Richard Lyman Cates Sr. died surrounded by family of natural causes Wednesday morning, Aug 3, 2011, in Madison, finishing his 85-year adventure that began on Nov. 22, 1925, in New York City.
He was an only child, who lived almost four of his first nine years in an orphanage and spent his depression boyhood playing stickball on the streets and alleys of The Bronx and Queens. An urchin in the city, he learned to be fascinated, amused and heartened by people. He wrote of those early and often lonely years that he learned how to do what he had to do, learned to have faith, to have patience, to think and solve his own problems and be able to realize how lucky he was.
On visits to Philadelphia to visit his mother's family, he learned from his immigrant grandmother the fun a person can have no matter the circumstances. And on trips to Maine to visit his father's family, he learned to love barns and the smell of cows, lakes and land, hard physical work and the affection of grandparents, stepgrandparents, half-cousins, aunts and half-aunts, and an assortment of half- and ex-uncles; a complicated and joyful group who he always called his people.
He attended New Hampton prep school on a baseball scholarship, a time he once described as the first time in his life he understood what it meant to be truly happy. He received officers training in the Marine Corp during World War II, where he was forced to think about what he was willing to live and to die for, but the war ended just as he was about to ship out to the Pacific. He returned to the East Coast and worked cutting timber in Maine and received a B.A. from Dartmouth College. With the war and college behind him, he returned to what he said was the one activity he knew to be true: hard physical labor. He got a job shoveling pig iron in a steel mill near Baltimore and on his days off, would go to the courthouse to watch proceedings. Moved by the courts unjust treatment of the poor and powerless, he found his calling.
He attended law school at the University of Wisconsin and in the summer of 1950, he met Marnie Lessig and fell in love. They married the following year. It was a love and marriage that lasted until his death. After graduation, they moved to North Carolina, where he served a second time with the Marines during the Korean War and where the first of their five children was born.
He began his law practice in Madison in 1953 and became a founding member of Lawton and Cates Law firm in 1958. His practice lasted until 1990 and was almost exclusively trial work, in almost every area of the law, plaintiffs and defendants and in almost every forum. He was guided not by ideas but by his love of people and his belief that individual human beings have dignity and our laws and system of justice need to protect the weak from being crushed by the strong. He prosecuted corrupt police officers, defended both the University and students during the uprisings of the 60's, defended doctors on the constitutionality of anti-abortion laws, served as a public defender and in 1973 to 1974, served as Special Counsel to the House Judiciary Committee in charge of investigating and presenting the evidence leading to the impeachment and resignation of President Nixon.
In addition to his practice, he taught law at the University of Wisconsin from 1956 until 1980, and at McGeorge School of Law from 1982 to 1985. His joy in the adventure of living and learning, his humor, wisdom, humility, curiosity and kindness—indeed his magnificent love—made him a great teacher of his students, his colleagues, his friends and his five children and their spouses and his 18 grandchildren. Almost everybody who knew him learned something. He gave off warmth. He had a big and open heart, and he made a marvelous father and friend. He liked to tell his stories, loved making fun of himself and he liked to listen to yours.
He served one term in the state assembly, two terms on the UW Board of Visitors, a term on the Madison Board of Education and two terms with State Bar Board of Governors.
In 1967, he and Marnie bought a farm south of Spring Green. He had a daughter who loved horses and four sons and he once said he worried his sons wouldn't learn how to be men living in the suburbs. From then on he was a man just as he was a boy, with one foot in the city and one in the country. He loved being outside and he loved physical work and he taught his children to love the same things. The family worked together and played together. Before anybody had ever heard of taking a long distance bike ride, he and his four sons were riding 3-speed bicycles 270 miles to northern Wisconsin every August to a lake cottage near Three Lakes. He loved rowing for hours, swimming long distances and canoe trips. When he retired in 1990, at the age of 65, he walked 450 miles north from Georgia on the Appalachian Trail.
In his retirement, he was in three book clubs, served as president of the Ice Age Park and Trail Association, on the Committee on Campaign Financing Reform, the Institute on Aging, on the board of the Marshall Erdman Foundation dedicated to sustaining life on earth and was a frequent judge for high school expulsion cases.
He is preceded in his death by his parents, Lyman and Margaret Cates; and by a grandson, Peter Cates.
He is survived by his wife, Marnie; by his children, Richard Jr. (Kim) of Spring Green, John (Meg) of Madison, David (Rosalie) of Missoula, Mont., Christine (John) Jendrzejewski of Louisville, Ky. and Robert (Linda) Cates of Monroe; his grandchildren, Lucas Cates, Shannon Bloom, Kelly Cates, Anna Cates, Boone Cates, Eric Cates, Jennifer Arcuri, Jessica Arcuri, Charlie Cates, Margaret Cates, Tony Cates, Kelsey Jendrzejewski, Miranda Cates, Christy Jendrzejewski, Mary Cates, Carly Cates and Rock Cates; and great-grandchildren, Adelyn Gee and Xavier Briscoe.
A memorial service will be held on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2011, at 4 p.m. at the CRESS FUNERAL HOME, 3610 Speedway Road, Madison.
Cress Funeral and Cremation Service
3610 Speedway Road, Madison
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