From his days growing up in Eau Claire to his time on the Eau Claire County Board to working in Gov. Tommy Thompson’s administration to his decade on the Eau Claire City Council, Dave Duax felt compelled to make his views known, with the aim of making the world a better place.
On Friday morning Duax’s voice, which spoke frequently about government-related issues and other topics, was silenced. He died at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire three months after experiencing a brain bleed. He was 71.
Duax’s death, prompted by complications related to his brain bleed, sent a wave of sorrow through Eau Claire, the city where he was born and spent most of his life. Many people who knew Duax in one capacity or another recalled his dedication to the city he loved.
“He was more dedicated to this community and to doing what he thought was right than anyone I know,” state Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, said of Duax. “He was a pragmatist who didn’t let party lines get in the way of good public policy. We need more people like him, and his loss is a sad day.”
Wachs met Duax when he was young, and he served on the City Council from 2009 to 2012 when Duax was a councilman. On Tuesday he closed a state Assembly session at the state Capitol in Madison with a prayer in Duax’s honor.
“I felt it was something I could do to honor someone who gave so much to Eau Claire,” Wachs said.
Others remembered Duax in a similar vein, recalling his dedication to community.
“Wow, that’s a huge loss,” former longtime Eau Claire County Board Chairman Howard Ludwigson said when informed that Duax had died. “I had hoped he was going to recover and continue to serve the community. To hear this is quite a blow.”
When Ludwigson was elected to the County Board in 1975, Duax was board chairman. He immediately appointed Ludwigson to the county’s Planning and Development Committee and one year later named Ludwigson chairman of that panel.
“I was reluctant to do that,” Ludwigson recalled. “I was a new board member and didn’t think I had the expertise to do that. But (Duax) had more trust in me than I did. He told me I could do it, and he was right.”
Duax’s confidence in him convinced Ludwigson he would serve in a leadership role, he said. He went on to other committees and was board chairman before stepping down a decade ago.
“He helped me more than he will ever know,” Ludwigson said of Duax.
As with County Board members Duax served with from 1974 to 1983, Eau Claire City Council members who have worked with Duax since he was first elected to the council in 2005 noted his forthright, sometimes forceful debate methods, his extensive knowledge of local issues and his dedication to making Eau Claire a better place.
Councilman Andrew Werthmann said Duax played an important role in helping him find his way when he was elected in 2009 at age 25.
“He really helped give me a sense of the history of this city, of the background, so I could make more informed choices,” Werthmann said. “I think he saw himself as a teacher or mentor to me and others, and he certainly played that role.”
Other council members credited Duax with his dedication to public service. He was willing to meet with just about anyone at any time to discuss various issues, they said.
City Council President Kerry Kincaid praised Duax’s dedication to local issues, calling his service to Eau Claire “unprecedented.”
“Council member Duax was a dedicated public servant with a passion for his home town,” Kincaid said in a news release. “His legacy will have a lasting impact on our community.”
Bob Von Haden, a councilman since 2003, praised Duax’s common sense, integrity, thorough nature and ability to compromise. He said Duax put the best interest of the community first when debating policy.
“He was a wonderful mentor and helper,” Von Haden said.
Duax’s oftentimes lengthy oratory and his willingness to push for discussion of certain issues, even those that exposed shortcomings of local government, sometimes put him at odds with fellow council members or county supervisors. At times he clashed with Kincaid and other council members about various topics and was known for his forceful debate style.
“There is no doubt that sometimes Dave’s propensity for minutiae of the debate sometimes worked against him,” Councilman Dave Klinkhammer said. “But there is also no doubt that he was extremely committed to public service. And there is no doubting his love for Eau Claire.”
‘Outside the box’
Among Duax’s traits was an ability to advocate for an idea regardless of which political party or faction had introduced it, those who worked with Duax said. That trait was remarkable, they said, given that Gov. Tommy Thompson, a Republican, appointed Duax to work as director of the state Office of Health Care Commission, which analyzed and publicized data regarding Wisconsin health care providers. One year later, in 1989, he was named administrator of the state Division of Youth Services.
“Here you have a Republican who worked for Tommy who was willing to work with people of the other party or people who were on the different side of many issues at the local level than him,” said John Prince, who worked with Duax at HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital, where Prince was an administrator and Duax a spokesman, for a decade before Prince retired in 1999. “He was who he was, and he wasn’t afraid to be himself, even if not everybody liked him.”
Werthmann seconded that notion, noting that Duax often co-sponsored City Council legislation with him or former Councilman Brandon Buchanan, two of the council’s more liberal members.
“It didn’t matter to Dave whether you had past disagreements with him or whether you were different than him politically,” Werthmann said. “He was in government because he saw it as a place to make things better.”
Others noted Duax’s strong sense of history. On one occasion, Werthmann said, Duax suddenly recounted details of many Native American trails that once traversed Eau Claire. “If you hung out with Dave for a while, he would give you more history than you ever imagined,” Werthmann laughed.
Laurie Erdman, Duax’s younger sister, recalled how he used a globe to teach her the name of every country in the world when he was 12 and she was 5. A commitment to history and why it matters was evident in Duax at an early age, she said.
“He wanted to know how things worked and why they happened,” Erdman, of Eau Claire, said. “He wanted to honor the history and the people that got us to where we are now.”
Perhaps the most notable aspect of her brother, Erdman said, was his ability to envision solutions others didn’t see.
“David always thought outside the box,” she said. “He taught me that if you have a dream, figure out how you can do it and go for it. That was how he lived his life, and he wanted others to do the same.”
In the months after suffering his Jan. 12 brain bleed, Duax’s health was up and down. He underwent multiple surgeries at St. Marys, a hospital that is part of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and later recovered enough to be moved to a rehabilitation center in Bloomer. One February day he and Erdman joyously sang the French national anthem together in that language.
“We had hopes that Dave was going to pull through this,” Erdman said.
But complications continued. On April 9, as doctors prepared Duax for yet another surgery, the procedure was halted because his body couldn’t handle the strain.
“That’s when I knew he was going to die. I knew it was over,” Duax’s wife, Kathryn, said of the man she married in 1993.
In subsequent days Kathryn convinced doctors to allow her husband to come home to die in the city he loved. On Tuesday morning he was transferred to Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire.
On Friday, shortly after Duax’s death, Kathryn recalled her husband’s sense of duty to community, his sense of pride about and hope for Eau Claire. She remembered their meeting in church and how Duax showed up at her birthday party shortly before they were married wearing a Wisconsin Badgers sweatshirt bearing a dozen roses. She thought about all he accomplished and all that he hoped might still happen.
Mostly, she thought about how much she’ll miss him.
“I just lost my best friend,” she said.
Funeral arrangements are pending with Fuller-Speckien-Hulke Funeral Home in Eau Claire.
Emerson can be reached at 715-830-5911, 800-236-7077 or email@example.com.