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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, July 30, 2014

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In Milwaukee Buzz

Orange Mike waits for the bus (across from orange chairs).

In Milwaukee Buzz

Michael Lowrey started wearing orange in 1977.

Orange Mike: one bright guy


Milwaukee is home to a plethora of interesting individuals, from the late Dick Bacon to the very-much-alive Milverine. Most of us don't know these free spirited folks personally, but we recognize them from afar and appreciate them for adding a tint of whimsy or weirdness to a mundane day.

Michael Lowrey, aka "Orange Mike," is figuratively and literally a colorful character who's often spotted around town wearing blaze-orange clothing.

Even though Lowrey's carrot-colored apparel makes a bold visual statement, he doesn't want it to completely define him. After all, he is many other things other than a peachy dresser: husband, father, historian, state worker, feminist, science fiction fan, voracious reader, "old-fashioned Milwaukee social democrat," writer, gamer and Wikipedia administrator.

"Wearing orange is a minor aspect of who I am, but it's a visible aspect of who I am," he says. "It's not a deep part of my psyche. It amuses and bemuses people. It's just something I do."

Despite his desire not to over focus on his attire, Lowrey gets a lot of attention, both positive and negative, for his brightly colored clothing.

"Sure, some people are jerky about it. But some people are always going to be jerky and I can't do much about it except try to be less of one myself," he says.

Lowrey's orange-wearing trend started out with an orange hat that he wore to a science fiction convention in the '70s.

"Then, in 1977, I was at an outlet store in Nashville. I saw a pair of orange patent leather loafers and I thought, 'those would go great with my hat,'" he says.

Today, he has hundreds of orange clothing items, including more than 60 pairs of underwear.

"I lucked out. I found them at a thrift store that was given a donation from a company that makes underwear for prisons. I got them for a buck a pair," says Lowrey.

Lowrey describes his chronic orange wearing as a "cultivated eccentricity" and something he does because he just really likes the color.

"Orange is lively. It's vigorous. A good, strong orange is non-confrontational but uncompromising," he says. "It conveys the right spirit to me. Yellow is a little too California and red can be violent and aggressive, but orange hits that nice middle ground. It just feels good."

As a devout Quaker, Lowrey says he is able to follow all of the teachings with the exception of the commitment to "plain dress."

"I'm sober, I'm clean, I stand up to power and I keep to the peaceful teachings. But I can't do the 'plain dress.' I like my orange," he says.

The trim on Lowrey's Brewers Hill home is also orange and he says he likes a lot of orange-colored foods, but given a choice of popsicles, he'd go with tamarind every time.

March 17 – St. Patrick's Day – is the only day of the year that Lowrey, who is proudly Irish, does not wear orange. Aptly, he wears all-green clothing instead. The fact orange is one of three colors in the flag of Ireland is part of Lowrey's attraction.

"I went to the world science fiction convention in the Netherlands and came back by way of Ireland. It was the first time anyone in my family had been back since 1720," he says.

Lowrey is also an avid Irish Fest attendee and every year he complains at the merchandise table that, in 30 years, there has only been one orange festival T-shirt. He also bought a festival-issued baseball-style hat embossed with the words "Irish Fest" from a bar manager because it was orange.

Years ago, Lowrey had a pair of orange-framed glasses, but when his now-18-year-old daughter Kelly was a toddler she grabbed and, accidentally, broke the glasses.

"The frames were collecting dust in the office of an optometrist on Mitchell Street who got them as a sample pair so he gave them to me for free," says Lowrey, who now has brown frames. "You can buy orange metal frames if you're the kind of person who can spend $250 on frames without wincing, but I'm not that kind of person. Do you know how many books you can buy with $250?"

A self-described "book junkie," Lowrey – who has a full time job with the State of Wisconsin – also has worked for Renaissance Books since 1978. Originally, he clerked at the currently-closed Downtown location and today works in the store at the airport.

"In '78, I wandered into the shop and asked about a job. The clerk said to come back the next day and wait for the owner. And so I came at noon, when it opened, and I stayed until 7, until it closed. The owner never showed," says Lowrey. "So I came back the next day. And so did he. And, well, I guess he liked my stubbornness."

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