Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, October 5, 2009

Catching up: Lunch Bunch revels in classmates' company for 25 years

Twenty-five years ago they were juggling child care, jobs and commutes into Madison to attend their public affairs classes. Now, still drawn together by a love of political talk, the La Follette Lunch Bunch members pass around photos of grandchildren while they debate local and national politics and public policy.

five women
Lunch Bunch members Peggy LeMahieu, Jane Beyer, Sue Plasterer, Judith Nugent and Carol Carstensen. They attended the La Follete Institute together in the mid 1980s and still meet regularly for lunch.

"We've enjoyed each other's company since meeting at La Follette," says Sue Plasterer, the unofficial convener and social coordinator for the group. "We look forward to hearing each other's opinions about politics and the economy."


Jane Beyer

Prior to joining Marshall & Ilsley Corp. in Milwaukee in 1998, Jane Beyer worked for the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Burea and the City of Milwaukee's budget office. As a vice president at M&I, a diversified financial services corporation, she manages a group of senior consultants in the talent and organizational development department and leads the development and facilitation of programs within the Leadership Institute of M&I University. She graduated from La Follette in 1986.

Carol Carstensen

Once a public school and technical college teacher, Carol Carstensen, a 1986 grad, came to La Follette to broaden her credentials beyond her master's degree in teaching. She worked from 1985-1996 as a program analyst and coordinator for the Wisconsin departments of Industry, Labor and Human Resources; Health and Social Services; and Public Instruction.

Carstensen won a seat on the Madison school board in 1990, and throughout her 18-year tenure she was well-regarded for her understanding of the district's financial issues. Her budget insight was due in part to her La Follette School training. "The public finance and budget course was really where I gained my background of how public bodies go about budgeting and where I learned the theory of budgeting," she says.

Peggy LeMahieu

Peggy LeMahieu, a 1985 alum, came to La Follette with a degree in nursing, seeking a master's degree that would lead to a career change away from being a public health nurse. "I wanted a broader focus," LeMahieu says. "I had a lot of interests that my public affairs degree let me pursue."

LeMahieu has experience with health organizations, acute-care hospitals, third-party insurers and large physician-owned medical systems. She now works in the care quality and innovation department with the University of Wisconsin Medical Foundation.

Judith Nugent

1985 grad Judith Nugent has spent her career with the State of Wisconsin managing health-care databases and systems. She is now head of the Health Care Information Section at what is now the Department of Health Services. The section maintains reporting systems for cancer and violent deaths, and provides data on health-care providers and services for epidemiological and administrative use.

Sue Plasterer

Sue Plasterer had left college to marry and raise a family. When they moved to Madison in 1979, she fulfilled a promise to her father that she would complete her degree. After graduation in 1983, while volunteering in the governor's office, she met La Follette Institute director Dennis Dresang, who encouraged her to apply to La Follette. She finished her master's in 1991, five years after she started at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

Plasterer worked for DOT until she retired in 2006. The first 10 years she was a budget analyst, then she became a web developer and administrator, helping the agency to create its first internal and external web sites. While a budget analyst, she "enjoyed using technology, so the switch was not so far-fetched," she says. "After all, chasing $100 and 100 pixels is all a matter of degree."

At one Saturday lunch, these La Follette alumni compared notes on property values, deplored the increase in unemployment, analyzed media coverage, and dissected Wisconsin, national and international politics. On the personal side, they asked after each other's children, parents, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

"We always catch up with what is happening in our families and jobs," says Lunch Bunch member Carol Carstensen, "and there's always something to talk about with the state or national political situation."

They first started going out for lunch after Dennis Dresang's personnel administration class. In 1984, most of the Lunch Bunch members were non-traditionally aged women in graduate school in a time when universities were starting to encourage women to pursue advanced degrees. Several sought to build on volunteer work in the political arena or to refocus their careers. The La Follette Institute of Public Affairs offered the challenge and sense of political engagement they desired.

As founding director, Dresang was just reshaping the Center for the Study of Public Policy and Administration into the institute when the Lunch Bunch enrolled. Political science professor Clara Penniman started the center in the late 1960s. Sheila Earl, the center's internship and placement coordinator, served as the institute's assistant to the director.

"That combination of Sheila Earl, Dennis Dresang and Clara Penniman created a real openness to non-traditional women," says Lunch Bunch member Judith Nugent. "It was a moment in time that brought us all in from all these backgrounds."

Their résumés cover many policy fields in the public and private sectors, though most went from La Follette to work in state government. "At one time or another most of us were employed by the State of Wisconsin, although only one of us still is—Judith," Plasterer says. "Our careers have been varied, but I think all of us can say we've benefited from our education at La Follette."

Nugent and Peggy LeMahieu are the only two who work in similar fields — health policy. They, Plasterer and Carstensen live in the Madison area. Jane Beyer and Claudetta Wright try to make the trip from Milwaukee for a Lunch Bunch gathering when their schedules allow. 1985 graduate Tilli de Boor was a longtime member until she moved out of state.

Beyer and Wright work in the private sector. Wright handles human resources for the Bradley Center, the sports and entertainment complex that is home to the Milwaukee Bucks. Beyer is vice president with the Marshall & Ilsley Corp.

Carstensen worked for three state agencies and served on the Madison school board from 1990-2008.

Plasterer attributes her 20-year career with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to Nugent, who alerted her to the posting of what became Plasterer's first budget position.

"We have been there for each other through marriage, divorce, the arrival of grandchildren, deaths in the family and illnesses," Nugent says. "Plus, once we have caught up on family and events, our lunch conversations inevitably turn to politics and can get quite lively on occasion."

When Nugent and LeMahieu enrolled, the La Follette Institute did not have a specific health policy program, "so we created our own," Nugent says. She was waiting to hear about admittance into law school, and Earl convinced her to start a public affairs degree with a focus on health policy. When LeMahieu enrolled a semester later, Nugent was asked to be her mentor since they shared a policy focus. Nugent eventually gave up on the double major, and she and LeMahieu worked with La Follette to put together courses for a health policy degree. "I had a ball over there in the Medical School," adds Nugent, who recorded her lectures to listen to while she commuted from Waupun. She and her three children were in college at the same time.

For LeMahieu, who had a younger child at home, the varied backgrounds of the La Follette Institute's students were a plus. "Everyone in the school had life and work experience to draw from," she says. "All the different interests and backgrounds were a piece of what I found to be so stimulating. We challenged each other and the professors challenged us."

This article appeared in the fall 2009 La Follette Notes newsletter for alumni and friends.