Melvin Laird, perhaps the most influential public figure from central Wisconsin to grace the national political landscape, passed away Nov. 16. He was 94.
Per news reports, Laird died at a hospital near his Fort Myers home due to complications caused by respiratory failure.
Laird, who served for four years as President Richard Nixon’s Defense Secretary, had been the highest ranking federal official from Wisconsin until Rep. Paul Ryan became Speaker of the House of Representatives in 2015.
He continued to have a significant influence on central Wisconsin establishments after officially leaving public office in 1974, both in his hometown of Marshfield, as well as on the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point campus.
“Our nation has lost a statesman of great stature, a dear friend to many and a champion of students,” said Bernie L. Patterson, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, in a statement released following Laird’s death.
In 1989, Laird created the Melvin R. Laird Youth Leadership Scholarship awarded to Freshman students attending UWSP from the 7th Congressional District.
“We typically award four to five incoming student scholarships a year,” said Jim Barrett, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management. “Using that math, since 1989 more than 130 students have been helped. These scholarships are given to outstanding new first-year students to give them a good financial start.”
Laird was perhaps best known for hosting the biennial Laird Youth Leadership Day conference on the UWSP campus. The event served as an opportunity for students to hear from internationally renowned leaders.
The Laird Room in the Dreyfus University Center is named in his honor.
Past speakers included former Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle, and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had been scheduled to keynote the 2003 event, but cancelled due to the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Prior to being appointed as Secretary of Defense in 1969, Laird was elected eight times to the House of Representatives from the 7th Congressional District in Wisconsin. Prior to serving in the House, Laird succeeded his father as a Wisconsin State Senator, and was awarded the Purple Heart during his service in the United States Navy during World War II.
In addition to his contributions to education and UWSP, Laird is widely hailed for his commitment to medical research, having helped secure funding for the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control. The Laird Center for Medical Research was built in 1997 on the Marshfield Clinic campus, and is home to a world-class medical research and education facility.
“He was a leader who represented Wisconsin and his country with vigor and strength during a difficult time,” said Dr. Susan Turney, chief executive officer of the Marshfield Clinic Health System in a statement. “We are thankful for his decades of selfless service.”
Logan T. Carlson