Dick Bolender, who announced just last week that he would not seek a fourth term as Oak Creek mayor, died unexpectedly Saturday night.
He was 68.
"He wasn't just a mayor to me or a co-worker. He was a personal friend, and I'm really going to miss the guy," said Ald. Michael Toman, who took over Bolender's seat in the 4th Aldermanic District after Bolender was elected mayor.
"His legacy in the city is, he's probably one of the most honest politicians I've known in my life. A good honest city servant and a good family man. Those are the things I'll remember," Toman said Sunday. "He said what he believed and he believed what he said. You never had to question where he stood on issues. Whether you agreed with him or not, he took a stand. He was that kind of man. He wasn't wishy-washy."
A proud Republican, Bolender wasn't afraid to speak his mind but still listened to other people speak theirs at regular "Meet the Mayor" sessions at City Hall. He started the tradition in 2003 as a way to get residents more involved in the community and to find out what's on their minds. He had taken a similar approach when he was first elected as an alderman in 2000, meeting residents in their living rooms to talk over coffee.
Ald. Tom Michalski of the 6th District said Bolender had seemed cheerful and in a good mood when he saw him at his "Meet the Mayor" session Saturday morning.
Just a few hours later, Bolender was sitting at home in front of the computer while his wife, Christine, made Christmas cookies. When she came back five minutes later, he wasn't breathing, Bolender's daughter, Lisa Reid, said Sunday.
The Oak Creek Fire Department responded to the mayor's home in the 3700 block of E. Ryan Road at 8:36 p.m. Saturday, Battalion Chief Mike Kressuk said. He said first responders provided emergency medical services and transported Bolender to Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee. Bolender was pronounced dead in the emergency room.
Reid said that Bolender did not have any heart problems, and that the family does not know the cause of his death.
Bolender had said he was not going to seek re-election in April as mayor because he wanted to spend more time with his family.
"He just felt, 'Look, I've been doing this for three terms as mayor, one year as an alderman. It's time to do other things,' " Michalski said. "He's got a nice extended family and wanted to spend time with grandkids. You want to retire while you still got your health. Some of these positions are time-consuming. For him at least, it was just that he wanted to spend time with his wife, who he just adored, and his grandkids."
Bolender several times indicated that he didn't care much for titles, and that his most important title was "Grandpa" for his six grandchildren. He taught his granddaughter and "partner," Brittany, to ride and took trips on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle with his son, daughter and their spouses. Reid said her father wanted to run for public office to create a better community but always put his family first.
"He wanted people to be able to go out to a nice restaurant with their families and go shopping and not have to drive to Southridge. In the past, you couldn't buy a birthday present here. That's where he started," Reid said.
He worked on the redevelopment of the Delphi property and the creation of a library in City Hall.
"We were proud of the man he was. He led by example for us," Reid said. "He called it like he saw it. If he said he was going to do something, his handshake and his word was as good as a contract. He wasn't a politician. He was a citizen who cared about his community and wanted to make it better."
Council President Steve Scaffidi, who had announced his intentions to run for Bolender's mayoral seat, said Bolender acted as a mentor for him since he started serving on the Zoning Board of Appeals.
"He brought me in and talked about issues. I felt he mentored me as far as what needed to be done as an elected official," Scaffidi said. "He was just a great guy to spend time with. He was a military guy. He worked as an insurance company claims guy for a while. There was a lot of flavor in his approach to life."
Bolender enjoyed tending to the horses and cows on his farm - one of the few remaining in the sprawling city - and helped teach Scaffidi about farming, Scaffidi said.
Bolender's death came as a shock for many in the city.
"It all happened to fast. It's pretty sad for the city and for his family," Scaffidi said. "The message is, don't wait to enjoy life. Do it now."
Bolender was a graduate of South Milwaukee High School and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
He is survived by his wife; a son, Oak Creek Police Capt. Michael Bolender; and Reid, who is a school psychologist at Deerfield Elementary School. Bolender and his wife had been sweethearts for 53 years and married 45. They worked together nearly every day on their farm or their home, Reid said.
"She was the love of his life. She's missing him terribly," Reid said.
Bolender's funeral will be Wednesday - on his wife's birthday. Before that, Reid said, he'll give back to his community one last time by donating his organs.
"He was always giving to others and we figured that's what he'd want," Reid said.
Scaffidi said he plans to meet Monday with City Administrator Gerald Peterson and City Attorney Lawrence Haskin to work out a succession plan. Scaffidi said his understanding is that he, as Common Council president, would take over administrative duties currently performed by the mayor.
A general election for the mayor's seat is set for April 3.
Visitation for Oak Creek Mayor Dick Bolender will be from noon to 5:45 p.m. Wednesday at St. Stephen Catholic Church, 1441 W. Oakwood Road, Oak Creek. A funeral Mass will follow at 6 p.m. An honor guard from the Oak Creek Fire and Police departments will be present at Bolender's funeral and honor him with a 21-gun salute.
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