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WESTON – Former Republican state Sen. Walter John Chilsen died Christmas Day at age 95.
He was an iconic political titan of Central Wisconsin: A World War II veteran who survived a plane crash in the South Pacific, the first news director and anchor for WSAW-TV 7 and a state senator from 1966 until 1990. Never one to sit on the sidelines, after leaving the state Senate, Chilsen served on the board of the town of Weston for 17 years until he stepped down from that position at age 94 in December 2017.
He and his wife, Rose, also were instrumental in founding The Neighbors’ Place, a Wausau community center that provides food, basic necessities and education for those in need.
Chilsen marred Rose Edl in 1953; she survives. They are the parents of eight children. Funeral plans are pending.
Chilsen, with his distinctive deep voice, will be remembered by those who knew him as a thoughtful, kind and generous public servant who strove to understand issues and build consensus to solve problems.
“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 prior to a celebration of Chilsen’s service 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, a native of Merrill, joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1943. He became a bombardier on a B-24 bomber and was injured when his plane crashed in the ocean off of Saipan during the battle for Iwo Jima. He entered the service as a private and rose through the ranks to become a first lieutenant.
After the war, he began a 17-year career in radio and television broadcasting. He began at a Merrill radio station in 1949 and left central Wisconsin for a few years to pursue a career in acting, according to the Wisconsin Broadcasting Museum.
Chilsen returned to his home area to work again in radio, then moved to television with Channel 7. He remained “Central Wisconsin’s most authoritative news voice until 1966,” according to the museum, when he entered politics. Chilsen was inducted into the state broadcasting museum’s Hall of Fame in 2005.
He was elected from the 29th District to the state Senate in 1966 and served until he left in 1990. He was “one of the most highly respected and best liked members of of that body,” according to a biography posted on the Wisconsin Historical Society website.
In 1969 he ran for the U.S. House. Democrat Dave Obey defeated him.
Obey wrote about Chilsen Wednesday afternoon in a Facebook post. Chilsen “was an honorable practitioner of politics,” Obey said. “He had strong beliefs but believed that in politics there were opponents, but not enemies. His brand of politics will be missed.”
Serving on a variety of committees during his tenure as a senator, Chilsen developed “a special reputation for his accomplishments on behalf of senior citizens, agriculture and rural development, and environmental issues,” according to the historical society biography.
Not everyone agreed. In 1986, Chilsen was named one of the state’s “Dirty Dozen” by Wisconsin’s Environmental Decade, a group that aimed to highlight environmentalism. Chilsen defended his record at the time, pointing to his support of high groundwater standards and other environmental protection measures.
Chilsen made an effort to avoid partisan bickering from the very beginning of his political career.
“Though I’m seeking the Republican nomination for State Senator, I don’t have a strong party background,” he said in a press release announcing his bid for the seat in 1966. “I’ll be seeking broad support from people who are interested in progressive legislation rather than stalemate in Madison.”
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