“He made so many people feel like they weren’t alone, and that they could do whatever they wanted to do.”
“I never once saw him get angry. Frustrated yes, angry no. He was always the perfect gentleman.”
“His laugh, oh his laugh. I will always remember it. If you knew him, you know what I mean.”
When Wisconsin lost Roland Richard “Dick” Wagner on December 12, 2021, we lost more than an esteemed civil servant, dedicated historian, and consummate host. We lost the long-time linchpin connecting the remarkable advance of LGBTQ civil rights, the vibrant careers of LGBTQ politicians, and the proud heritage of LGBTQ people statewide. We lost a champion for the preservation of historic homes, lavish gardens, vibrant neighborhoods, and elegant parks, and the constant steward of a higher quality of city life. And we lost the last of the great political operators, who was driven by strategy, guided by compassion and curiosity, and deeply committed to progress for all.
“There are, regrettably, no more Dick Wagners,” said former Wisconsin State Assemblyman David Clarenbach. “I don’t know that there’s anyone else on his level, or even approaching his level, with the wide range of influence Dick had across so many causes and communities.”
Dick Wagner was born in Dayton, Ohio on September 12, 1943. He completed graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with Master of Arts (1967) and Ph.D. (1971) in American history. His passion for social justice began early: He organized a Civil Rights rally in 1965 after the “Bloody Sunday” violence in Selma, Alabama, and marched with Reverend James Groppi in Milwaukee for fair housing. Later, he organized rallies with the Moratorium Against the War in Vietnam.
He soon launched a 33-year civil service career and a humbling portfolio of work.
Over the next three decades, Dick served Wisconsin in innumerable ways, including advisory or board positions with Historic Madison, Inc., the Gay Center, the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation, Dane County Regional Planning Commission, Airport Commission, Downtown Madison, Inc., Madison AIDS Network, Olbrich Botanical Society, and Fair Wisconsin. He chaired the Madison Landmarks Commission, Plan Commission, Urban Design Commission, Wisconsin Arts Boards, and Wisconsin Humanities Council. He was a founding member and first co-chair of the New Harvest Foundation for LGBTQ charitable causes. He was first elected to the Dane County Board of Supervisors in 1980. In 1981 he and Dan Curd went to Kathleen Nichols and encouraged her to run as an out candidate. She did so in 1982. After she was elected, Dick came out himself in the press some months later. He served 14 years as a County Supervisor, including four years as Chairperson.
“He couldn’t say no to public service,” said Madison Alderman Mike Verveer.
Dick was instrumental in changing the Madison landscape: He drove the formation of Period Garden Park in Mansion Hill, Kerr-McGee Triangle Park, the Rodney Scheel House, and Monona Terrace. He organized the local installation of George Segal’s “Gay Liberation” sculpture in Orton Park, before it was permanently housed at New York City’s Stonewall National Monument.
“Nothing happened in the past 30–40 years that he didn’t have his hand in,” said Mark Webster, communications strategist.” He was the one who negotiated the size, scope, and sustainability of almost every building constructed in downtown Madison. He was the constant negotiator. He got things done in a way that people felt they didn’t lose. He always made progress, but without making enemies of the people he was opposed to.”
“From my perspective, Dick was the most influential behind the scenes,” said Clarenbach. “He was a leader and an organizer, but he was very quiet about his leadership. It was striking that he sometimes stood so far in the background. He was the kindest and most gentle politician I’ve ever known. It’s a rare combination: Civility and principle does not usually coexist in one political figure. But that’s how he conducted his personal and public lives.”
Humility became Wagner’s hallmark. “He never lost his cool, never returned an insult, and never lost his commitment to the cause,” said former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz. “He could handle the heat.” Current Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway agreed, “He was a kind and generous man who treated everyone with respect and dignity.”
“The tone of political discourse has degenerated so severely, not only in Washington D.C. but at the State Capitol, that I don’t even recognize the environment anymore,” said Clarenbach. “And I spent most of my adult life in that environment. Worse yet, it’s crept down into the public level as well.”
“Dick worried that activists would stoop to the same tactics as the fascists they were fighting,” said Webster. “He believed the way to win in the future was to be bigger than they are, to be more ‘American’ than they are. The American ethos should be about civil liberties and constitutional rights, and when those are being attacked, we lose our moral high ground. He hoped activists would be cloaked in the republic they loved. America is an imperfect union, but the foundations are strong, and every generation has improved upon them. Attacking the foundations of America meant reducing rights for all Americans.”
As a testament to his reputation, Wagner was presented the first-ever Jeffrey Clay Erlanger Civility in Public Discourse Award in 2007.
Trailblazing for gay rights
“I first met Dick Wagner more than 50 years ago, while we were working on the McCarthy primary campaign in 1968,” said Clarenbach. “I was 15 years old. He was attending the university. We got to know each other much better through the anti-war movement. He was involved in organizing a series of mass demonstrations against the war, on designated days each month, to really focus public attention against the Vietnam War. Dick was also a heavy mover and shaker behind the 1970 gubernatorial campaign. He initiated a lot of the grassroots techniques that were used throughout the 1970s. It was a very dynamic and trailblazing campaign.”
“I graduated from high school in 1971 and moved downtown to Dick’s neighborhood. In spring 1972, I was either precocious or arrogant, and so I decided to run for the County Board of Supervisors. Dick spearheaded my campaign efforts. It was a surprise victory—no one really expected this 18-year-old high school student to get elected to office—especially in the first year in which 18-year-olds were allowed to vote! (Until spring 1972, you were required to be 21.) I was the first 18-year-old elected to the Board.”
“Dick’s skills—organizing, negotiating, focusing, rallying—made me successful. That kickstarted my political career—to which I give Dick full credit,” said Clarenbach.
At the time, Dick was only out to his closest friends. Stonewall had just happened in 1969, and gay rights organizations were only beginning to take shape across America. The Madison Alliance for Homosexual Equality, formed in November 1969, was the first in Wisconsin. By 1970, the group had evolved into the more militant Gay Liberation Front. However, it was not yet a time for gay visibility or voice in political affairs.
“My introduction to Dick was not based on sexual orientation, but we understood that we were gay,” said Clarenbach. “And, as soon as he could, he used his access and position to start moving the needle for gay people.”
“It was important to both of us that my campaign include a very clear and very public declaration of advocacy for gay rights,” said Clarenbach. “I use the term ‘gay rights’ as there was no LGBTQ acronym at the time. The campaign was one of the first concerted efforts, in Wisconsin politics, to advance the cause in a public forum. In today’s world, it is difficult to dial back the clock 50 years and understand the significance of this. But it was extremely significant.”
Wagner lobbied for a gay rights ordinance throughout 1974. In 1975, Madison became the first city in Wisconsin to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. (Milwaukee followed with its own ordinance in 1980.) Wagner worked with Madison’s first Gay Center in 1978 and 1979 to better understand the needs and wants of the local community. Inspired by the life and work of Harvey Milk, Wagner ran for the Dane County Board in 1980.
In 1982, Clarenbach partnered with Wagner on a bill that would extend those discrimination protections statewide.
“I don’t think I can overstate the role he played,” says Clarenbach. “If there was no Dick Wagner, I doubt Wisconsin would have become the Gay Rights State.”
“The nation’s first gay rights law was enacted with a carefully planned, three-tiered strategy: 1) bipartisan support, the bill passed thanks to Republican votes and was signed into law by a Republican governor, eliminating all risk of partisan dissent; 2) religious advocacy, by defining human discrimination as the terms of the debate, not endorsement or approval of homosexuals, we created a base of humanitarian support that isolated the extreme right-wing reactionaries; 3) change led by the community itself; it took eight full years to get the bill to a place of political support and legislative support before it was brought to a vote. By that time, gay community leaders were recognized and respected within Wisconsin.”
How to approach an unfriendly body politic
“When Governor Tony Earl took office, he formed a Gay and Lesbian Commission and appointed Dick as co-chair with Kathleen Nichols,” said Clarenbach. “They went right to the public squares and performed an invaluable service. There was so much blowback after the Gay Rights Law was enacted, and serious risks that it would be repealed by the ‘Moral Majority’ that was moving into government. Although they targeted the law, it wasn’t repealed—it wasn’t even brought up for a vote. And we can credit Dick for his hard work in small towns throughout Wisconsin, helping people understand what the law meant—and what it didn’t mean.”
“This was groundbreaking for a straight governor, in a state like Wisconsin in 1983, to ask a gay man and a lesbian to travel around the state surveying the LGBTQ political and cultural climate. It was so groundbreaking it may have cost him reelection. His opponent said the governor’s office was “full of fruits, flakes, and nuts.” But Dick thought this was tremendously heroic, to take this risk as a one-term governor, for the advancement of Wisconsin.
“Dick was always wondering when the pitchforks would come for gay and lesbian people,” said Webster. “He was very worried about the last presidential administration and the potential misinterpretation of the Constitution. At the same time, he had faith that the moral arc would forever bend toward freedom.”
In 2006, the Wisconsin Marriage Amendment passed via referendum with 59% of votes. With marriage off the horizon for the foreseeable future, Dick began to plan “ideas from exile.”
“It was a tough time for equality organizations, because we had so little opportunity for wins,” said Megin McDonell of Fair Wisconsin. “If you’d asked anyone in 2009, will we have marriage in the next decade, we’d have thought you were crazy.”
“Dick realized the battle was going to be uphill, and we’d need more leaders to get us to the top of that hill. So, in 2012, we launched the Wisconsin LGBT Leadership Conference. Although the pandemic has impacted event planning, the mission and purpose of the Leadership Conference remains the same, a full decade later.”
Of course, when marriage equality did arrive in Wisconsin in June 2014, Dick was at the county clerk’s office, issuing the first same-sex marriage licenses in the state as a deputized clerk.
“We anticipated the court ruling, and we wanted to be ready,” said Scott McDonell, Dane County Clerk, “so when the ruling arrived at 4 p.m., we had an assembly line set up. This was really very important to me, and it was important for Dick to be part of this history. We coordinated our timing with the Milwaukee County clerks, which wasn’t easy because the phone lines were overwhelmed! By 5:30 p.m., there was a line out the door. We opened more windows, trained more people, and increased access to anyone who wanted to marry.”
“Our office issued the first license in the state of Wisconsin,” said Scott McDonell. “And by Monday, the rest of the state was doing it. And we just kept on doing it until the stay.”
“Dick knew that marriage equality was not the end of the fight,” said Megin McDonell. “He really lit the fires of the Equality Act in political circles. He kept the conversations going. He kept focus on what mattered. He never took his foot off the gas pedal.”
Shaping the future of American politics
As one of the first dozen openly gay officials in the nation, Dick Wagner was a founding member of the National Association and Conference of Gay and Lesbian Public Officials in 1985. Later the International Network of Lesbian and Gay Officials, and now the Victory Institute, the organization brought together elected LGBTQ officials to create a network of support. Wagner co-hosted the group’s fifth conference in Madison with Senator Tammy Baldwin.
“If you were on a school board in Missouri, and openly gay, and targeted by abuse, it was crucial to have an established support group to lean on,” said Clarenbach. “So many people were so terribly isolated and had so few resources.”
“He was a mentor to many around the country, but certainly in our backyard,” said U.S. Representative Mark Pocan. “I don’t know if there would be a Representative Mark Pocan or a Senator Tammy Baldwin or an Alderman Mike Verveer, if it wasn’t for Dick Wagner.”
“By the 1990s, Wisconsin had more publicly elected LGBTQ officials than any other state, including New York, California, or Massachusetts,” said Clarenbach. “I can credit that to a lot of things, but if there’s one thing, it was Dick Wagner’s organizing skills.”
Scott McDonell agreed, “In Wisconsin, being gay and running for office isn’t a big deal anymore, and that’s because of Dick Wagner. Gay people in the 1980s or 1990s saw Dick confidently and effectively holding a leadership position, and it made it easier for them to pursue their own potential. So many folks leaned on him and looked up to him. He had such a profound effect on people, like a favorite teacher.”
“We met in 1996 when I decided to run for County Board,” said Scott McDonell. “I was just starting to organize my campaign and figuring out what I wanted to stand for. People pointed me to Dick because he’d been on the County Board for years. His reputation preceded him as the County Board chair. Everyone had such tremendous respect for him, as that position holds so much power in Madison.”
“And then, I won that seat by six votes!”
“Over time, Dick became a member of our family. My wife worked with him at Fair Wisconsin.” Scott McDonell said. “We chose Dick as our oldest son’s godfather. I wanted someone who would help guide his religious education and spiritual upbringing. Dick was fairly religious, having spent a lot of time at St. Paul’s on campus when he was younger, and Holy Wisdom as the local church became more conservative and exclusionary.”
“My son is 16 and identifies as transgender,” said Scott. “He and Dick spent a lot of time together. He is a student of history and culture, and so he enjoyed Dick’s library of books so very much. It was always his favorite place to hang out. Less than a week before Dick died, he and Sawyer went to Holy Wisdom to meet a visiting transgender pastor. These are memories he’ll never forget.”
“Dick Wagner was a deeply inspiring person in my life as a role model, mentor, and lifelong friend,” said Senator Tammy Baldwin in a statement to Our Lives. “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.”
Revealing our hidden history
As if he wasn’t heavily committed enough, Dick Wagner was also a prolific writer. In 2002, he published DOA, The Story: Four Decades of Wisconsin’s Department of Administration. He contributed to Our Lives for 14 years and became the magazine’s longest-running contributor.
His next project focused on the history of LGBTQ people in Wisconsin. We’ve Been Here All Along was published in 2019, chronicling early gay and lesbian existence before 1969. In 2020, he published the second of his two-book series, called Coming Out, Moving Forward: Wisconsin’s Recent Gay History. It highlights the modern LGBTQ civil rights movement. He said he chose his book title to highlight that LGBTQ people have always been in Wisconsin, even before there was a Wisconsin, and that our history did not begin at the Stonewall Uprising.
“Not all of gay history happened in New York or California,” he said.
“Dick knew that this history needed to be documented,” said Scott McDonell, “and I think he feared that someday it might even be erased. His central message is so powerful: you are not alone, and you’ve never been alone.”
“The quality of research produced in those two volumes did not surprise me,” said Clarenbach. “But it was extraordinary. As someone who has been long involved with the LGBTQ community, I gained a much greater appreciation for the depth and breadth of who we were. For most of the public, and even for LGBTQ people of my generation, there just isn’t sufficient appreciation for our culture, heritage, or long-time presence in American life. While there were not legislative or political actions before Stonewall, the fact is that we had presence in every community in the state, in every nook, in every cranny, and we contributed to our communities in very real ways.”
“He told stories of pioneers who were living their lives, as they wished, when it was unpopular, dangerous, even deadly to do so,” said Webster. “He wasn’t out as a teenager, or even a college student, but he understood how people struggled to find their truth and express their identities while navigating an unaccepting society.
“Because I was his book coach, he would send me content as it was developing,” Webster said. “It struck me how the story was often the same: people making a big difference in their own small ways. They didn’t proclaim themselves ‘activists’ in 1914 or 1932, but they said, ‘I’m living with another man, and we are opening this business together.’ The courage it took people—just to live their day-to-day—was incredible. Dick read between the lines—and the language of those eras—and put himself in their shoes.”
“My only criticism is that Dick wrote himself out of the story to a very large extent,” said Clarenbach. “Yes, he was the author, but there was so much more about himself that he could have included. And I told him this myself when it was published, ‘You fumbled the ball on the second volume, sir!’”
Don Schwamb, founder of the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project, partnered with Dick Wagner on more than occasion. He shared his final respects for a fellow community historian: “For large segments of our history, LGBTQ life was hidden beneath layers of ignorance, disguised as ‘morality’ or religious righteousness,” said Schwamb. “The story of our survival has been suppressed, misrepresented, and silenced. It takes talent to tease out the truth from the ambiguity. It takes a special type of intellectual researcher to uncover the true history of LGBTQ people, and our cultural contributions to our state and country. Dick was able to shine a spotlight into some of the darkest eras of Wisconsin history and still find hope. Together, Dick’s books provide a resource, a guiding influence, and an inspiration for future researchers. Just as he credits the History Project for context, he motivates me and others to continue pursuing this work.”
“He spent so much time digging through the archives that he developed a lasting and lifelong appreciation for their body of work,” said Webster. “As an executor of his estate, and one of the people the book was dedicated to, I’m proud to say that the LGBTQ Archives at UW-Madison will receive a generous gift from Dick.”
In 2020, Dick also contributed a chapter to the anthology Education for Democracy: Renewing the Wisconsin Idea. He was just starting his research for a new book on Dane County when he died.
“A few days before he left us, Dick was rounding things up in my office,” said Scott McDonell. “It still hasn’t sunk in that we’ll never see that book.”
Hosting the parties of the century
Dick Wagner never needed an excuse to host a party—and his parties were the stuff of legend.
“He had a great house—one of the oldest in the city, and on the water—and he loved to bring people into this magical space,” said Scott McDonell. “He took a lot of pride in your experience as a guest. And he had such a reputation as a generous and gracious host! There were an incredible number of organizations he was involved with, and he was always looking for ways to support them. I used to work in restaurants, so I would help him cook at times, just cranking out all this amazing food. You always could count on the turnout to be tremendous.
“You would overhear people saying things like, ‘Look, if I’m going to any fundraiser this whole year, I’m going to the one at Dick Wagner’s house, because his food is to die for,’” Scott McDonell said.
“His parties were extraordinary,” said Clarenbach. “A substantial part of my political life was made possible by Dick Wagner’s gourmet cooking and the receptions and dinner parties that he hosted. He also had unbelievable Christmas parties. He would light real candles on the Christmas trees, and half the party guests would be looking around like ‘where are the buckets of water, just in case?’
“Dick was so committed to his vision. He was from a different century. He was a country gentleman from small-town, old-time Ohio. And the image I have, of those candles blazing away on his Christmas tree, during these large, crowded, festive parties, in this lavishly decorated historic home…that image will never leave my memory,” said Clarenbach.
“We planned everything for our wedding, except flowers for the venue,” said Megin McDonell. “I was so exhausted that I was ready to just let it go. When he found out, he said, ‘Don’t you worry about a thing’—and then he showed up with these magical, beautiful floral arrangements curated from his own gardens.”
“He was the Anna Madrigal of Madison, and his house was a salon, full of fabulous and curious things,” said Webster. “There will never be an entertainer like him again.”
Who inspired the inspiration?
By now, you’ve got to wonder: How did Dick Wagner find the strength, confidence, and resilience to lead such a charmed life? Who were the heroes who inspired this man, who would later inspire and encourage so many to be their best selves?
“Dick was greatly impressed by Oscar Wilde,” said Webster, “and that’s how it became the starting point for the first book. He followed Wilde’s entire story, from his tour of Wisconsin to his exile to France. He appreciated Wilde for being a clever, intellectual, revolutionary dilettante—but also for his smart and funny approach to life.
“Truly, the people he covered in the books were his heroes. The men who restored Pendarvis. The women who founded the Art Institute. The individual contributions of activists whose lives were the activism. They survived purges, they survived slings and arrows, and yet, they continued to live their lives. They found their own way to express their identities,” said Webster.
“Tammy Baldwin was always one of Dick’s heroes,” Webster said. “She is just such a champion and defender of all things Wisconsin: Cheesemakers, cranberry farmers, brewers, engine builders, ship captains. She demonstrates so much class and gentility. She has never stopped moving LGBTQ issues forward. From her first day on the County Board, he was her mentor, and now she’s a U.S. Senator who was on a short list for the vice presidency. The teacher was in awe of his student.”
In the wake of a giant
“Everyone knows the biography, not everyone knows the man,” said Webster. “There are so many contributions that will outlive Dick, but some that died with him. And that’s the tragedy for those of us left behind.”
“I believe national LGBTQ trailblazing will continue, thanks to his efforts. But it won’t likely be done by thoughtful, gentle revolutionaries wearing spectacles and bowties,” Webster said. “Dick Wagner achieved so many groundbreaking things and he achieved every single one of them with class and nobility.”
“Things in Madison won’t be the same without him,” said Clarenbach. “We’ve lost the fine art of having public discourse without treating the opponent as an enemy. There will never be another political operator like him.”
“There’s really nobody else like him today,” said Scott McDonnel. “Nobody even comes close. Nobody is that selfless. Dick was the kind of person who was always running something, but he didn’t seek to chair them. He wanted to help others climb the ladder. He always had 20 irons in the fire, and he managed every iron gracefully. He didn’t do anything unless he could do it right. But he really struggled to say no.”
“Dick taught me to stick with it. Things may not happen right away. Things may fail. You may spend years and years working on something that never happens. You may have to work on multiple things and attack them at multiple levels. You have to let the failures go while you continue to chase the wins,” Scott McDonnel said.
“We are losing the ‘giants of the movement,’ the people who drove such dramatic change and made such meaningful contributions,” said Megin McDonell. “Nobody can replace Dick Wagner, but we need emerging leaders to step up and move the work forward. The LGBTQ movement becomes more intersectional with every generation. We can never forget the people who got us here, but it’s time for the new giants to make themselves known.”
Dick Wagner died in Kerr-McGee Triangle Park while rerouting a neighbor’s delivery received at his home. Wagner was one of the park’s founders, after leading neighborhood protests against an incongruent apartment complex and acquiring the land in the late 1970s. There is a proposal to rename Kerr-McGee Triangle Park in Dick Wagner’s honor.
Look for upcoming opportunities to honor Dick Wagner’s legacy via Fair Wisconsin. Dick helped form the organization fighting for LGBTQ equality. Fair Wisconsin is committed to honoring his incredible, groundbreaking role blazing the trail for gay rights in America. We will share updates on how you can contribute when we have them.