Whenever I get too discouraged by the state of affairs in America, I think of men like Dick Cates and say a small prayer of gratitude that the country raises up men like him in times of crisis.
Cates, who died last week at age 85, was a Madison trial attorney. He's probably best known for his work with the House Judiciary Committee in the 1970s, heading the group that put together evidence leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
It's hard to look back on those days now and recall just what a threat to the nation its president was. He was a man who maintained an “enemies list” of those to be ruined by the forces in power. He was a man who was willing to corrupt every level of government, the Justice Department in particular, to cover up his crimes. He was, actually, an evil man.
And Cates, a small-city attorney no one had ever heard of, took him on, took him on by hiring a staff of honest attorneys and compiling evidence, piece by piece by piece.
Then, when flashier characters took over the investigation and prosecution, Cates returned quietly to Madison and resumed his practice of law, earning an affluent, but not lavish, living, defending the powerless whenever he could, standing up for those things that are right.
Cates was a garrulous but not affected raconteur. He could spin stories for hours, but never rarely drew attention to himself, preferring, instead, to laugh at the peccadillos of his fellow humans.
I knew him for more than four decades. For a couple of years I was supposedly his pastor, though Cates was rarely in church. He preferred life on his farm or exploring the outdoors of Wisconsin.
He served not one but two stints in the Marine Corps. First, during World War II and second during the Korean War. He worked cutting timber and worked shoveling pig iron at a steel factory. He attended a prep school on a baseball scholarship.
Dick Cates was a very interesting man.
But he wasn't a giant among men. He just stood a little taller – both literally and figuratively – than most of his peers.
And that's why he gave me hope and that's why he continues to give me hope.
Maybe Madison is unusual in this regard, but I've known any number of somewhat ordinary people here who, when the occasion demanded it, rose to extraordinary positions of service and, then, returned to cheerful obscurity. They are both Democrats and Republicans and the often stand on opposing sides of important issues.
But they care about Madison and they care about Wisconsin and they care about the United States of America. And, when you talk to them, you learn they care about society because they are profoundly grateful to society for helping them build lives of service and of joy.
They are not those mean-spirited little twits who rise to fame and use their so-called power to demean those less fortunate and to enrich themselves by toadying to the powerful. They are even quicker to laugh at themselves than they are to ridicule their opponents.
While I'm on the topic, the same obituary page in Sunday's paper carried news of another old friend, William Davis, the former vice chancellor for health sciences at the UW-Madison.
A Navy commander who held a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars, Davis wasn't involved in politics but, like Cates, was a cheerful, humble man who devoted a good part of his life to the betterment of this community.
It is tempting to see these guys as symbols of a day gone by but I don't think they are. My guess is that we have lots of Dick Cates and Bill Davises around today working quietly to bring order from the chaos created by society's zealots.
At least, I hope so.