Nov. 17, 2021 – Unlike many of his classmates, Walter Dickey didn’t have a job lined up when he finished law school at the University of Wisconsin in the spring of 1971. The prospect of working in a firm held little appeal for Dickey, a New York City native who was raised by working-class parents in the Bronx.
“I was attracted to trying help the poor some way or another,” Dickey said. “That’s what my instincts were telling me when I was a law student.”
Dickey wasn’t interested in a judicial clerkship either, despite having worked closely with U.W. Law Professor Frank J. Remington in law school.
“My reading of Frank was that he disapproved of it,” Dickey said. “He sort of thought you need to get out in the world.”
So Dickey and his wife Mary made plans to live in Europe until their money ran out, then return to the States and find jobs. Before they could wind their way to London or Paris, however, one of Dickey’s professors told him about a fellowship that had opened up in Ghana.
“I don’t think I was quite what they had in mind,” Dickey said. “I think they were looking for somebody with a bit more experience. But the timing of it worked … all the young lawyers were going to firms or in firms. We flew out to New York for the interviews and before we knew it, we were on our way to Africa.”
African Sojourn Was a Turning Point
After a long flight, Dickey and his wife touched down in Accra, the capital, at 5 a.m.
“It was hot as hell and we had to find our way to a hotel, find a way to find a house,” Dickey said. “We had to figure it out, and we did. I think in some ways that was a turning point because it provided us with the confidence that we could handle whatever life dealt us.”
Ghana, a small country in West Africa, had obtained its independence from the U.K. 11 years earlier. The country was trying to move beyond the system of colonial government bequeathed to it by the British. Dickey was assigned to staff a commission tasked with modernizing the country’s laws.
“I worked on all sorts of different kind of projects and the most distinguished lawyers in Ghana were on this commission, so it was really rewarding,” Dickey said. “I got to work with really first-class African lawyers.”
Four months after Dickey and his wife arrived in Ghana, the country was rocked by a coup. The work of the commission shifted as the new government emphasized economic development. Dickey helped draft laws that offered more certainty to lenders, who were unwilling to allow borrowers to use land as collateral because of the local custom that land is held in trust for the owner’s ancestors.
Dickey also helped to update the country’s sales code and write a new evidence code.
“They had a constitutional government and they were in the process of trying to modernize, which I think in their mind meant ‘Americanize,’ because the colonial system had left them with this kind of patchwork of British law,” Dickey said.
A Prison Every Week
Dickey and his wife returned to the U.S. in 1973. He took a job with the Dorsey Law Firm in Minneapolis.
Jeff M. Brown is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6126.
“They put me in the litigation section and my wife taught art at a school in Minneapolis,” Dickey said. “We were there 14 or 15 months, and clearly the big law firm scene was not for me.”
Dickey and his wife moved back to Madison. Walter worked with Remington in a program offering legal assistance to inmates for a year, then joined the faculty at U.W. Law School.
“I visited a prison every week. I got to know the people who ran the prisons,” Dickey said. “I think they came to respect me and I gained a lot of respect for them.”
When the state’s division of corrections needed help drafting a new administrative code, the head of the division called Dickey. He’d gotten to know Dickey during Dickey’s work with the inmate assistance program.
Dickey spent four years on the task. The experience would serve him well.
One of the rules Dickey drafted governed how to handle the aftermath of a prison riot. On Jan. 31, 1983, a riot broke out at Waupun Correctional Institution, the state’s lone maximum security prison at the time. The riot caused widespread damage and an inmate was killed.
After the riot was quelled, the secretary of health and social services called on Dickey to advise her about the requirements of the rules he’d written. The secretary then asked Dickey to lead the investigation into the riot. After the investigation was complete, the secretary asked Dickey to run the state’s prison system. He was only 36 years old.
“Wisconsin had a very strong corrections system at the time,” Dickey said. “In some ways, you kind of make it up as you go along. You sort of figured it out, which I was doing a lot of in those days.”
Dickey’s work at the division of corrections led to a job offer from the Clinton Administration shortly before the 1992 election.
“I came home one night after going out on Friday night with my wife, and there’s a message on my phone. It says ‘So-and-so calling from the White House to tell you that you’re a finalist to run the Federal Bureau of Prisons.’”
Dickey said the timing of the offer wasn’t right because his children were young. But he continued his work on corrections, making a series of recommendations on where to site the new ‘Super Max’ prison under Gov. Tommy Thompson.
Thompson later asked him to mediate the negotiation of a consent decree that resulted from a lawsuit over the prison, which had been sited in Boscobel. Then, Thompson asked him to serve as the federal monitor overseeing implementation of the decree.
'Get to Know Barry Alvarez'
After a decade working in corrections, Dickey felt burned out. He wrote U.W.-Madison Chancellor John Wiley, offering his skills and experience. Wiley responded by appointing Dickey as chair of the athletics board. Wiley had a simple recommendation for Dickey: “Get to know Barry Alvarez.”
Dickey made a point of visiting Alvarez, who’d recently been made the athletic director, once a week.
“We’d sit and talk and sort of get to know each other, and there were issues arriving there all the time that had to be dealt with one way or another,” Dickey said. “I think we developed a level of mutual trust and respect.”
Dickey served on the athletics board for seven years. Dickey, who was still teaching at the law school, was named the faculty representative to the Big Ten Conference and the NCAA. He also wrote rules governing discipline for student athletes and served with Alvarez on panels to decide how to handle student athletes facing criminal charges.
Dickey played a key role in working with Alvarez and Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney to create the Big Ten Network. In the wake of the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State, he helped write standards for institutional conduct. Dickey also had a hand in the hiring searches for two football coaches (Gary Andersen, Paul Chryst), men’s basketball coach Greg Gard, and men’s hockey coach Tony Granato.
When Dickey retired from the law school, Alvarez made him his deputy. In that position, Dickey oversaw compliance with NCAA rules. Then Alvarez made Dickey his chief of staff, and later the deputy athletic director.
“One day I said to Barry, ‘Two 71-year-old guys at the top of this organization is not exactly a blueprint for the future. I need to step aside and we need to get someone younger in here’. So I went into a more advisory role which was really more suitable for my talents.”
Pursue your interests
In retrospect, said Dickey, the turns in his varied legal career make sense.
“I see an organic quality to my various endeavors. One seemed to lead naturally to the next,” he noted.
If there’s a thread running through his career, Dickey said, it’s that “I pursued what interested me.” Over the years, Dickey said, he advised his law students to do the same.
“I’d give similar advice to young lawyers, too,” Dickey said. “Interest, particularly intense interest, provides motivation, which usually means one will do well at what one pursues. That usually means one is more satisfied, too.”
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