Milwaukee Talks: Former Summerfest director Elizabeth "Bo" Black
Elizabeth "Bo" Black, who served as Summerfest's executive director from 1984 until 2003, is a role model for professional women and a Milwaukee icon. Although she now lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., health issues and a recent achievement award keep Black in the local media and in the minds of Milwaukeeans.
Black's bleak bill of health started in 2001 -- just a year after she married former Brewers manager Tom Trebelhorn -- when she underwent surgery to repair an aneurysm. In February of 2007, Black suffered a stroke caused by a ruptured aneurysm and she was in a coma for two weeks with very little hope for survival.
However, the resilient Black came around, thanks to what she describes as a "miracle" generated by the power of love and music. Today, Black lives with coronary arterary disease and recently battled a devastating case of swine flu, but she continues to remain optimistic. Black says she recovered from the post-surgery depression that made her wish for death and she now cherishes every day.
OnMilwaukee.com spoke to Black via telephone about Summerfest, her health and her recent return to Milwaukee.
OnMilwaukee.com: How is your health?
Bo Black: On a scale from zero to 10, it's about a three or a four. I take so many pills for my high blood pressure.
OMC: Did you have a history of high blood pressure?
BB: Yes. When I was a little girl, about 5 years old, my dad tried to get an insurance policy and he was denied because my blood pressure was high even then. But life went on, and I didn't have issues in high school -- I was an athlete -- but when I was at Summerfest, my blood pressure would skyrocket and I would find myself at Columbia Hospital because of the stress from the job.
That's why it's so important for women, especially women with moderate-to-high blood pressure, to have an echocardiogram. This is so important. I feel like this is my contribution to society now: to remind women to get an "echo."
OMC: After your first surgery, you returned to Summerfest, right?
BB: Yes. My doctor told me to quit my job, but, knowing me, I didn't do what I was told. I kept working. My kids were in college and I was a single mom. I shouldn't have done this. I wasn't always professional because sometimes I had to work from my bed, but I was still successful. I had a lot of creative ideas at this time.
OMC: Your Summerfest career ended in 2003. Were you ready to let go?
BB: Summerfest did not renew my contract in 2003. There was talk of having me stay on as a consultant, but they decided it would be too hard to have me in the background, overseeing whoever took over. So, I didn't consult, and I came out here, to Arizona, to live with Treb (Tom Trebelhorn) because we had been in a -- what would you call it? -- I guess you would call it a long-distance marriage.
OMC: When were you and Treb married and how is your relationship?
BB: I married Treb on Aug. 15, 2000, but I knew him since 1991. We were planning a party to celebrate our marriage, but instead, I had a surgery to repair six aortic aneurysms and two leaky valves. I was told I had a three precent chance of not having stroke during this heart surgery, but I didn't.
Treb is still in baseball. He's in Oregon, managing the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes. We couldn't be more different. But we're both Democrats, and we both voted for Obama. We have that.
OMC: You were healthy when you first moved to Arizona?
BB: Yeah, I was doing OK, but then I started having these terrible headaches. I worked four hours a week at a clothing store and I was very dependable. I was there every Sunday, and when I didn't show up for work, (the owner) called 911, knowing that something was very wrong if I didn't show up or call. I would have called.
The paramedics found me at home and I was dead. I had had a stroke and I didn't have a heartbeat or brain function. One of my dogs was sitting on my head and he wouldn't get off. He was crying incessantly. He was so scared. They know more than people know.
I met one of the paramedics many months later who had found me and thanked him and he said he honestly couldn't believe I was still alive.
OMC: Did you have any visions or experiences during your "death" / coma?
BB: I was in a coma for two weeks and I "saw" a lot of people during this time. I sometimes see people now that I think I saw in my coma. I went up to someone at Starbucks and asked, "Do I know you or did I see you in my coma?" I kept thinking about my children and my grandchildren. And I thought Treb was one of my old boyfriends.
OMC: Did anything happen to bring you out of your coma?
BB: My daughters kept singing to me -- Sade, Seal, John Legend -- and a miracle happened. I started to recover. My daughters and the music brought me back. But I didn't know anything when I woke up. It was so horrible. I was so depressed. I couldn't walk. I asked, "Why did you save me?" I was a newborn. I thought the nurses at night were Summerfest security. I was all over the map. I did not want to live.
OMC: Do you still feel that way, Bo?
BB: No. The days aren't long enough now. I cherish every day.
OMC: What do you do with your time?
BB: I go to the doctor's office. I walk around and window shop, but I don't buy anything because of the recession. I laugh as much as I can. I watch "The View" every day just because I think Whoopi (Goldberg) is so funny. I walk around the block with my cane. I water plants. Yeah, I've come down a notch.
And I go to a lot of movies. The first film I saw after my coma was "Once" and I thought that was interesting because it was about music -- it won an Academy Award for one of the songs -- and music has always been such a huge part of my life with Summerfest. And then it saved me. My daughters singing to me saved me. I must really love music.
OMC: Is it true you're working on a book?
BB: Actually, I wrote the book and my daughter is rewriting it for me.
OMC: What was your first year at Summerfest like?
BB: It was 1984. It was before the Marcus Amphitheater and the main stage was on the north end of the grounds. Huey Lewis was booked the previous November for only $20,000 and he played the night before at Poplar Creek in Chicago and was paid five times more. So he took his time coming onstage, and the crowd got really wild, climbing the fence, and I thought it was already the end of my legacy.
OMC: Do you miss Milwaukee?
BB: I sure do. I was so sad to leave. I miss my old hangouts like Beans & Barley and Alterra. People know me in Milwaukee -- not the young kids, but the older people. I'm so proud of Milwaukee in so many ways. I've always been so proud of our ethnic festivals. It's a way for all different people to try to come together, to get along.
OMC: You recently returned to Milwaukee, right?
BB: Yes. I came back in May, to receive a TEMPO International Leadership Award.
OMC: Do you think being an attractive woman and a former Playboy model made you have to work extra hard for respect?
BB: Summerfest did not know I posed for Playboy when they hired me, but Bill Janz from the Sentinel wrote an article about me posing for Playboy, and so everyone found out. But I did not pose nude for Playboy -- I wore a sports jersey -- so it wasn't as scandalous as it might have been.
OMC: How would you describe your relationship with the media during your days with Summerfest?
BB: I was out there with the media, and I liked the media even though they made fun of me. I knew that as long as I was in the media it was a good thing.
OMC: What was the biggest skill or talent you brought to Summerfest?
BB: I am really good at fundraising. People knew when I was calling, I was calling for something. I didn't mean to have it this way, it's just what happened. When I was fundraising for the Marcus Amphitheater, I was down to just needing (money) for the grass area. So, I went on the radio, on WKTI, and I begged for dirt. Nothing was too low for me. Of course, they ran with it and made lots of jokes like, "Doesn't Bo have enough dirt on her already?"
OMC: You made huge efforts to get people to take the bus to Summerfest, right?
BB: Yes. When Summerfest started, only a few thousand people were taking the bus, but by the time I left, there were 500,000 or 600,000 people taking the bus. It became the in thing. At one point I made a commercial where I said, "Maybe you'll meet someone on the bus." This was so important for so many reasons. Mainly because it cut down on driving under the influence.
OMC: Tell me about Operation Summer Chance.
BB: There is a plaque for me in the Children's Area at Summerfest because of my commitment to kids. I started a program called Operation Summer Chance that hired kids for work and mentorship. Then, I would call foundations and get them to pay for the kids' college education for a year or two. Kids still write to me and say thanks. Actually, they say, "Thank you, Miss Black" and I always say, "Call me Bo."
I am so happy to have helped so many kids through this program, and my own kids learned from this, too. One of my daughters rescues animals, another teaches a hip hop dance class for (under-privledged) kids and my son is the one who always encourages his friends to finish school. I really believe the only way to make the world better is if every person does one thing every day to make someone else feel better.
OMC: How many jobs were created during your reign at the Big Gig?
BB: By the time I left, there were 50 or 60 full-time employees and 6,000 summer hires.
OMC: What are you like in your personal life?
BB: I am a listener, a helper, a mother. I am this to my kids and my grandkids and my friends, too.
OMC: How did you get the nickname "Bo?"
BB: My baptismal name was Elizabeth Josepha Bussmann, named by the priest. My father's name was Joe and my mom's name was Betty, and therefore in the spirit of the South, which St. Louis was considered to be, I was called Betty Jo, but luckily my little brother Joe III couldn't say Betty Jo, so it was shortened to Bo. My first hubby was named Bill Black, and so I have stayed Bo Black.
OMC: How many times have you been married?
BB: Treb is my third husband. I was married to Bill Black, Tom Lindemann and Tom Trebelhorn. I had Stephanie with Bill, and Kellyn and Blake with Mr. Lindemann, and Treb has four sons and three grandsons. I have two grandsons and one granddaughter. One of the few regrets I have is that I was a better mom than apparently a wife.
OMC: What do you still want to do?
BB: I wish I could run for office and knock everybody's socks off. At this age, there's nothing anyone could say that would stop me or bother me.
OMC: Summerfest question: Wine coolers or beer?
BB: Neither, actually. I never drank during work but afterwards, my first boss and I would have Dewar's on the rocks at the bar in our administrative offices. During Winterfest, however, I started drinking Miller Genuine Draft for the first time and I really loved it.
I'm a Miller girl. My son just reminded me that after my stroke I was begging the nurses for a MGD. So my son, who is a bankruptcy lawyer in California, snuck one into the hospital.
They thought I was nuts, but I was thinking, "If I'm gonna die, let me die with an MGD."
Summerfest was Bo Black's life. It's merely Don Smiley's job. Best wishes, Bo!
I agree, speakthetruth, Summerfest has taken a definite nosedive since this lady ran it. She knew the pulse of Milwaukee and knew how keep the fest diverse. For my money she is still one of the faces of (and a credit to) Milwaukee. We miss you, Bo!!!
Nice interview. I had the pleasure to meet Ms. Black a couple times in the restaurant below my apt. in The Shorecrest. She's an extremely charismatic, kind, classy, and stunning individual.
Summerfest and Milwaukee have never been the same since Bo Black got run out of town.
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