The connections people make to ideas of place are these intangible threads of identity that often manifest in very real ways, and sometimes in unexpected moments. Bring up Green Bay, and a lot of people in Wisconsin will talk of taking the pilgrimage to Lambeau. Talk about Eau Claire, and the river, the bluffs, or the music tend to become the shift in conversation. Where some people bounce around to fully embrace what it is to live across the state or nation, others find themselves tethered to a home in perpetuity. For Colin Murray, that home is Madison.
“I love Madison,” says Colin. “Great city. When I graduated, I thought I would probably go someplace else, but it just never happened. And as I traveled, I realized we really have a great city. You tend to forget about that or take it for granted until you go somewhere. ‘Oh, this is a nice place, but they don’t have Willy Street. They don’t have Monroe Street. They don’t have these cool things that we’ve got.’”
I doubt anyone will be surprised to learn that Colin was born and raised in Madison. He’s lived on the north, east, south, and west side. And everywhere he goes, he brings Madison with him. Even out of state, he “constantly will hear that a lot of people have a connection to Madison,” often involving a badger in a sweater.
But to everyone who calls the Greater Madison area home, the city is much more than a university. Colin often brought up John Nolen and Paul Soglin during our conversation and the legacies they left for Madison’s citizens and visitors. “Madison really sets the standard for the rest of the state and the country in some cases. I love being in that type of activity that’s taking place.” The layout of Madison and the initiatives the community collectively pushes shape Colin’s vision of Madison, and through that, he sees his role.
As executive director of the nonprofit Dane Buy Local, Colin can keep Greater Madison-area small businesses relevant and, hopefully, make them something potential customers actively consider for their shopping and service needs. It’s not an anti-big-box store movement, but Colin wants to make sure people “give the local businesses the chance to earn your business.” Oftentimes, buying local is better for the environment when considering waste and litter, and the customer service is focused on establishing long-term relationships. Colin truly wants Madison to not just be something other cities can aspire to, but something that constantly seeks to improve upon itself.
Mirroring how Madison is impacted by the efforts of Colin and others sharing his commitment to the city, Colin has his own struggles—MS being one of the most notable—that he overcomes thanks to those putting faith in him. And by their hands, he’s been shaped for the better.
The story of Colin’s struggle with MS starts when he was 14. “I was riding my bike down Monona Drive, and I was hit by a car. I rolled off the hood of the car, landed on the concrete, and it caused damage to my spine. At the time, I remember laying there, and the first thing I thought was ‘I gotta get off the ground because somebody’s going to run me over.’” Immediately upon standing up, Colin realizes he needs to sit down. The driver puts Colin in the front seat, takes Colin’s bike out from under the vehicle, then twists it back into a bike-ish shape. Colin hops on his bike and rides home without thinking to even get the guy’s name.
When MRIs became a thing, doctors were able to confirm the accident was the culprit for his form of MS. Colin recalls precise moments when MS started affecting his life. “When I was 26, I had a bad episode, and I couldn’t even get out of bed. I just could not function for about six weeks.” Though he’d recover, those six weeks resulted in his left side regularly showing symptoms of MS. His hand was always numb. He walked with a small limp. And, at times, his face would go numb.
Things really started to go downhill when Colin was 45 or so. His life would’ve taken a major downturn if it wasn’t for his partner, Michael. “The reason I’m able to still have a job, hold a job, function in life, is because he’s doing a lot of stuff for me that I can’t do for myself. If it hadn’t been for that, I’d probably be on disability at this point.” As Colin has always championed for Madison, it seems he found in Michael someone who would support him.
And that support goes both ways. Michael is an artist. For some, that should say everything. To fill in the gaps for those who haven’t had the pleasure of knowing a person with the creative side of their brain going 24/7, Colin puts it gently. “Organization and timeliness can be challenges for artists, including my partner.” Colin organizes art shows at a space in the greenhouse of Klein’s and holds another event in Waukesha. A lot of work goes into helping an artist make a living at art, and Colin’s business mindset works well with Michael’s artistic one.
From living with an artist to being a voice for Madison small businesses, Colin is Madison personified. “I would love to be able to, at some point, retire and look back and say I made a difference in this city. … Something that I made a little bit of a difference in to make Madison a better place.” We should all strive to better the communities we choose to be a part of. But as encouraging as Colin’s words are, it’s peculiar they come from him because, by any reasonable measure, mission accomplished.
Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.