One of my best friends died on Christmas morning. My dad, Sen. Walter John Chilsen, was 95 but he was so full of energy and life curiosity and joy that none of us was prepared for him to die. A few years ago, he had tasked me with writing his obituary and it took the doing of it for me to realize what an honor and responsibility it was.
A week before he died I had visited him, and he and I worked together on his annual Christmas letter to family and friends. So, while I was writing his obit I sat in my living room chair and imagined him across the room reminding me about what to include and helping me set the tone.
His funeral was beautiful and my mother, even in the depths of her grief was gracious and lovely to everyone. She’s 92 and frail and it was wonderful to witness her steely strength during the two days of visitation and funeral. Periodically one of us would ask her if she wanted to take a break and she’d say, “No, I don’t want to miss anybody”. Ever the politician’s wife, ever the gracious charming quiet presence she had always been with him throughout his life. Throughout his public life. Throughout their 65 years of marriage. Our hearts break for her now imagining how she can fathom living without him.
I’ve learned a lot of lessons in the last couple weeks. My father was always exemplary to me. He’d become in recent years a dear friend and I relished my visits with him and mom whenever I could get to Wisconsin. He was wise and quick and bright and full of humor. He never complained - World War Two vet to the core.
Of course, I learned a lot of lessons from my dad during his lifetime. His politics did not align with my own, and sometimes we would have heated debates. A couple of years ago, seeing us stalk to our separate corners, my mom handed me a magazine article - a biblical story about Jesus listening to an outcast woman at the public well. She said, “I want you to read this, and I want your dad to read it, and I want you two to talk”. It was a brilliant moment. Once again, her presence with him evident. After that Dad and I would have conversations about politics and disagreements but never that kind of bitter confrontation.
Comment after comment surrounding my father’s funeral people said ‘they don’t make politicians like him anymore’, they ‘wish there was more of his brand of politics around’. My dad was hailed as a listener. He was marked as someone who had strong differences with politicians of his age. But he always recognized that they were opponents not enemies. He saw the humanity in people.
There’s a story about how my dad would ride to Madison each week accompanied over the years of his service by a varied mix of Democrats and Republicans. As the story goes, a lot of committee work got done on those drives. On the floor, they might be opponents but in the car, they were colleagues with a shared purpose; Governance.
In the early years, one of his companions was Tony Earl, who went on to become head of the state DNR and later a liberal Democratic governor. They shared an interest in 1980’s U.S.-Nicaragua relations. Each of them travelled with me to Nicaragua as part of official delegations to Wisconsin’s Sister State. Dad went on a challenge from me, to see for himself what he thought about the Reagan administration’s policies. When he came back, he spoke out against the long-term negative effects he saw those policies having, including being part of Bill Moyers’ program on the constitutional crisis of Reagan’s administration. Dad took the long view and he was an independent thinker. He saw the long game.
We’d been in Nicaragua to witness the promulgation of the new constitution. Also on that trip was George Vukelich, a liberal author and activist from Madison whose politics were never even in the same ballpark as my dad’s, and yet they had some wonderful conversations and a lasting friendship. When George died several years ago, Dad had been out of the Senate for 5 years. He asked to attend George's funeral with me, and I recall a proud moment with him there, surrounded by liberals and Democrats honoring George Vukelich, and there was my dad, shaking hands and laughing, relishing time amongst friends.
So, on the morning of Dad’s funeral I learned that Governor Scott Walker was going to be flying in to attend. That to me was the last thing I wanted to have happen at my dad’s funeral. I was incredulous. Really!? We’ve already got governor Tommy Thompson doing the eulogy. Isn’t that enough? Couldn’t we just leave politics out of it? After all, Dad wasn’t that big a fan of Walker’s governorship. Differing with his Party, he was appalled by Trump’s presidency. Their style of politics was hugely problematic to him. Disturbing. Wrong. So why was Scott Walker, of all people, coming?
OK, I didn’t have anything to say about it, but still. I thought, “put on your game face Liz. Be polite”. Honor your father. Look at it this way, Scott Walker was the highest ranking elected official in the state of Wisconsin coming to pay respects to your father who was an important leader for the state. So, I squared my shoulders and prepared to shake Scott Walker’s hand.
When I met him he said, “I’m so sorry for your loss. Your father was a great man.” What I saw in Scott Walker when I met him, was a man who came to pay respects. A human being; albeit with a political viewpoint I find abhorrent. A man whose legacy in my opinion has damaged the state in ways that will take generations to repair. And yet there he was standing before me saying I’m so sorry for your loss. I know a little bit of what you’re going through; my father died in October.
Shortly thereafter in a private reception with my siblings and my mother I saw Scott Walker kneel down and tell some jokes and offer comfort to my grieving beautiful mom. She laughed with him, she nodded with him, she prayed with him. My dad’s body was just outside the window of the room beside her.
I saw this as another lesson. I disagree strongly with Scott Walker’s politics, with his point of view, and his legacy. I would oppose him in any arena of public conversation. But he’s also a human being with flaws and needs and strengths like all of us. What if I were to see him as an opponent, not an enemy?
And I realized if something is going to happen in this nation to move our political discourse forward somehow, I think we have to have moments like that. Moments where we can say “I disagree with you, but I can sit down and talk with you”.
I hope somehow we can get there. I think it will take the kind of deep intelligence my Dad had, and willingness to listen. Humility and grace and willingness to listen.
If you'd like to read more posts related to my Dad, a few suggestions:
- My Dad Survived a Plane Crash and Now He's 90: WWII Veterans and Courage
- Raising the Flag for Veterans: Iwo Jima Photo a Living Diorama in Milwaukee
- My JFK Connection in One Family Photograph
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