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Moments in Time: David Deininger
David Deininger. To order this photo, click here. (Times photo: Marissa Weiher)

Moments in Time

Moments in Time is a weekly series featuring recollections of area residents. To suggest someone to feature in Moments in Time, please contact Mary Jane Grenzow, editor, at

MONROE - David Deininger was at the top of his class in Monroe from the start and came back to serve his county, district and community by taking a fair, level-headed approach to work, home and happiness.

Deininger was born and raised in Monroe and said it was a special thing to consider Monroe's historic Square his front yard. The family lived in the county jail - his father and grandfather served as sheriff and his mother cooked for the jail.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the building that now houses the Jailhouse Tap was living quarters, at that time a vintage building from the 1890s. It was custom to have the sheriff's family reside there and have the sheriff's wife cook for the prisoners.

There were term limits on sheriffs then, and his father stepped down for two years before running again. The family then moved to the new jail for another four years once he took office.

Deininger enjoyed growing up in Monroe; he took accordion lessons from Rudy Burkhalter and marched in the 1955 Cheese Days parade. He played the trombone in high school and was in the city band for six years in the mid-1950s. He has lots of Swiss history on his mother's side and said he enjoyed typical activities around Monroe, such as swimming at Recreation Park and sports.

The 1965 graduate of Monroe High School served as the class president, received the Citizenship Award and was named the co-valedictorian. School came easy for Deininger. He said he was fortunate to have a receptive mind, and qualities where he didn't mind putting in the work.

He had a half brother, 18 years older than him, who grew up in a different household. However, the family would see him often. Deininger admired that his brother attended the U.S. Naval Academy and set it as his own ultimate goal as well.

He applied, was appointed to the Naval Academy by Sen. William Proxmire and completed the required interviews and exams. The experience was very different than he had expected, and life at school was very regimented.

Liking it, he said, might be too strong of a word.

But Deininger was dedicated and never really considered leaving. He became active in the debate team and was editor of the college magazine. Although it wasn't the easiest or most enjoyable experience, he said he has no regrets.

"It was a great experience for preparation and the opportunities were excellent," he said.

He graduated in 1969 at 10:30 a.m. before preparing to marry his high school sweetheart, Mary, that evening. They didn't allow academy students to be married as undergraduates, so there were several couples waiting to use the chapel every half hour.

After graduation, Deininger decided he wanted to go into nuclear submarines. It was the mid-1960s and there was a big push for that due to Vietnam. He went for a six-month Nuclear Submarine Training at a land base reactor.

He then completed four Polaris Missile patrols and was stationed at a Nuclear Power School in California, spending two years there on staff as an instructor and administrator.

With two years completed and his obligated service time of five years looming, Deininger had a decision to make. Law school had always been in the back of his mind and, although the Navy tried to keep him, he knew staying in his field wouldn't advance him any further. Since he and Mary had felt a connection to living out East, they made a plan to go back there and raise their family.

But life stepped in and the couple learned that Mary's mother, back in Monroe, was ill. They decided to move back home in 1975 and Deininger enrolled in law school in Chicago, commuting, and hoping to land more placement opportunities.

Eventually, the couple planned to move the family to student housing at the Illinois college, but after 15 months in Monroe, they couldn't bring themselves to leave.

"Monroe looked different to both of us then - we weren't itching as much to see the world," he said. "Monroe seemed like a good place to live and work and raise a family. We liked the quality of life we felt was available for us and our family here in Monroe."

So instead, Deininger transferred to Madison to finish law school. Although rigorous and challenging, he welcomed the academic world and thrived there. He was anxious to get back to work, making ends meet by clerking for a firm in Monroe. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin law school in 1978.

Once finished with school, Deininger landed a job practicing law with a group of men in Monroe at a traditional law office on the Square. Each of the men had interests on the side, including Deininger, who was interested in politics. He became active in the local Republican Party and the school board.

He was also elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly as a Republican, serving from 1987 to 1994.

It wasn't long before Deininger was approached to run for judgeship. The incumbent had announced that he wouldn't be running, and Deininger was able to get on the ballot within four hours, only to learn as he filed his papers that the incumbent had changed his mind. However, Deininger won and would serve as the circuit judge in Green County.

Being a judge in a small town could be somewhat isolating, he said; it was a large workload, and there were few colleagues. But he said he always felt he represented people in the fairest way possible. He thrived during tough decision-making.

He still served in his private practice, but withdrew from the partnership and became "of council" to the firm.

Deininger, who considers himself a moderate/progressive Republican, was appointed by Gov. Tommy Thompson in 1996 to the nonpartisan Wisconsin Court of Appeals District 4 bench. He was elected in 1997 and re-elected in 2003 without opposition.

"I think it would be hard to do now," he said. "Then, it was possible to represent your district and present your view of the world to the voters."

There was a big emphasis on fundraising, full-time campaigning and party polarization at the time, he said.

"I enjoyed it. It was invigorating," he said. "It was the closest thing - my days at the office - to being on deck standing watch on a submarine."

He spent 12 years on the Court of Appeals and, toward the end of his career, found that it was becoming harder to stay motivated. District 4 was busy and he needed to plow through briefs and wanted to leave before any of his work showed that.

It was also a difficult time for Deininger personally; he had lost his daughter, Emilie, in a car accident and he was raising his grandson, Emerson. In 2008, he decided to retire, and he was ready - but he was happy knowing he could still stay as busy as he wanted as a reserve judge.

"I was ready to move on," he said. "The time was just right."

Soon after his retirement, Deininger was appointed by Gov. Jim Doyle to the Government Accountability Board, one of the first six members. He was the board's first chairperson.

Deininger has always been busy in his community and still is. He was the chair of the Monroe Clinic Board of Directors and was very active with the EMS Capital Campaign, helping raise money for the new building going up on 12th Street. He was also on Tammy Baldwin's chair for Service Academy Selection committee.

Once retired, Deininger was able to travel more and visit his sons, Jonathon and Christopher. Now 69, he also enjoys golfing, cross country skiing, playing bridge, practicing yoga, walking his dogs and spending time with his two grandchildren.

He's still taking on relief judge assignments and mediation calls as well, although not as many as when he first retired.

"My mother once said of my father when he retired: "Doc is gone just as much since he retired, only now I don't know where he is,'" Deininger said, noting that it's likely the same case with his retirement and Mary, who is also very active in the Monroe community.

The couple enjoys being up north at their family cabin with family and friends. They have taken some cruises and last year were in Switzerland for the third time over Labor Day with the Turner Hall group, keeping in touch with distant cousins.

Deininger's touchstone at home and at work has come from "Fighting Bob" La Follette: "In no other one thing does a man more surely indicate his quality than in his ability to master actual conditions and set them forth with clearness."

Deininger said the jury is still out on what kind of judge he was - and he isn't at liberty to proclaim a guess.

"I think I've always been open to other people's view points," he said.