Senator Walter John Chilsen, 95, of Weston, Wisconsin, died on Christmas morning after a brief illness. Beloved husband of sixty-five years to Rose, guiding light to his eight children as well as to numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, devoted friend and neighbor. Known for his integrity, compassion, and kindness, Walter John (or WJ, as he was known to his many friends and constituents) was a public servant, skilled rhetorician, consensus-builder, and orator. He was deeply committed to the democratic process, community, and the environment, and he was an ardent Badgers and Packers fan.
Born in Merrill, Wisconsin, on either 18 (or 19) November 1923, he delighted in celebrating two birthdays: the official one, November 18th, set by the hospital, and the 19th, set by his mother. It is emblematic of the expansive generosity of his character.
The second son of Walter Burt “WB” Chilsen and Margaret Chilsen née Sullivan, he was infused from the start with a sense of the importance of public service and a keen sense for storytelling and the newsworthy. As a boy Walter John learned to play the piano, sing, and golf and developed an aptitude for skilled communications that defined his professional life.
The Chilsen family lived in a large white house on the corner of 201 Mill Street, and every day WB would walk down the hill to the office of the Merrill Daily Herald, a newspaper he cofounded with his brother Joe in 1898. Walter John later described how WB would walk along, glancing back over his shoulder toward the house repeatedly until it was out of sight. It was almost as though he was assuring himself that it was there. WB was a self-made man. He'd been kicked out of high school on a misunderstanding. By the time the principal acknowledged his error and invited him back, WB had decided he didn't need high school, and he didn't return. That steely resolve was evident in Walter John as well.
Walter John enlisted in the Air Force during World War II, serving in the South Pacific together with his brother Pat, who served in the army. Rising to Lieutenant, he was a bombardier in a B-24 that caught flak over Okinawa. He helped successfully engineer his plane’s daring return, crashing shortly before reaching base. The lives of all but three flight members were saved, and he sustained a back injury that accompanied, yet didn't define, him the rest of his life. Like many World War II vets, he rarely discussed his Air Force experience. He was awarded the Purple Heart for bravery, having helped the remaining crew members reach safety after the crash.
He attended Northwestern University briefly, and graduated later from Lawrence University. While at Northwestern, he took a course in radio announcing and radio acting. The course professor, impressed by his work, encouraged him to act, which led to his convincing portrayal on the stage, at about age 20, of the old sea captain Shotover in George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House. Rose Edl, his girlfriend at the time, saw every show. He performed in other plays at Lawrence, including a role as Kit Carson in The Time of Your Life by William Saroyan. After a stint in Stockbridge, MA, he ventured to Hollywood, where he played a sergeant in At War with the Army at the old Hollywood Canteen. He got paid $10 a week and, as he put it, “all the popcorn I could eat.”
He attributed his theater experience to his interest in pursuing work in radio and television.
Walter John met the love of his life, a beautiful young x-ray technician who was attending to his mother at Holy Cross Hospital in Merrill. Rose Edl already knew who he was. She enjoyed listening to his weekly radio show, Eventide Echoes, a dreamy nighttime music program Walter John hosted at the local radio station. Throughout his life, Walter John could bring a glittering smile to her face describing how his heart fluttered when he first saw her.
They married on 20 September 1952. Living in Los Angeles at the time of their engagement, they intended to marry there, and WJ later enjoyed telling the story of how they arranged a meeting with their parish priest to begin wedding planning. In his office, the priest opened his notebook on his desk, “Tell me about your families. Walter John, how many siblings do you have? Four? Thank you. And you Rose?” Pencil poised to make his note. “Eleven? I see.” He set his pencil on the desk, closed his book, looked at them patiently, and said “Go home.” So they were married in Ridgeway, Wisconsin, with a reception at the farm of Rose’s parents, and settled in Merrill in a small apartment above his father’s newspaper office along the railroad tracks. He started his broadcast career at WLIN radio in Merrill, relocating to Wausau two years later to take a job at WSAU radio and television. He and Rose bought a solid old farmhouse on Townline Road with a yard full of mud and chickens. He lived there with Rose until his death, having made multiple improvements to accommodate his growing family.
WJ's media experience, good looks, resonant voice, and sense of adventure led to his being tapped as the first news anchor for a new television station in northern Wisconsin. He was very proud to have signed WSAU-TV Channel 7 on the air, making the opening announcement for the station in 1954. He went on to anchor the news program for ten years as part of the “News, Weather and Sports” team of Chilsen, Gernetzke, and Zelich. Theirs is the only broadcast trio to have all been inducted into the Broadcast Hall of Fame, which Walter John joined in 2005. “Dick Dudley had a lot to do with that,” he said. His broadcasting job led to lifelong friendships that sustained him and Rose and continue to sustain their family.
The broad name recognition and high visibility of the job also contributed to his successful election to the Wisconsin State Senate in 1966 where he served for six terms, twenty-four years. He tried his hand for Congress in 1969, in an unsuccessful bid to fill the seat vacated by Mel Laird, who had moved to Washington to join the Nixon administration.
WJ’s service as a Wisconsin state senator was marked perhaps most significantly by his insistence upon listening. He especially listened to people who disagreed with him. He said it helped him to understand and refine his own beliefs. And he listened to his constituents, out of a sincere belief that it was up to him to represent them in Madison. He felt this was one reason he continued to be reelected as a fiscally conservative Republican in a liberal Democratic district.
He expressed concern over the direction of political discourse in recent years and bemoaned the loss of the art of negotiation and collaboration, which he saw as essential for governing in a democracy.
After leaving the senate in 1990 he continued in public service, joining the Weston Town Board, retiring after seventeen years in December 2017. He was proud of his service on the board of the environmental group, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, where his voice was a valued presence of bipartisanship. He and Rose were decades-long volunteers at The Neighbor’s Place, a food pantry Rose helped to cofound, and where Walter John held the honor of “Permanent Vice Chair.” His most avid interest in the years before his death was to establish a legacy giving campaign to sustain the organization.
He esteemed his friendships and neighbors.
Walter John Chilsen loved Christmas. He thrived on the gathering of family, relished singing carols, loud and in harmony, found promise in the spirit of renewal and light. Every Christmas Eve he’d fill the house with the sound of public radio’s broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. He and Rose sang in the church choir for Christmas midnight mass many years, joined at times by their children. Recent years’ Christmas celebrations saw WJ and Rose perched in the middle of their large living room, surrounded by the hubbub of conversation and gift-giving, enveloped in mountains of wrapping paper, accompanied by their many loved ones, relishing the cacophony. Every gathering included a boisterous family caroling sing-a-long.
The legacy of Walter John’s compassionate familial love lives on.
Walter John is survived by his cherished wife, Rose, willing straightwoman to his many bad jokes; by his eight children: Jonathan (Tammie Weiss), of DeForest, WI; Anna (Joe Straub), of Marathon, WI; Kristine (Bill Rundle), of Evansville, WI; Elizabeth “Liz” (Michael Garman), of Forest Park, IL; Peter (Jacquelynn Evans), of Muskego, WI; Patricia (John Golbach), of New York, NY; Paul of Nashville, TN, (Lisa Chilsen, of Kenosha, WI); and Matthew, of New York, NY; and by former daughter-in-law Jo Shilts, of New Richmond, WI. He is further survived by his grandchildren, whom he held dear and in whom he took such pride: Kali Chilsen, Devon Weiss and Garrett Scheffen; Katherine, Andrew (Ayila Hall), and Amelia Straub; Margaret Chilsen; Alexander (Tarren Sohier), Benjamin, and Jackie (Brian Montpetit) Chilsen; Gabriella (JonCarlos Velez); Freyja Chilsen Golbach; Rose and Anfinn Chilsen; and by a growing tribe of great-grandchildren: Eliana and Reyah Velez; Michael and Aidan Torres and Phillip Waller; Evalie and Jasfer Straub; and many beloved nieces and nephews together with their beautiful families.
Walter John and Rose’s much-loved dog Bily keeps faithful watch beside Rose now, in Walter’s honor.
His “adopted” foreign exchange families include Mario Antonio and Marilia Firjam, of Juiz de Fora, Brazil, and their children and extended family; and Eugenio “Gino” Alvarado and his daughter Maria Alejandra, of Panama City, Panama.
Walter also nurtured lasting ties with extended family overseas, treasuring connections with Rose’s Bohemian relatives.
WJ was the last surviving member of his generation in his family, having been preceded in death by both his parents, and his siblings Bill, of Ellsworth, OR; Bette (Bob) Klocksin, of Milwaukee, WI; Pat (Phyllis), of Merrill, WI; Val (Shirley), of Onalaska, WI; and his beloved nieces Terry Chilsen, of Wausau, WI, and Janice Chilsen, of Ellsworth, ME.
The family would like to extend special gratitude to long-time caregiver Shandra Skalecke for her kind and gentle attention over the years, and to Noreen Landowski for her kindness.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be held at 12:00 noon on Friday, January 4, 2019 at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church, 1104 S. 9th Ave. Wausau. The Rev. Robert Thorn will officiate. Visitation will be held from 10:00 a.m. until the time of the funeral service at the church on Friday, and again on Thursday, January 3, 2019 from 4:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. also at the church. Parish Rosary Service will be held at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday at the church. Military Honors will be performed by American Legion Montgomery-Plant-Dudley Post 10 and the United States Air Force. Interment will be private.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that a contribution be made to The Neighbor’s Place, 745 Scott Street, Wausau WI 54403.
Dad’s sonorous “Good-bye!”—which he always sang out, starting at a low bass tone and rising to a treble vibrato, following us as we left any visit—will ring warmly in our hearts forever.
He is profoundly missed.
Brainard Funeral Home – Everest Chapel is assisting the family with arrangements. Online Condolences may be shared at www.brainardfuneral.com