Michael Olbrich (1881 – 1929) was an attorney whose work with the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association had a profound impact on Madison. While earning a law degree from the UW he was head of the joint debate team that, in 1904, defeated Michigan for the first time. His brilliance brought him to the attention of another celebrated debater, Robert M. La Follette Sr. Meeting La Follette deeply impressed Olbrich, triggered a lasting interest in politics, and provided him with a mentor whose cause he championed throughout his life. He nominated La Follette for president at both the 1912 and 1916 Republican conventions. He was also deeply influenced by John M. Olin. “In Olin, Olbrich found both inspiration and a model for uniting a career in law with a passion for social betterment and a love of nature.”
Michael served as executive counsel for Governor John J. Blaine. A lover of wild flowers, concerned about urban development along the eastern shore of Lake Monona, he bought land on both sides of Starkweather Creek in 1916 and gave it to the city in 1922, envisioning the park which today bears his name.
In the 1920s Paul Stark suggested creation of an 800-acre arboretum; Olbrich took up the idea, insisted on at least two thousand acres, and became the first spokesman for turning the south shore of Lake Wingra into a nature preserve. In a speech to his fellow UW regents in 1927 he advocated trading university land for the Nelson farm and other land in the area, and they agreed. In May 1928 Olbrich made an impassioned speech about his plan to the Madison Rotary Club; Aldo Leopold was in the audience and vowed to help; Joseph W. Jackson, the presiding officer, was “set on fire.” Said Olbrich, “this Arboretum will bring back into the lives of all confronted by a dismal industrial triangle whose forces we so little comprehend, something of the grace and beauty which nature intended all to share.”
He did not live to see his dream realized. After laboring under severe mental strain for a year on a court case in Montana he was attacked by the flu, which left him despondent and depressed. He committed suicide after being hospitalized for several weeks.
Olbrich could have amassed a fortune, but he preferred to help the public. Said A. M. Brayton: “To save the shores of the lakes for the people, to encourage them with public drives dotted with parks, and to establish for the UW an arboretum – these were his self-imposed missions. Financially they cost him much. What they cost him of heart and strength, of patience in the face of selfishness and misunderstanding, of small criticisms by many who could not understand such devotion to a public cause, only his intimate friends can guess, and perhaps even they cannot know. But every citizen of Madison who drives along the east shore of Monona, with the lake view his possession and the inheritance of his children, can acquire an abiding sense of the progress already made towards the fulfillment of Mike Olbrich’s vision… he spent his own life like a prince.” Said UW President Glenn Frank: “It must be a lavish universe that can afford to allow a life like his to stop at the very moment of its flowering.”
The stone gates at the Nakoma entrance to the Arboretum are dedicated to Michael Olbrich.