Former secretary of defense Laird dies at 94
Melvin Laird, Marshfield native, former District 7 congressional representative and secretary of defense under Richard Nixon, died Wednesday, Nov. 16, at age 94 due to complications from congestive heart failure
Laird served as secretary of defense under President Richard Nixon from 1969 until 1973. Prior to serving in the Nixon cabinet, Laird was a Republican congressman representing Wisconsin’s 7th district from 1953 to 1969. During that time the district included Portage County.
Laird was widely known for forming Nixon’s policy of withdrawing the U.S. military from Vietnam, and he is credited with coining the term “Vietnamization,” which described the goal of gradually handing over the war effort to the anti-communist South Vietnamese troops. Laird was also the secretary of defense who suspended the military draft in 1973, making the U.S. military an all-volunteer force.
The Laird Center for Medical Research at the Marshfield Clinic was named after him for the great contributions he made to Marshfield Clinic and health care as a whole. The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point’s (UWSP) Laird Center was named after him as well.
Through Laird’s longtime commitment to UWSP, the Laird Youth Leadership Foundation co-hosted a biannual Laird Youth Leadership Day conference at the university between 1965 and 2008. The event brought state and national leaders to discuss civic and public policy topics, and speakers included former President Gerald R. Ford, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, Lawrence Eagleburger and Colin Powell, several secretaries of education and Wisconsin governors.
As a congressman representing Wisconsin’s District 7, Laird took a special interest in medical research. He played a key role in furthering the mission of Marshfield Clinic, including helping secure medical research grants.
As an influential member of Congress, especially as the ranking member of the Health, Education and Welfare Appropriations Committee, Laird worked for the expansion of America’s medical research programs and facilities. He shepherded many health and educational initiatives through Congress, including the present legislative authority for health maintenance organizations.
He served as a member of Marshfield Clinic and Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation’s National Advisory Council from its inception in 1982 and became an emeritus member in 1998.
The Melvin R. Laird Center was officially dedicated on Sept. 12, 1997.
The theme of building a safer, healthier future in which medical discoveries move quickly from research to applied patient care permeated the Sept. 8, 2006, groundbreaking ceremony for a significant addition to the Laird Center for Medical Research.
According to the Washington Post, Laird was a shrewd and influential Wisconsin Republican, Laird became his party’s leading expert on military affairs during his 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Post said he reluctantly agreed to leave Congress and become defense secretary in January 1969, at a moment when U.S. troop strength in Vietnam – around 550,000 – was nearing its peak. During his four years at the Pentagon, Laird dramatically reduced U.S. troop involvement in the conflict, supported the cause of bringing home U.S. prisoners of war held under horrible conditions in North Vietnam and worked to end the deeply unpopular draft.
Laird was a strong supporter of UWSP. He received the first honorary doctorate bestowed by the institution in 2011, recognizing his impact on UWSP and his significant lifetime contributions to the region and nation.
The Laird Youth Leadership Foundation provided more than 400 Laird scholarships to high school students from central and northern Wisconsin who exhibit exceptional leadership qualities and scholastic aptitude since its founding in 1964.
“Our nation has lost a statesman of great stature, a dear friend to many and a champion of students,” said Bernie Patterson, UWSP chancellor.
Laird hosted the bi-annual Laird Youth Leadership Day conference for 21 years, bringing thousands of young leaders from the 7th Congressional District to UWSP to hear from internationally known experts in a variety of subjects from leadership and education to the arts and diversity.
Hundreds of students have benefited from scholarships provided by Laird. He created the Melvin R. Laird Youth Leadership Scholarship/Endowment in 1989. It awards $2,000 to five first-year students from the 7th Congressional District each year. The awards are renewed a second year if grade-point averages are maintained. Scholarships totaling more than $300,000 have been awarded, according to the UWSP Foundation.
In addition, he established an award to recognize and reward exceptional students in the performing or visual arts at UWSP. The Melvin R. Laird Exceptional Artist Award/Endowment has provided $30,000 to six graduating students since 2011, an investment in their potential to become successful artists.
“His scholarships will benefit our students into perpetuity,” Patterson said.