Tommy G. Thompson was born in 1941 and raised in Elroy, a small town in west central Wisconsin. His mother was a teacher; his father ran a small business. Enrolling in the University of Wisconsin- Madison, he graduated in 1963 with a double major in History and Political Science before earning a J.D. from the UW Law School in 1966. While a student, he was a member, and later president, of the College Republicans.
Thompson was elected to a seat in the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1966, where he served with distinction. He became minority leader in 1981, and five years later he successfully ran for Governor of Wisconsin and was inaugurated in 1987. He won his next three gubernatorial elections, winning an unprecedented four terms; making him the longest serving Governor in Wisconsin history. His approach to public leadership and value it brought to citizens of the state steadily grew his popularity. In his first three races for governor, the percentage of citizens voting for him increased each time. Even in his fourth and final contest, he won more than 60% of the vote. Before completing his fourth term, Thompson accepted the call from President George W. Bush to become the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. His appointment was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in January 2001 and he retained his leadership position for exactly four years. The major initiatives for HHS under his leadership were to strengthen U.S. preparedness for a bioterrorism attack, increase funding for the National Institutes of Health, expand health insurance coverage to lower-income Americans, and focus attention on large-scale national health problems such as obesity and diabetes.
As Governor of Wisconsin, one of Tommy Thompson’s goals was to bring people together to accomplish positive change. Not only did he achieve his policy goals, he did so while reaching across the political spectrum to work effectively with Democrats and Republicans. He designed and implemented a program of welfare reform that became a model for the rest of the country. He made a practice of using objective research to inform his policies before proposing and executing them. He remained perpetually committed to the maintenance of a vibrant state university, faculty research, and the “Wisconsin Idea” – the principle that the university should improve people’s lives beyond the classroom and the boundaries of the university.