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    February 23, 2023

    Wisconsin Gov. Tony Earl: 'The Best in Public Service and the Legal Profession'

    Former Wisconsin Gov. Anthony "Tony" Earl, a member of the State Bar of Wisconsin for nearly 60 years, passed away Feb. 23, 2023. Learn more about Gov. Earl, who brought ‘dignity and integrity’ to public service, according to those who knew him.
    Former Wisconsin Governor Tony Earl headshot

    Tony Earl, a former Wisconsin governor and State Bar of Wisconsin member for nearly 60 years, is remembered as a dedicated public servant who brought dignity and integrity to the legal profession.

    Feb. 23, 2023 – Anthony “Tony” Earl, a member of the State Bar of Wisconsin for almost 60 years, passed away Feb. 23, 2023, at the age of 86. A 1961 graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, Earl served as the state’s 41st governor from 1983 to 1987.

    “I never thought I would get into politics, and never thought I would become governor, but I learned to seize opportunities when they came along,” said Gov. Earl in 2011, reflecting on 50 years as a Wisconsin lawyer.

    Gov. Earl was succeeded in 1987 by former Gov. Tommy G. Thompson. “Tony and I were grocers’ kids who went on to become lawyers and governors,” Thompson said. “Tony had a great affection for Wisconsin and he served its citizens well.

    “As we lose a great man and public servant, I lose a friend,” Thompson said.

    Former Wisconsin Governor Tony Earl at a podium in front of an audience

    Tony Earl, a former Wisconsin governor and State Bar of Wisconsin member for nearly 60 years, speaks in 2017 when he received the Wisconsin Law Foundation's Charles L. Goldberg Distinguished Service Award.

    Reflecting on a Distinguished Career

    Earl attended law school on the advice of a college advisor. After graduating in 1961, he worked for four years as a judge advocate in the U.S. Navy before moving to Wausau.

    He practiced law in Wausau until 1969, the year he was elected to the Wisconsin Assembly. In 1974, then-Wisconsin Gov. Patrick Lucey named Earl Department of Administration secretary after he lost the state Attorney General race against Bronson La Follette. Earl later served as secretary for the Department of Natural Resources.

    In a 2011 InsideTrack article celebrating the governor’s 50-year anniversary as an attorney, Earl shared these reflections on this career, “I very much enjoyed the DNR position because I’ve always cared deeply about environmental issues,” said Earl in 2011. In 1993, he wrote “Protecting the Great Lakes,” published by the University of Toledo Law Review.

    Then, from 1983-1987, Earl served as Wisconsin’s governor, the pinnacle of his political career. He ran in 1982 against incumbent Lee Dreyfus, who unexpectedly dropped out of the race.

    “I was sort of an accidental winner,” Earl said. “Everyone thought Dreyfus was a shoe-in, but I thought someone else should run. Serving as governor was a wonderful experience for me.”

    Earl had noted that Wisconsin’s budget situation was worse in 1982 than it is now, “by a longshot.” It was a very difficult time, recalled Earl, who imposed a 10 percent income tax surcharge that may have contributed to his 1986 loss against Tommy Thompson, a four-term governor.

    “From that day on I was known as ‘Tony the Taxer,’” Earl said in 2011 of his early tax hike. “But we got the deficit under control, so I have no regrets about that.”

    Earl finished out his career as partner with Quarles & Brady.

    four award recipients with two seated and two standing

    Former Wisconsin Gov. Tony Earl, seated right, was one of four former Wisconsin governors and State Bar members who in 2017 received the Law Foundation's Goldberg Distinguished Service Award. Pictured with Gov. Earl are, seated left, Gov. Martin Schreiber; standing from left: former governors James Doyle and Tommy Thompson.

    2017: On Receiving the Goldberg Distinguished Service Award from the Wisconsin Law Foundation

    In 2017, Earl received the Wisconsin Law Foundation's Charles L. Goldberg Distinguished Service Award along with three other former governors – Martin Schreiber, Tommy Thompson, and James Doyle – in recognition of a long-standing record of service both to the legal profession and to the public.

    In 2017 on receiving the award, Earl said he was proud to receive the award with his fellow governors, representing both sides of the political spectrum, whom he worked with and knew for many years.

    “We served with one another, we’ve occasionally crossed swords, and on occasion had a harsh word or two, but it was a wonderful experience,” Earl said at the ceremony.

    Such service isn’t to be taken for granted, and should be encouraged in those from differing persuasions, Earl said. It is important to celebrate those who work in politics, who, while coming from differing political persuasions, demonstrate that politics “needn’t be a combat but can really be an exchange of ideas, moving us forward in the same direction.”

    A Lasting Impact: ‘Dignity and Integrity’ in Public Service

    Larry Martin, State Bar of Wisconsin executive director, worked for Earl in the 1980s as a gubernatorial and political aide, becoming his friend along the way and since.

    “Gov. Earl was the personification of all that is best in public service and the legal profession,” Martin said. “He brought great dignity and integrity to his service as an attorney and public servant. For him, both were noble callings.

    “His passing is a great loss for our state. For me, Tony was a dear friend and mentor. I will deeply miss him,” Martin said.

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