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Ben Barkin | Wisconsin Historical Society

Feature Story

Ben Barkin

Celebrating Wisconsin Visionaries, Changemakers, and Storytellers

Ben Barkin | Wisconsin Historical Society

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Putting “miles of smiles” on Wisconsin faces

Visionary | Ben Barkin | 1916-2001

Ben Barkin rides in a vintage convertible waving happily to the crowd during a parade. His shirt is bright red and blue color block.

Ben Barkin worked tirelessly to organize and promote Milwaukee’s Great Circus Parade beginning with its inception in 1963. - Courtesy of Circus World Museum

Ben Barkin is a visionary, best remembered as a founder of Milwaukee’s Great Circus Parade. While this monumental accomplishment is already a lasting legacy, Barkin’s lifelong philanthropy, advocacy for civil rights, and promotion of religious harmony demonstrate a life that extended well beyond a single achievement.

Dubbed, “The best publicist in the country,” Barkin had an uncanny ability to take an idea and see it through to fruition. He helped solicit war bonds during World War II, was part of the original Milwaukee Brewers ownership group, and helped launch many successful Milwaukee businesses.

In the early 1960s, Barkin became enthused by C. P. “Chappie” Fox on the idea of using authentically restored circus wagons to stage a re-creation of the old-time circus parades on the streets of Milwaukee. Barkin and Fox took this idea to Bob Uihlein, Jr., head of the Schlitz Brewing Co., and persuaded him into sponsoring the world-famous parade from 1963-73. The annual event helped fund development of Circus World, and saved countless derelict circus wagons from destruction. In the bargain, he created a family event in Milwaukee, which Barkin referred to as “miles of smiles.” Barkin helped resurrect the event again in 1985.

Barkin, who was Jewish, worked hard for religious harmony and had a private audience with Pope Paul VI in 1967. He raised money for Catholic and Protestant causes as well as the United Jewish Appeal, and sat on the board of Marquette University's Medical School.

A lifelong advocate of civil rights, Barkin targeted Mayor Henry Maier and other city leaders in a Washington, D.C., speech in 1967, contending the white establishment was ignoring the plight of blacks in need of open housing laws and educational reforms.

Without Barkin’s tireless efforts, Milwaukee traditions like the Great Circus Parade and the return of the Milwaukee Brewers may have remained little more than a memory. This visionary not only helped preserve the past, but inspired the future through his acts of kindness, charity, and advocacy.

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