By Steve Jagler Special to Published May 25, 2007 at 8:06 AM

In its 40th year, Summerfest is as healthy and vibrant as ever, and its identities as a Milwaukee icon and the largest music festival in the world are secure (see the cover story

Yet, there still is some unfinished business that continues to hover over the lakefront at Big Gig, and it isn't going away. That unfinished business is the respect, honor and indeed gratitude that is due to Bo Black.

You know most of the story. Black spent 20 years as the executive director and the public face of Summerfest before she was unceremoniously banished from the festival in 2003.

Theories and opinions abound as to how it came to pass that Black ended up on the outside looking in at the festival she had built. Some folks embrace the sanitized explanation that she had dared to publicly disagree with the Summerfest board over the more expensive lease that the city, under former Mayor John Norquist, had demanded and ultimately won from the festival.

However, there's more to that story than has been reported. Suffice to say that it was Norquist himself who set the wheels in motion that led to Black's dismissal. But that's another story for another day.
Right now, the important thing is that the festival and the city have a chance to do the right thing and acknowledge that Summerfest is the house that Bo built.

Keep in mind that Black's successor, Don Smiley, is not the bad guy in this drama. He was recruited by an executive headhunter for the post after Black was banished into exile. Smiley graciously acknowledged Black's contributions to the festival when he accepted the Visit Milwaukee Lamplighter Award on behalf of Summerfest last week.

It's the Summerfest board that ultimately owes Black a public apology. That will never happen. But the board could do the next-most respectable thing. They could permanently dedicate a monument, a flower garden, a gate or maybe even an ornate fountain to Black as a testament to her years of blood, sweat and tears.

The players in this drama have changed. The board has some new members. Norquist has since moved on to Chicago. His successor, Tom Barrett, was not in anyway involved in Black's dismissal. But like Smiley and the Summerfest board, Barrett too could make good with a public city ceremony that acknowledges Black's legacy.

It's not too late to do the right thing. But the clock is ticking. Black is at her Arizona home, trying to recover from the complications of operations for a stroke and an aneurysm. Her recovery was going well - until recently. When I spoke to her last week in a brief telephone conversation, she told me that her condition was taking a turn for the worse, and her outlook is not bright.

As we celebrate Summerfest'’s 40th year, let's take care of this unfinished business. Milwaukee, we owe Bo Black one.


Steve Jagler Special to

Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes in Milwaukee and is past president of the Milwaukee Press Club. BizTimes provides news and operational insight for the owners and managers of privately held companies throughout southeastern Wisconsin.

Steve has won several journalism awards as a reporter, a columnist and an editor. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

When he is not pursuing the news, Steve enjoys spending time with his wife, Kristi, and their two sons, Justin and James. Steve can be reached at