WAGNER (copy)

Dick Wagner, pictured in the 2014 photo, died of an apparent heart attack on Monday. 

Few people have had as great an impact on Madison and Dane County as has R. Richard "Dick" Wagner, who unexpectedly passed away Monday at the age of 78.

Wagner devoted his life to public service, serving on the Dane County Board for 14 years, including two terms as its president.

But serving as a county supervisor representing Madison's near east side between 1980 and 1994 was actually a small part of his civic participation. He also gave selflessly to his community by serving on the Wisconsin Arts Board, Downtown Madison Inc., Historic Madison Inc., Madison Trust for Historic Preservation, Olbrich Botanical Society, Friends of UW Libraries, Wisconsin Humanities Committee, Dane County Regional Planning and Airport commissions and the city's Plan, Urban Design, and Landmarks commissions to name just a few.

And that was in addition to his tireless work to achieve equal rights for gay and lesbian people since his days as a student at the University of Wisconsin in the late '60s and early '70s. His advocacy helped pass a Madison gay rights ordinance in 1974, and six years later, as he started his first year on the Dane County Board, the county passed its own ordinance as well.

The Capital Times' archives are filled with stories of Wagner's crusades and accomplishments. A 1987 profile of Wagner as he was being considered for the chair of the County Board, quoted several right-leaning board members admitting that even though he is a liberal, conservatives respect him.

One supervisor added that Dick Wagner treats other people — even those he disagrees with — with incredible respect. Frankly, few have served his fellow citizens so passionately and with unequaled civility.

Those archives are also filled with stories depicting his key role in saving several of Madison's historic buildings in the iconic Mansion Hill neighborhood. And he walked the talk, refurbishing a 100-year-old house on Jenifer Street for his own home and purchasing and reviving others nearby that were destined for the wrecking ball.

As if he hadn't done enough in his career, he spent the last few years writing two critically-acclaimed books about gay history in Wisconsin.

"We've Been Here All Along," published in 2019, detailed the closeted gay lives of many famous Wisconsin figures. The second book, published just last year, is "Coming Out, Moving Forward: Wisconsin's Recent Gay History."

When Dick Wagner was elected to the County Board in 1980, he was one of just two dozen openly gay public figures in Madison. Today, two openly gay politicians who followed Wagner's groundbreaking path are now a U.S. congressman (Mark Pocan) and a U.S. senator (Tammy Baldwin).

When he died Monday, apparently the victim of a heart attack, he was still active in several endeavors, all aimed at making his community a better place.

This incredibly decent and caring man will be terribly missed, but what he gave the rest of us will always be remembered.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com, 608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

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