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The Big Cheese: Chippewa County

Thank you, Chippewa County, for Alexander Wiley, a giant of the United States Senate.

Alexander Wiley

Alexander Wiley’s career started with cheese.

In 1939, Wiley LLB1907 was a freshman senator, looking for a place to fit in once he’d arrived in Congress. The Republican from Chippewa County was one of only 23 members of his party in the Senate, and his in-state colleague, Robert La Follette Jr., was the brother of the man who had defeated Wiley in a run for governor just two years earlier.

What could Wiley do?

Serve cheese, of course. On April 28, 1939, Wiley hosted Cheese Day at the Senate restaurant, celebrating 75 years of the dairy industry in Wisconsin and loading down his colleagues with mouthfuls of the stuff. He brought with him a wheel that he billed as the world’s largest cheese, as well as a bust of Senate majority leader John Nance Garner carved out of Cheddar.

The dairy donation must have worked: Wiley would spend four terms in the Senate, making him the longest-tenured Wisconsin congressman up to that time. He rose to chair the powerful Committee on the Judiciary and Committee on Foreign Relations.

“He voted his conscience, feeling that his vote was one which, in the long run, would result in benefit to Wisconsin.”

A native of Chippewa Falls, Wiley arrived at the University of Wisconsin–Madison to study law and then began his career as a district attorney. He joined the Republican Party and grew prominent enough to earn its nomination for governor (1936) and then senator (1938). His friendly demeanor and generous outlook earned him a reputation for being both collegial and pragmatic.

While in the Senate, Wiley worked to serve the interests of his state: he championed construction of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, which helped to open the Great Lakes to international shipping, and he helped to push back against Joseph McCarthy when the younger Republican sowed discord, fear, and paranoia.

“Sen. Wiley is … furnishing Washington with the heartening spectacle of a senator prepared to take on the grass-roots war against those elements and opinions which furnish so large a share of the basic strength of ‘McCarthyism,’ ” cheered newspaper columnist Doris Fleeson in June 1953.

Wiley served until 1963, when Gaylord Nelson LLB’42 unseated him.

“On some occasions he took stands on international issues that were not popular with the people back home,” said Alvin O’Konski ’32, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. “But he voted his conscience, feeling that his vote was one which, in the long run, would result in benefit to Wisconsin.”

And it all started with free cheese.

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