write this. I too was “radicalized” by the events of the last year. Down here in Racine, we rage against the likes of Van Wanggaard and Robin Vos and take deep consolation in dear friend, Cory Mason.

    I held my breath every time Jon and Cory appeared on MSNBC. Good call on the blazer.

    Love your tweets. Whatever the outcome, it’s all been worth it. So glad to get to know another excellent member of the Erpenbach family – if even from a distance.

  33. Wow – what a piece! All the emotions that overwhelmed me for weeks during that time came flooding back as I read this. I, too, am a big sister to a sassy little brother with a relationship like what you have described. He called from Germany the morning after the first large rally, relieved that I had answered and was not in jail! The events from last year stay with me daily, and will stay with me forever. Your brother speaking on so many shows and in so many interviews gave me hope, and helped to sustain so many of us as we prayed and marched to get our voices heard. The bravery and dedication to our state that your brother and his colleagues displayed earned them an award I was proud for them to receive at the NEA Representative Assembly last July in Chicago – “Friends of Education”! I am proud to say I was there as a delegate for REA, representing WEAC and the state of Wisconsin, and chanting my little lungs out!

    Give him bunny ears back for me……

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