Wisconsin state senator Walter John Chilsen dies at 95

A legendary Republican lawmaker and broadcaster died on Christmas day, barely a year after retiring from politics.

Former long-time Wisconsin state senator Walter John Chilsen, described as a “titan” by a Wisconsin paper, succumbed to an illness. He was 95.

Before launching his political career, Chilsen was a World War II veteran and a TV and radio pioneer in the state.

“Titan” Republican senator dies

Described as an “iconic political titan” by the Wausau Daily Press, Chilsen is being remembered for his life of service to the public, which included work in government as well as media. He served as a state senator from 1966 to 1990, and then on the board of the town of Weston until his retirement last year at age 94.

Joining the U.S. Army in the midst of World War II in 1943, a 20-something Chilsen survived a crash in the Pacific Ocean after his plane was shot down in the battle of Iwo Jima. Chilsen, who advanced from private to first lieutenant, was a bombardier on a B-24 plane at the time.

After returning from the war to his hometown of Merrill, Chilsen embarked on a 17-year career in broadcasting. He joined a Merrill radio station in 1949, then briefly pursued a career in acting for a few years before returning to central Wisconsin to work in radio.

Chilsen then shifted to TV, becoming the first news anchor and director for WSAW-TV 7 in 1954, where he remained until 1964. Chilsen’s “distinctive deep voice” soon became familiar to people all over central Wisconsin, and by the time he ran for office in 1966, he was “Central Wisconsin’s most authoritative news voice,” according to the Wisconsin Broadcasting museum. He was eventually inducted into the museum’s Hall of Fame in 2005.

“We went on the air in October, 1954. I made the first announcement putting Channel 7 on the air, and I take great pride in that,” Chilsen told NewsChannel 7 in 2009.

The established broadcaster then set his sights on the state Senate and won an election to serve the state’s 29th District in 1966, a role he remained in for more than two decades. He lost a U.S. House bid to Democrat Dave Obey in 1969.

Fondly remembered for public service

The lawmaker is being remembered as a generous problem solver who had a bipartisan approach to striking deals to help the people of Wisconsin, with initiatives aimed particularly at helping farmers, the elderly, and the environment, according to a Wisconsin Historical Society biography. Chilsen was “highly respected” and well-liked by his colleagues for his friendliness and compromising approach.

Obey had kind words for his former rival in the wake of Chilsen’s passing, saying that he didn’t have an “us versus them” way of governing.

“He had strong beliefs but believed that in politics there were opponents, not enemies,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

But Chilsen’s outreach went beyond his work in the state Senate. Together with his wife, he founded a community center to help the needy, the Neighbors’ Place.

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“If you Google Walter John Chilsen, you will see that his entire life has been in public service,” town of Weston Chairman Milton Olson said last year. “His leadership and willingness to work with both parties is one of his (strongest) traits. He (was) very thoughtful and (was) able to see the big picture for what is best for everyone.”

Chilsen married his wife, Rose, in 1952. She survives him along with 8 children and numerous grand- and great-grand children. Flags will be lowered in his honor and funeral services are planned for Thursday and Friday.

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