Former Madison Mayor William “Bill” Dyke, whose defeat in the 1973 election ushered in a new era of liberal dominance in city politics, died late Thursday of pancreatic cancer in a Dodgeville nursing home. He was 85.
The two-term mayor was ousted by then-political newcomer Paul Soglin as political divides deepened in Madison during the Vietnam War.
Seeking a new direction, Dyke moved to Mount Horeb and went on to run for governor and vice president before settling in Iowa County, where he was a successful attorney and served two decades as a circuit judge. He also had a creative bent, with paintings and a successful B-movie under his belt.
“He was the last common sense, conservative mayor of Madison,” said former Gov. Tommy Thompson, who appointed Dyke as judge in 1996.
Dyke left the bench in January and was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in February. He succumbed to the disease Thursday at Bloomfield Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center.
An Illinois native, Dyke came to Madison for law school in 1955 and worked during school as a radio and TV announcer for WISC. After finishing school he became an attorney, and in 1967, nearly upset Mayor Otto Festge. After a recount, the race was decided by 62 votes out of more than 35,000 cast.
Dyke ran again two years later, prevailing over liberal candidate Robert Reynolds. His two two-year terms were marked by unrest in Madison as widespread Vietnam War protests and the Sterling Hall bombing garnered national attention.
A political conservative, Dyke was best known during his mayoral years for his opposition to the city’s purchase of Madison Bus Co. to create a publicly owned transit system. He focused on keeping municipal costs low, opposing an airport expansion and several collective bargaining agreements, and he routinely clashed with a group of young, left-leaning council members, including Soglin.
“Obviously the 1970s were a very challenging period for Mayor Dyke and myself,” Soglin said. “Like so many Madisonians, we had strenuous disagreements over issues arising out of the war in Vietnam.”
Seeing no other viable conservative to face Soglin, Dyke waited until the final days before the 1973 filing deadline to declare his candidacy for a third term.
Dyke was backed by five former mayors and numerous civic groups and carried a majority of districts, but Soglin prevailed on a groundswell of support in the campus, Downtown and East Side districts.
Soglin said tensions between the political rivals eased over the years when they had a chance to debate weekly on WISC-TV in the 1980s.
“That brought us closer together and gave us an understanding of one another,” Soglin said. “I think we saw an appreciation for our respective commitment to the city.”
By then Dyke had moved out of the city, starting a general contracting business in Mount Horeb and breeding horses for one of his daughters.
Shortly after his exit from the mayor’s office, Dyke returned to politics, challenging Democratic incumbent Gov. Patrick Lucey in 1974. Dyke won 42 percent of the vote in an election Thompson described as “a Democratic year.”
“He was the first candidate to run for governor right after Watergate,” Thompson said. “The image of the party was at an all-time low back then, and it was impossible for Republicans to win statewide.”
Voicing skepticism about Republicans’ ability to recover from the scandal, Dyke briefly left the party in 1976 to run for vice president on the American Independent Party ticket alongside former Georgia governor and noted segregationist Lester Maddox.
Dyke immediately distanced himself from Maddox’s segregationist views during the campaign, telling the Wisconsin State Journal in August 1976 that the he and Maddox “recognize the possibility of differences and can go forward from there.”
“I think he felt at the time that he wanted to have a voice in the debate in the country,” his son, Wade, 58, said Friday.
The Maddox-Dyke ticket received less than 1 percent of the vote in the general election, and Dyke returned to Wisconsin to work as a family mediation lawyer in Mineral Point.
But despite his conservative record, Dyke could be profoundly progressive.
While he was mayor, he proposed a smoking ban in the City Council chamber, as well as a city-sponsored alcoholic treatment program.
As judge, he was an early adopter of restorative justice efforts, establishing one of the state’s first teen courts where young offenders are sentenced by a jury of their peers. In 2008, he added a mediation program in Iowa County to help struggling homeowners resolve mortgage defaults without facing foreclosure.
“He was a judge that tried to help people. He was not a throw-them-in-jail type judge,” said Dodgeville mayor and Republican state Rep. Todd Novak, who previously worked with Dyke as Iowa County court spokesman. “He wanted to work with addicts. When I first got in the Legislature, he asked me to concentrate on mental health issues.”
Dyke received the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Lifetime Jurist Achievement Award last year, and Novak and Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, last week presented him with a legislative citation for years of service.
In his free time, Dyke was into creative projects, including painting and filmmaking. He illustrated a children’s book and hand-drew his annual Christmas card. Many of his paintings are displayed around Dodgeville, Novak said.
One of his most famous achievements, the 1975 cult film “The Giant Spider Invasion,” was a surprise success and has even drawn praise from celebrated horror novelist Stephen King.
Filmed near Wausau for around $300,000, Dyke and fellow filmmaker Bill Rebane attached fake legs to Volkswagen Beetles to create an effect worth all the cheese in Wisconsin.
“It is impossible to see such a budget conscious special effect without feeling a wave of admiration,” King wrote in his nonfiction book “Danse Macabre.”
“He was a renaissance man,” Thompson said. “He was painter, he was a writer, he was a singer, you name it. He had the ability.”
Dyke is survived by his wife, Christine; four children; Wade, Sarah, Kate and Victoria; and seven grandchildren.
The family will have a private service. Gorgen Funeral Services said there will be a public celebration for Dyke in April.