The first time Russel Weisensel entered the state Capitol as an elected official, he had to be carried up the steps because there was no wheelchair ramp. The experience led to the construction a temporary wooden ramp that led to the halls where for two terms, the man paralyzed in a farm accident would become a champion for people with disabilities.
"It just kind of tickled us because for a while they called it the 'Weisensel ramp,'" Mary Weisensel said of her husband. "I was always proud of his whole attitude. It was never just 'poor me.' It was always 'What can we do?' He was just a very active man despite the fact that he was confined to a wheelchair."
Weisensel, 81, a Sun Prairie resident, died Saturday at St. Mary's Hospital of heart failure.
Though he was defeated in 1970 after two terms, Weisensel had a profound affect on Wisconsin, championing disability issues two decades before the federal Americans with Disabilities Act passed.
For Weisensel, the inspiration came from his own family. The oldest of his five children was born with a cognitive disability that led him to the realization that people with disabilities were underserved. At the time, the Weisensels banded together with parents in similar situations to find alternative ways to educate their children.
"He could see that it was a widespread problem. It wasn't just our problem," Mary Weisensel said.
During his time in the Legislature he authored a law requiring buildings to be handicap-accessible. He also wrote the bill and laid the groundwork for passage of the 1971 law requiring curb ramps at intersections.
Former Disability Rights Wisconsin Director Lynn Breedlove said Weisensel's tenure in the Capitol predated his time with the organization, but called Weisensel's legacy heroic.
"Russel was a pioneer for disability rights in Wisconsin well before the first President Bush and Congress started talking about those issues nationally," Breedlove said.
After being defeated in his re-election bid, Weisensel was approached about founding the Wisconsin Agribusiness Council, which he would lead for nearly 30 years until his retirement in 2000. He also served as president of the Wisconsin Easter Seal Society, a group that provides services to help disabled people live more independent lives.
Weisensel's funeral will be at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in East Bristol. His family has asked that memorials be made to Madison Area Rehabilitation Centers in lieu of flowers.
— State Journal reporter Samara Kalk Derby contributed to this report.