The Rev. Richard Pritchard, a vigorous culture warrior whose conservative stands on social issues made frequent news in Madison over several decades, as did his work fighting for racial justice and ministering to the downtrodden, died Tuesday.
He was 100. He succumbed to natural causes at his residence in Madison, said a son, Bill Pritchard, 57, of Arlington, Wash.
The elder Pritchard was a fervent advocate for racial equality, marching for civil rights in the South and serving on a committee that organized Madison’s Equal Opportunities Commission. On many issues, he sided with political conservatives, his name becoming a household word as he fought to beat back the sexual revolution in the 1970s.
“He played a very prominent role at certain junctures in the city’s history, but he never was one to sort of feed on the limelight,” said Mayor Paul Soglin. “When he felt he’d done all there was to do in a matter, he returned to being a private person committed to his faith.”
Soglin called Pritchard’s work to establish the Equal Opportunities Commission “a magnificent contribution to the city.” On issues of morality in the city, “he wasn’t quite as successful,” Soglin said.
Through it all, even opponents commented on his civility.
“He was proof that adversaries can be amiable,” said Dan Barker, a co-president of the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, who publicly debated Pritchard in Madison in 1986 on the question “Is there a God?”
Julaine Appling, a friend and president of Wisconsin Family Council, a traditional-values organization, said Pritchard was able to deliver his message in an engaging, caring way so that people were willing to hear him out.
“This was a prince among men,” she said. “At the end of the day, people respected him and had a genuine fondness for Mr. Pritchard.”
Early in his adult life, Pritchard helped organize a union at Northwestern Mutual Life where he worked for a time, according to private papers kept by his family. As a student pastor of a black church in Kansas City in 1937, he became a civil rights supporter.
In 1961, he organized a meeting of black boys and girls with white business owners in Madison so that the children could learn about job opportunities. He participated in the March on Washington in 1963.
“I think people might be surprised by the wide variety of things he was active in,” said his son.
In 1956, he started the state’s first Dial-a-Prayer service, bringing a recorded message of comfort and hope to those in distress. His children remember a man who never turned away people in need, including ex-convicts.
“His whole life was basically serving others, doing the best he could,” said his daughter, the Rev. Lynn Pritchard Renne, 68, of Newburgh, Ind.
Pritchard was pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Madison for 21 years but was removed in 1968 by the denomination’s area governing body following dissension among members over his leadership style. A group of his supporters broke off and founded Heritage Congregational Church, installing him as pastor. He retired as its senior leader in 1984, but kept active preaching.
In the liberal stronghold of Madison, Pritchard was known as a morality crusader for his opposition to massage parlors, nude dancing and X-rated book stores. He once held a press conference outside a topless bar. Another time, he led a “tour” of porn stores on State Street to expose what he considered filth.
“It came across as being prudish, but I think, in his heart, he did not want women to be taken advantage of,” said his daughter, a Methodist associate pastor.
Also prominent was Pritchard’s opposition to homosexuality. In 1979, he sought to change the city’s equal opportunities ordinance so that employers “in certain sensitive vocations” such as education be allowed to deny homosexuals jobs.
He was still going at it in 2001 at age 87, when he staged a rally at the state Capitol to protest the Madison School District’s granting of domestic-partner benefits.
“He certainly was a spokesman for the idea that society shouldn’t accommodate a changing view of gays and lesbians,” said Dick Wagner, a chronicler of lesbian and gay history in Madison. “He wasn’t mean-spirited about it, yet many people, like those he thought unfit for public roles such as teaching, found his views very hurtful.”
In a 2012 interview with the State Journal, Pritchard said he was “still pretty conservative,” calling himself “an endangered species here in Dane County.” He said he always tried to convey his love for all of humanity, even when he disagreed with a particular view or lifestyle.
Pritchard was married to his first wife, Eleanor, the mother of his three children, for 45 years. He was widowed for a second time in 2011 when his wife of 22 years, Helen, died.
A funeral is planned for 10 a.m. Saturday at Crossroads Church, 3815 S. Dutch Mill Road, with visitation beginning at 9 a.m.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the benevolence or mission funds at Crossroads Church, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Heritage Congregational Church or another local church.