2011 Distinguished Alumni Award Honoree
An attorney with Foley & Lardner LLP of Madison, David Walsh BBA’65 (JD’70, Harvard) extends his expertise to fields as varied as telecommunications law, sports law and estate planning. Authoritative publications such as The Best Lawyers in America, Chambers USA and Wisconsin Super Lawyers have often included him in their top rankings. But Walsh may be even better known for his distinguished public service to the Madison community, the state of Wisconsin and his alma mater.
“I believe that the university is the greatest economic force in the state,” he said. “It not only prepares Wisconsin’s citizens for the future, but more important, it is an economic driver … it’s creating knowledge and ideas and science that will, in turn, create jobs and economic development. There’s nothing more important in the state of Wisconsin in terms of a business or an enterprise or a mission.”
“The people of Wisconsin have great pride and respect for UW-Madison. It is a pride and respect we all share in and the reason this honor is so special for me and my family.”
For those who know him well, Walsh’s extensive involvement with his alma mater is not surprising. His connection to the UW has been lifelong, having been born and raised in Madison. His father, John, was a longtime UW boxing coach and lawyer working with the hospital, and his mother, Audrey, was very involved as well. Walsh joins both parents as Distinguished Alumni Award recipients. “Looking back, it seems like there wasn’t a night that we weren’t talking about the university at the dinner table,” he said.
As a high-school sophomore, Walsh applied and was accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy, but he instead opted for his hometown university, enrolling in 1961. As has been the case throughout his life, Walsh was not one to sit idly. He studied hard, immensely enjoyed his classes and became very active in student and campus organizations, including Homecoming, his fraternity, the Scabbard and Blade military society and fundraising for the Elvehjem Center.
“It was just exciting,” he said about his undergraduate years. “It was hard work, but I enjoyed learning. Every day was a new adventure. It was a wonderful time to be at Wisconsin.”
After graduation, Walsh enlisted and served in the U.S. Navy for two years, spending just over a year in Vietnam. He returned to the United States and enrolled in Harvard Law School, earning his JD in 1970. He nearly stayed on the East Coast, but his Wisconsin roots pulled him back. Before beginning a job he had accepted on Wall Street in the fall after graduation, Walsh came back and spent a summer as a clerk on the Wisconsin Supreme Court — and never left.
He became interested in law in Madison, representing people and immediate issues. He joined with his father, and together, they started Walsh & Walsh. During his last year of law school, Walsh wrote and published a paper on the regulation of cable television as a new industry, and he was then approached for counsel by people who were beginning to build the then-fledgling industry. Leading a half dozen start-up companies, Walsh pioneered the cable television industry in Wisconsin, fighting regulation, working with municipalities and even building the systems, eventually owning 35 cable systems himself.
“It seemed like I appeared at every city council meeting in the state,” he said. “It was exciting. It was the first real technological change in communications and it brought together many interesting people.”
After 16 years, Walsh & Walsh merged with Foley & Lardner, where Walsh’s focus turned to corporate counseling and corporate reorganization, then to advising start-ups on taking advantage of the science coming out of UW-Madison. He developed a team that did the patent work, as well as the corporate and financial structuring of high-tech companies. But just as important as his day job was Walsh’s dedication to active community and public-service engagement, something that began at the same time that he started to practice law.
“When I started practicing with my father, one of the givens was that we’d be involved with the community,” he says. “It was just something that [we] always did. We were always available for community and charity work.”
It’s work that has included fundraising and serving on numerous boards and committees for a multitude of organizations, including the Madison Opportunity Council, Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce and many others. Much of his public service stems from his strong connection to UW-Madison. This includes service with the UW Foundation and the Business School Advisory Council; having been a member of the UW Board of Regents since 2002 (including two terms as its president); and a strong commitment to the university’s medical research efforts.
He is chairman of the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics Authority Board and has given generously of his time and financial support to numerous research projects and programs, many of which personally touch on issues close to Walsh. Two of his four children are afflicted by Usher Syndrome, a genetic condition that leads to blindness and hearing loss, and his wife suffers from multiple sclerosis. He raised more than $1.2 million for retinal research and assisted a research program at the UW in drawing more than $4 million in grants, and also serves as chair of the Alice R. McPherson UW-Madison Eye Research Institute.
“I’ve spent the last 10 years really focusing on raising money for things I care about,” says Walsh, noting his involvement with the Multiple Sclerosis Society and Combat Blindness, an organization helping people in third-world countries fight blindness. He’s also on the board of the Foundation Fighting Blindness, which is working and has made great strides in recent years in providing prevention, treatment and cures for people affected by Usher Syndrome as well as other retinal degenerative diseases.
Walsh will retire from his legal career in the near future, finishing his final specialty in work fixing the failed structured-investment vehicles of Wall Street responsible for the recent economic turmoil. But it’s his involvement with UW-Madison and helping facilitate the cutting-edge research from the university that he points to as the work of which he’s most proud.
“There’s an end in sight,” he says. “There’s a goal that we’ll reach. Because there’s a collaboration culture here [among campus departments], it’s exciting and fun. We simply want to make a difference. And we will.”
I am honored and privileged to receive the 2011 Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
I have a special bond with the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My father, John J. Walsh, who was a graduate of the Law School, was also the long-time boxing coach at the University of Wisconsin. And, my mother, Audrey B. Walsh, was an active alumna. Each of them received the Distinguished Alumni Award — my father in 1974 and my mother in 1978.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. It was often the main topic of conversation at dinner. My father was the lawyer and counsel to the Medical School and the Alumni Association. He served as its President in 1965. My mother’s activities included establishing the initial Alumni Women’s Day. My brother is a graduate and I am a proud 1965 graduate.
I am indebted to the University of Wisconsin for so many things. It was a platform and forum for academic excellence during my formative years. Its commitment to freedom of expression allowed me to grow in an environment of academic rigor. It was large enough and subtle enough to let students find their own way and it respected and nurtured them as they grew into young adults.
The years after I graduated in 1965 were challenging times for the young people of this country. The turmoil of the 1960’s and the impact of the Vietnam War created a difficult environment for young people.
I recall one particular experience that has forever reminded me of the importance of this great university in our lives. My alma mater was a battleground in 1970, particularly after the Kent State shootings in May of 1970. The violent protests culminated in the tragic bombing of Sterling Hall on August 22, 1970. I was a Vietnam veteran and had just recently graduated from another law school. I had returned to Madison to clerk on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
I will never forget how the university responded to the Sterling Hall tragedy. The university took a collective deep breath. The faculty and staff asked the students to stop and think, to understand the significance of the tragic act and to understand that we were the future. The violent street protests were replaced by thoughtful, informal discussions in the classrooms, on Bascom Hill and wherever the students and faculty could meet. It was a learning experience for all of us. A great university that had been challenged by violent protests and an unthinkable bombing quickly responded with constructive dialogue. I felt proud, and most important, a part of a great public institution.
I began practicing law in Madison in 1970. Our firm grew from a small firm specializing in discrete matters to a firm now consisting of over 1,000 lawyers. I was fortunate to be a pioneer in the development of the cable television industry and our legal successes have been recognized by our peers. Yet, while my accomplishments have perhaps been more visible than other alumni, they are no more important, and the pride I have in this university is no greater than so many other alumni share in our alma mater.
My active law practice and business activities, in particular, the build-out of the cable television industry, have required me to extensively travel the state. The common theme I have experienced is that the people of Wisconsin have great pride and respect for the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It is a pride and respect we all share in and the reason this honor is so special for me and my family. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has made a difference in my life. Thank you for this honor.