Many are mourning the loss of longtime public servant, LGBTQ activist, and historian R. Richard “Dick” Wagner, who passed away on Monday at the age of 78.
Friends and mentees told WORT today that Wagner was a trailblazer, leaving behind an extraordinary life of public service, commitment to LGBTQ rights and history, and mentorship of future community leaders and politicians.
Wagner was the first openly gay member of the Dane County Board of Supervisors. First elected in 1980, he would serve on the Dane County Board for another fourteen years, representing Madison’s near-east side. He chaired the Dane County Board from 1988 to 1992, and served on nearly a dozen of the county’s boards, commissions and committees.
He was an integral part of Wisconsin’s first protections for gay and lesbian people. In 1982, Wisconsin passed a law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment and housing, becoming the first state in the nation to do so. The following year, Wagner was appointed by then-Governor Tony Earl to serve as co-chair of the Governor’s Council on Lesbian and Gay Issues.
David Clarenbach, a longtime friend to Wagner and a state legislator who helped make the bill become law, credits Wagner with explaining the new law to the public.
“The series of public hearings that were conducted around the state were groundbreaking. To bring community and civic leaders to the public, and to bring those who were responsible for enforcing the anti-discrimination laws, the people who were on the ground needed to be brought up to speed on how it could impact people. And so it was Dick Wagner’s efforts, and that of Governor Earl and the Governor’s Council, to take that message to the village square and to educate and sensitize the general public, policy-makers, and law enforcement as to the existence of this law, and the meaning of that new law,” Clarenbach tells WORT.
Many credited Wagner with mentoring future progressive politicians- among them, US Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, and US Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Black Earth.
In a statement, Sen. Baldwin described Wagner as a role model, mentor and lifelong friend, writing “I may not have ever entered public service if not for the guidance and encouragement he provided me to walk the path he paved. He provided the opportunity for young people like myself and others growing up all over Wisconsin to know that they are not alone and that they stand on the shoulders of people who came before them. Dick lived a life that showed to all of us that history only moves in one direction: Forward. For that, I am forever grateful.”
“Not only was Dick really a mentor to people like Tammy and myself and many others over the years, but nationally, Dick was a leader for out gay and lesbian officials. I remember that we had more out gay and lesbian election officials in Dane County than the entire state of California – that was in the early to mid-nineties – and honestly, a lot of that was due to Dick Wagner,” Rep. Pocan told Isthmus newspaper.
Wagner was also noted for being an avid gardener, gourmet chef, and “host par excellence,” hosting many fundraising dinners at his Lakeside home over the decades for political and other causes.
Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell characterized Wagner as a man of many talents: a chef, historian, author, politician, gardener, and collector.
“The thing I say about Dick that he was so selfless in everything he did. He cared so much about this county and this city, and dedicated his life to making it a better place. He was such an important mentor to so many people in this community, and was a real inspiration, running as an out candidate, really opening doors for people and leading by example,” McDonell told WORT.
Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway – Madison’s first openly out mayor – calls Wagner a “Madison icon, a true public servant, and a pillar of our community.” She adds that Wagner was an inspiration for future generations of LGBTQ+ candidates like her.
“He was absolutely an inspiration, and I think he and other folks who were the first in their positions and often the first in their communities, really did pave the way for the rest of us, and were quietly and sometimes not-so-quietly encouraging. Dick was definitely that, he, I think, really believed in public service and encouraging other people’s public service. Even after he stepped down from the county board, he served our community in so many different ways,” the Mayor told WORT.
Wagner had sustained involvement in numerous local boards and commissions, including the Madison Urban Design Commission, the Plan Commission, Landmarks Commission, the Wisconsin Arts Board, and the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation.
He served on the board of Fair Wisconsin for over a dozen years, helping to fight a 2006 ballot referendum banning gay marriage. Mark Webster, a longtime friend who served with Wagner on the Fair Wisconsin Board, says Wagner played a pivotal role in civic engagement as a progressive.
“[Dick fought] for things like regional transportation, and LGBTQ rights, historic preservation, and environmental protections – and he did a lot of this before it was cool, in the ’60s and ’70s,” said Webster.
“When you look at the March on Washington for Gay Rights, and look at the people who led that march, Dick was literally in the front row,” Webster adds.
Madison alder Mike Verveer was a longtime close friend of Wagner, and says he touched the lives of countless people.
“Dick was absolutely a life well-lived. He touched countless people in so many ways. His friendship meant the world to me and so many others. He mentored countless political candidates, especially those running as out LGBTQ+ candidates, and whether the elections were won or lost, he would continue that mentorship over the years in many different ways. So many of us were just so fortunate to have Dick in our lives. It’s a tragic, unexpected, unspeakable loss and so unexpected. But he was just a remarkable person, just totally selfless,” says Verveer.
A historian by training (he received a PhD from UW-Madison), Wagner authored two volumes about Wisconsin’s gay history in the last years of his life. His first book, “We’ve Been Here All Along,” was published in 2019 and documents Wisconsin’s gay and lesbian history up to the Stonewall Riot in 1969. In mid-2020, Wagner published his second volume “Coming Out, Moving Forward: Wisconsin’s Recent Gay History.”
He was said to be at work on a third volume of history – about Dane County – when he passed.
Verveer credits Wagner with documenting and archiving much of Wisconsin’s LGBTQ history, and says a PBS Wisconsin documentary based on those volumes is in the works.
“He spent so much of his life collecting LGBTQ historical artifacts because it’s important to our history, and nobody was really doing it in a meaningful, systematic way in Wisconsin. I can tell you as someone who visited his home on a regular basis, he had historical archival boxes and piles everywhere. His goal was not to just archive them but to write Wisconsin’s LGBTQ history, and he did that, a culmination of decades of research and writing.”
Many of those documents are now in the UW-Madison LGBT archives. Wagner served on that archiving committee.
Don Schwamb is the founder of the Wisconsin LGBT History Project, an online portal founded in 2003 chronicling the history of the LGBT community in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.
“Dick was one of a kind. He not only lived it, but he also documented it as an historian. And I think he often took a step back when he was writing, to make sure that he was not presenting his own ideas when he was outlining some of what had happened. I think he was an excellent historian, in that he recognized what others had done, and was generous in giving credit to others,” says Schwamb.
In recent years, Wagner had been at work helping to expand the Olbrich Botanical Gardens. In the 1970s, Wagner helped in the fight to save Period Garden Park on Gorham Street from being developed into an efficiency apartment building. And he died in another small park he helped create in the 1970s, in Kerr-McGee Triangle Park on Jenifer Street, a park he tended to over the ensuing decades.
Alder Verveer says he plans to propose renaming that park in Wagner’s honor, calling it a fitting tribute given Wagner’s work for Madison parks over the decades.
“That’s the Dick Wagner I know and love and countless other people know and love, complete selflessness, and wonderful friend, having me and others over for meals more times than anyone could ever repay him. He just opened his doors with that warm hospitality. And that was Dick, opening his home and garden.”
Arrangements are being made for a funeral in January.