Edith Hilliard

Stephanie Franklin knows a thing or two about Madison’s public parks. For instance, Madison has about 275 parks, but only one – Orlando Bell Park on the far east side – is named for a person of color, she says.

Franklin serves as executive director for the Madison Parks Foundation, a nonprofit that does advocacy on behalf of Madison’s public parks. Part of that advocacy involves researching and promoting the history of our parks, and it was during her research that Franklin noticed the disparity. Compounding the issue, she says, is the fact that very few of our parks are dedicated to Madisonians who have had a modern-day impact on the community. She’s not alone in her concerns.

“Representation is really important” when it comes to naming public spaces, says Madison Parks Foundation (MPF) board member Bob Hemauer. “We’re always looking to make sure that our public spaces represent people who have had an impact on our community.”

Case in point: Madison’s Central Park, located on the near-east side. The 6-acre park, which hosts a skate park, a farmer’s market and summer music events, is a “missed opportunity,” says Hemauer. “It’s a beautiful park,” agrees Franklin. “But we wondered why the name couldn’t have more of a connection to the neighborhood that it’s in.”

Principal Milt McPike hanging with his East High students.

Earlier this year, the foundation’s board began discussing possible alternative names for the park, with an eye towards prominent Madisonians of color. One of the first names to come up was that of Milton McPike.

McPike, who passed away in 2008, served as the principal of Madison East High School from the late 1970’s until his retirement in 2002. During his tenure there, Reader’s Digest recognized McPike as one of 10 “American Heroes in Education,” and in 1997 he was named Wisconsin’s Principal of the Year.

In late spring, MPF made a decision to advocate for the change. Renaming Central Park for McPike is “a natural conclusion,” says Franklin. “Milt McPike dedicated his life to the education of thousands of (Madison) students.”

Craig Karlen, an East High alumnus who graduated in 1995, was one of those students. Today Karlen, a high school chemistry teacher in St. Paul, Minnesota, helps run a scholarship program in McPike’s name. Working for that scholarship fund brings Karlen back to East High at least once a year. He says that even today, kids at East know McPike’s name and what he meant to the community.
“My mom said, ‘Milt McPike is my principal forever,’” one student told Karlen during a recent visit.

Hemauer, who has been helping to spearhead public outreach for the MPF, says that it’s stories like these that have fueled the project. “To see how [Milt McPike has] touched people, even a decade later, is really inspiring,” he says.

Milt McPike congratulates a young student at a Lapham Elementary School graduation ceremony.

The foundation will take their case to the Board of Park Commissioners on December 13th. That meeting, which will take place at 6:30 pm at the Warner Park Community Recreation Center, will be an opportunity for the public to weigh in.

“It’s a chance for folks to come out and show their support,” says Hemauer. The board will then decide whether or not to recommend the change to the Common Council.

Milt McPike Jr., for one, supports the change. “My dad’s life was about kids,” he told Madison365 during a recent phone interview. “A park is where you bring your kids, where you come for peace. It’s a great way to honor him and his legacy. He’d be very humbled and very pleased.”

The foundation hopes to make the change official in time for the 10th anniversary of McPike’s death, which will come in March of next year. MPF has plans for a new park sign and a historical marker to commemorate McPike’s legacy. Hemauer seems optimistic.

“The most amazing thing about this process is how supportive everyone has been,” he says. “That excitement is indicative of Milt’s impact.”