Scholar, activist and the first openly gay member of the Dane County Board of Supervisors Dick Wagner died Monday, prompting words of appreciation from many local leaders for Wagner's contributions to the community.
Wagner, 78, served on the Dane County Board for 14 years, from 1980 to 1994, including four years as the first openly gay county board chair in the state. He also served on the Wisconsin Arts Board, the Madison Landmarks Commission, the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation and the board of Fair Wisconsin, according to the Wisconsin LGBT(Q) History Project.
Wagner helped create the Period Garden Park in downtown Madison, and pushed along the Monona Terrace and Olbrich Gardens projects.
In 1983, he was appointed by Gov. Tony Earl to co-chair the Governor’s Council on Lesbian and Gay Issues, which was the first body of its kind in the nation.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who became the first gay woman elected to the House of Representatives and again to the Senate in 1999 and 2013, respectively, said Wagner provided the opportunity for young people like her and others to know that they are not alone.
“Dick Wagner was a deeply inspiring person in my life as a role model, mentor and lifelong friend,” Baldwin said in a statement Tuesday. “I may not have ever entered public service if not for the guidance and encouragement he provided me to walk the path he paved.
"Dick lived a life that showed to all of us that history only moves in one direction: Forward. For that, I am forever grateful.”
Wagner spent 25 years in public service, retiring in 2005. Much of his work centering around activism in the LGBTQ community.
He helped create a 1980 county nondiscrimination ordinance protecting gay and lesbian individuals, which built the foundation for a later statewide nondiscrimination bill. In 1984, Wagner co-founded the New Harvest Foundation, the only foundation in Dane County that funnels charitable contributions exclusively to LGBTQ organizations for community development.
He was one of the co-founders of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s LGBT Alumni Association and also served on the board for the Madison AIDS Support Network.
After he retired, his work didn’t stop. He continued to serve on the committee to form an LGBTQ archive at the UW-Madison. He wrote two books on gay history in Wisconsin which were released in 2019 and 2020.
“Dick Wagner was a Madison icon, a true public servant and a pillar of our community,” Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said in a statement. “His impact spanned decades and he will be deeply missed. He was an outstanding leader in the LGBTQ community, and a personal inspiration for me.”
Rhodes-Conway, Madison's first openly gay mayor, called Wagner “a trail blazer and a mentor for many,” and said his books on Wisconsin’s LGBTQ history ensured that “our stories will be told for years to come.”
“Most importantly he was a kind and generous man who treated everyone with respect and dignity. His loss will be felt for many years,” she said.
Dane County Clerk Scott McDonnell took to Facebook Tuesday to share his fondest memories of Wagner, who was a mentor to McDonnell when he served on the County Board and as chair.
“I lost a very close friend yesterday,” McDonnell wrote. “He was a man of many talents: chef, historian, author, politician, gardener, collector. My fondest memories will be cooking together in his kitchen for some good cause which he willingly did many, many times. Rest in peace."
“He was a positive role model and mentor to so many people, especially those in the LGBTQ community. He led a full life and was loved,” McDonnell further wrote on Twitter. “May we all be so fortunate.”