Remembering Dick Wagner

Dick Wagner was, literally, a gentleman and a scholar. And, he was something else: the very model of a politician who understood how to combine idealism with pragmatism.

Dick died on Monday in a way that spoke to who the man was. He was being a good neighbor. Some groceries had been delivered to his house by mistake and so he was walking them over to the correct customer. Apparently, he was walking through Kerr-McGee Triangle Park, a small park in his neighborhood that he helped create and which he helped tend, when he died suddenly, perhaps of a heart attack. He died doing a good deed in the neighborhood he loved and in a park that was only there because of him. He was 78.

Dick’s scholarly credentials were clear. He held a PhD in history from the UW Madison and he was the author of a two volume exhaustive history of Wisconsin’s gay community.

As for being a gentleman, well, I suppose that’s a subjective judgement. You would have to poll everyone who knew him. But my guess is that, if you could do that, you’d find 100% agreement on the point. Friend or political foe (I doubt Dick had any personal enemies), the man was always polite and gracious to a fault.

Dick Wagner in 1987, the year I joined him on the Dane County Board.

I’m honored to say that I knew Roland Richard Wagner pretty well. After I was appointed to the Dane County Board in 1987, Dick took me under his wing. Like many liberal supervisors, I looked to Dick for guidance on issues, but even more importantly for how to advocate for an issue in the then-turbulent county board.

It’s hard to imagine it today, when the board is almost completely made up of progressives, but back then liberals held only a narrow majority, and we only had that because a few moderates generally voted with us. When Dick became board chair, shortly after I became a member, he transformed it.

One of the things he did was appoint me to the zoning committee. That may not seem profound, but I joined three other urban liberal supervisors to form a majority on the seven member committee that made decisions exclusively on rural land use matters. (Cities and villages made their own decisions.)

Up until that time it had been tradition for the board chair to consult with the conservative, property rights-oriented Dane County Towns Association on the appointments. But Dick recognized that sprawling development was ruining the beautiful Dane County countryside, threatening natural areas, eating up some of the best farmland in the world and adding to commutes and congestion. So, he did the hard and highly controversial thing: he put in place a majority that would vote to restrain development in rural areas.

The response from conservative, rural supervisors, from the Towns Association and from many farmers who had hoped to develop their land was fast and furious. That only became more intense during the ensuing months long process when we developed a countywide Greenspace Plan, which was spear-headed by another well-respected colleague Carol Brooks, who passed away recently as well.

Through it all, Dick Wagner showed us how to handle the heat. He never lost his cool, never returned an insult, but never lost his commitment to the cause, which in this case was preserving the natural resources of the county.

Dick mentored a lot of supervisors over that period besides myself — Earl Bricker, Jonathan Becker, Kathleen Nichols, Mark Pocan and Tammy Baldwin come to mind. We all had success in politics and some other endeavors, but it’s Tammy who has been most successful of all. The two-term United States Senator won office in 2012 by defeating Tommy Thompson, the most iconic of Wisconsin pols. And she did it running as a known Dane County liberal and a lesbian. Six years later she cruised to victory again, this time against a weak opponent who showed just how tepid Republicans were about taking on a skilled incumbent.

Tammy Baldwin is a politician in the mold of Dick Wagner: polite to the point of courtly, soft-spoken, highly intelligent but not in a showy way, and with a gravitas that earns respect, even from those who oppose her positions. She’s the prototype for how a progressive politician can win in a purple state. Much of her talent comes naturally, but I’m sure she would give a large degree of credit to what she learned from Dick.

Dick Wagner was a gentleman, a scholar, a civic activist and volunteer of Herculean endurance and amazing breadth of interests. (And he was, by the way, an amazing chef.) But he was also a political strategist of the highest order and a man who knew how to fight down in the political trenches and emerge with a spotless uniform — and without throwing mud at anyone else.

Dick Wagner showed us that politics really can be something noble, he showed us that a gentle person could have an iron will, and that a person can combine idealism with realism and help make a better world.

A memorial service for Dick Wagner has been scheduled for Saturday, January 8th at Holy Wisdom Monastery, starting at 2PM. A full, lovely obituary is here.

Welcome to the 300th consecutive day of posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading.

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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