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  • WisBar News
    December 05, 2023

    Celebrating the Life and Career of Ralph Cagle: Teacher, Mentor, Friend, Leader

    It is with sadness that the State Bar of Wisconsin reports the passing of Past President Ralph Cagle on Dec. 1, 2023. A long-time U.W. law professor, he is remembered by many as a mentor, teacher, colleague, and friend.

    Shannon Green

    a portrait of Ralph Cagle sitting in a wicker chair on a green lawn

    Ralph Cagle, State Bar president 2015-16 and longtime U.W. Law professor, championed leadership development and supporting the next generation of lawyers.

    Dec. 5, 2023 – Ralph Cagle was a teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend “to countless individuals,” say many of those who worked with him during his career as a Madison attorney and law professor.

    Ralph M. Cagle served 2015-16 as the 60th president of the State Bar of Wisconsin. He was elected president-elect in April 2014, succeeding Robert Gagan as president.

    Cagle passed away Dec. 1, 2023, at the age of 78.

    He was a champion of lawyers and leadership development. And he “was an extraordinary man, lawyer, and bar leader,” said State Bar Past President Franklyn Gimbel (1986-87).

    From East Coast to Midwest

    Cagle grew up in Rhode Island, and earned his undergraduate degree in political science from the University of Rhode Island. He admitted to being “obsessed with politics” at the time, and went on to earn a master’s degree in political science at Rutgers in New Jersey.

    Cagle came to Wisconsin from the East Coast in 1968 at age 23 to work for Sen. Fred Risser after a fateful moment in history changed Cagle’s path in life. “I was working on Bobby Kennedy’s campaign when he was murdered,” Cagle said. “After that, I decided I needed to get away from politics. But it was the only skill I had. I guess I just needed a fresh start someplace new. Wisconsin was that place.”

    Cagle later worked as assistant to then-assembly speaker Norman Anderson. Along the way, Cagle said in 2015, he “came to law school a little bit by default.” In what he later said were his busiest years, he worked full time, married and helped raise a young child while attending law school full time.

    On graduating from U.W. Law School in 1974, he started in Racine with insurance defense, then moved to Madison for civil litigation and lobbying.

    two people smiling at the camera

    Ralph Cagle with his wife, Tonia Neustifter, at his swearing-in ceremony as State Bar president in June 2015.

    A Realized Dream

    Cagle was always drawn to teaching, and soon began to realize his dream by both practicing law and teaching at a local paralegal institute. Cagle was in private practice for 17 years, doing civil trial work, mostly representing attorneys in malpractice and disciplinary matters.

    Once he took up the chance to teach at the law school, he never looked back. It was, he said, “where I was meant to be.” Cagle spent 25 years of his 40-year legal career at U.W. Law School – including as director of what is now the Lawyering Skills Program, and teaching professional responsibility courses. After retirement in 2015, he was a mediator and of counsel with Hurley, Burish & Stanton in Madison. In the January 2016 issue of Wisconsin Lawyer, he wrote on what teaching meant to him.

    ‘Lawyers Do Much of the Heavy Lifting’

    Cagle ran for State Bar president-elect in 2014, and was newly retired from U.W. Law School when he was sworn in as State Bar president on June 24, 2015. He celebrated at the ceremony with Bucky Badger and a U.W. Marching Band ensemble along with colleagues, friends, and family members.

    At the ceremony, Cagle spoke of the important work lawyers do: “We represent the reviled, the aggrieved, the angry, the dispossessed, the dissenter, the fanatic, the pariah, and sometimes even as unpopular: the powerful, the rich, the arrogant, the polluter, the landlord, the bank, the bill collector, and the government. Like Atticus Finch, lawyers do this with integrity, civility, good sense and common decency, which is not often recognized or revered,” Cagle said.

    “Lawyers do much of the heavy lifting needed to make our legal system fair and our communities whole and successful.” Look around Wisconsin, he said, and “you will consistently find lawyers planted firmly in the soil of community betterment.”

    As State Bar president, Cagle championed new initiatives in leadership development that boost the future of the legal profession – and spoke of the importance of working with the next generation of lawyers. He was instrumental in creating – and proud of – the State Bar's G. Lane Ware Leadership Academy​. Begun in 2016, the ongoing Academy has provided more than 120 lawyers with the leadership skills, strategies, and resources necessary for them to become effective leaders in their communities and the legal profession​.

    He wrote in the May 2016 issue of Wisconsin Lawyer:

    To secure a vital future for our profession and the State Bar, we must secure the long-term commitment of these bright, energetic, and differently tuned young lawyers. We can offer them what we know, especially what our experience has taught us. From what I have seen of them, they will give respectful and due weight to that advice and experience. But, the road into the future will necessarily be one of their own design.

    Find out more about Cagle's State Bar leadership in the July 2015 issue of Wisconsin Lawyer magazine.

    two men seated on a stage, both wearing red socks

    Ralph Cagle (left), a Boston Red Sox fan, wore red socks when the team was in the running for the championship. In this photo from his June 2015 swearing-in ceremony as State Bar president, Cagle was joined by outgoing President Robert Gagan (right), who wore red socks in Cagle’s honor.

    ‘Wonderful Man, Great Friend’

    Cagle is remembered not only as a colleague, but as a friend. “Not long after Ralph became president (in 2015) we attended the ABA meetings in Chicago,” recalled Past President Fran Deisinger, who succeeded Cagle as State Bar president. “On a beautiful warm night, he suggested that we take the river architecture tour. I’ll never forget it. We bought a couple beers and sat up on top and enjoyed each other’s company. It was a perfect evening with a wonderful man and great friend.”

    “One of my happiest memories of Ralph is the two of us traipsing around Atlanta together on a trip to a National Conference of Bar Presidents meeting during his time as president,” said State Bar Executive Director Larry J. Martin. “Together we toured the Carter Presidential Library & Museum, visited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s grave, spent time at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and stopped off at the Coca Cola Museum for a Coke and a smile.”

    Bucky Badger and a smiling man hold their hands up in the W symbol for UW-Madison

    A long-time UW Law professor, Ralph Cagle celebrated his presidential swearing-in with Bucky Badger in June​ 2015.

    Reminiscences from Past Presidents

    News of Cagle’s passing prompted additional recollections of him by State Bar past presidents:

    • Ralph was my assigned mentor when I started with his firm out of law school. He took mentoring seriously. He listened and encouraged. – Michelle Behnke (2004-05)
    • Ralph was a great teacher and leader, who was always generous with his time. I served as Chair his year as president. I learned so much from him. – Jill Kastner (2019-20)
    • To me, like many, he was a wonderful man, teacher, bar leader, and friend. – Chris Rogers (2018-19)
    • His was a life very well-lived and he will live on in the memories of those who knew and loved him. I fondly recall many hours spent with Ralph on various projects. A great lawyer, a mentor, teacher, and a friend. – Thomas Basting Sr. (2007-08)
    • Ralph was a leader, teacher, and friend. – James Brennan (2011-12)
    • ​ Our debates over ethics will always be a great memory. – President Dean Dietrich (2023-24)
    • Ralph and I were together from the beginning. We went to school with each other. We were friends and lawyers usually against each other. That stayed that way for decades. He taught me so much. – Susan Steingass (1998-99)
    • He was the best friend and best supporter that anyone could ever ask for. He was my good friend and I will miss his great stories and wonderful smile. – Pamela Barker (1993-94)

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