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Governor Dreyfus's Red Vest

Red velveteen vest worn by Wisconsin Governor Lee Sherman Dreyfus, c. 1975.
(Museum object #1982.450.15)

In 1978 Wisconsin chose Lee Sherman Dreyfus, then chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP), as its 40th governor. Those who met Dreyfus found him loquacious and outgoing, but Dreyfus was also known for his flamboyance, a characteristic best illustrated by the red vest he wore daily. He began wearing the vest while at Stevens Point, probably in the early 1970s, and it quickly became his trademark. Dreyfus wore red vests in public until his death on January 2, 2008. In his last year as governor, Dreyfus donated one of his at least 20 red vests to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Dreyfus, born June 20, 1926, grew up in Milwaukee, the son of Woods Dreyfus, who worked for radio station WISN, and his wife Clare, who served on the local school board for 25 years. Their son combined both their interests into his career. After serving in the Navy for two years during World War II, Dreyfus used the G.I. Bill to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison, graduating in 1949 with a degree in communications. He later received his master's and doctorate degrees from UW.

Beginning in 1952 Dreyfus taught mass communications at Wayne State University in Detroit, but returned in Madison in 1962 to become general manager of WHA-TV and a professor of speech and radio-TV education and film at the University. In 1967 he began his tenure as president (later chancellor) of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. There he remained until inaugurated as governor in 1979.

The origin of the red vest has been difficult to ascertain. During his gubernatorial campaign, Dreyfus generally stated that the vest made it easier for UWSP students to recognize him. Ken Lindner, a former UW-La Crosse chancellor who served as Department of Administration secretary under Dreyfus, has said that "a student once recognized [Dreyfus] because he had worn a red vest and Dreyfus thought that would be a good way for people to remember him."

There are also stories, however, that the red vest was tied to anti-military student protests. His 1978 campaign adviser Bob Williams recalled that Dreyfus "began wearing his traditional red vest after someone shot an arrow at him one cold night as he arrived home on the Stevens Point campus. The notoriety from the incident reflected his controversial role as a pro-military national advocate for the ROTC." Dreyfus supposedly wanted to be recognized in the fray of the student protests, some have said, as he came after the students in a tank. None of these stories have been substantiated, and generally Dreyfus was a popular and well-respected chancellor at UWSP.

As a communications professor, Dreyfus must have realized the red vest was a useful symbol. A commentator on Dreyfus has written that the red vest was "more than an attention-getter, but a means through which Dreyfus…communicated with students." Dreyfus was known for his open-door policy both at UWSP and at the State Capitol, and the red vest fit with his philosophy of accessibility.

Others saw the vest more as a gimmick than a symbol. Assembly Speaker Edward Jackamonis stated in a Madison Magazine article that "Dreyfus is a great commentator. He comments about everything—flashy comments and gimmicks, like his red vest. There is a frustration among Democrats that he is seen as getting away with it."

Whatever the origins of the red vest and its original meaning, it came to stand for Lee Sherman Dreyfus, his non-partisan approach to politics, and his willingness to connect and interact with the people of Wisconsin. Dreyfus, a complete unknown at the beginning of the gubernatorial campaign, used the vest to set himself apart from traditional politicians and to get his open government message across. While campaigning he traveled the state in an old school bus painted to look like a train, which he called the "Red Vest Whistle Stop Special," and his campaign staff handed out buttons with just a red vest printed on them. The red vest message worked. In a come-from-behind win, Wisconsin selected him to be governor, the only elected office he ever sought. Dreyfus served one term and declined to run for re-election in 1982.

[SOURCES: Waldherr, David Paul. Dedication with Innovation: Wisconsin's Governor Lee Sherman Dreyfus (University of Wisconsin-Madison Honors' Thesis, 1980); Walters, Steven. "Dreyfus was red-vested populist who promised to 'withhold the withholding," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at JS Online, January 3, 2008 ; Sincere, Rick. "Lee Sherman Dreyfus, 1926-2008," Rick Sincere News and Thoughts, January 5, 2008 (http://ricksincerethoughts.blogspot.com); Bauer, Scott. "Former Wisconsin Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus Dies at Age 81," Oshkosh Northwestern, January 4, 2008; "Dreyfus, and his Red Vest, Really Stood Out,".]

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Posted on January 10, 2008

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