OREGON, Wis. — After 16 months, family and friends gathered to celebrate the memory of Maj. Gen. Al Wilkening, former adjutant general of Wisconsin, during an Aug. 7 ceremony.
Wilkening, who served as adjutant general from 2002-07, died April 8, 2020 following a battle with cancer.
Jim Doyle, who was governor of Wisconsin for most of Wilkening’s tenure, said the past 16 months have allowed time to really appreciate who the former adjutant general was and what he meant to friends and the Wisconsin National Guard.
“Maj. Gen. Wilkening and I served together as the commander-in-chief and the adjutant general of Wisconsin’s National Guard through its most challenging years since World War II,” Doyle said during the ceremony. “He led the Guard through the biggest deployment of Soldiers and Airmen since World War II.”
Doyle also appointed Wilkening to be the state’s homeland security advisor and chairman of the state’s Homeland Security Council, coordinating all of the state’s homeland security measures.
“I saw incredible leadership qualities close up and on an almost daily basis,” Doyle said of Wilkening. “He was modest. He was industrious. He was organized. He was above intrigue. He inspired loyalty, by giving loyalty. He was a confident, strong, humble and modest leader.
“I figured out pretty quickly the way to be a good commander-in-chief in Wisconsin was to listen to what Maj. Gen. Wilkening said we should do, and then do it,” he added.
Doyle credited his predecessor, Scott McCallum, with selecting Wilkening to be adjutant general. Another former governor, Tommy Thompson, agreed, saying during the ceremony that Wilkening was the gold standard for what it means to serve family, community, state and nation.
“He was what Teddy Roosevelt called ‘the great citizen,’” Thompson said. “He was in the arena, day in and day out, leading and toiling and sweating, making sure that the best was going to happen.”
Thompson shared his own experience on Sept. 11, 2001, while he was serving as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Once commercial aircraft had been grounded, he still had a planeload of medical equipment that needed to reach New York City. Drawing on his own experience as governor, he called Wilkening for advice.
“He helped me get a medical plane in the air on that fateful day — I’ll never forget it,” Thompson said. “Thanks to his help, I believe we were the only ones to get a plane in the air that day, outside of the Air Force, to deliver medical supplies to New York.”
At the time, Wilkening was deputy adjutant general for Air. The adjutant general in 2001, Maj. Gen. James Blaney, was undergoing scheduled surgery on the day of the terror attacks.
George Conway spoke briefly, representing a group of Wilkening’s hometown friends from Massapequa, New York. He recalled that Wilkening’s first car was a Willys Jeep from World War II.
“Al was the kind of guy that everyone liked and admired,” Conway said. “He loved his country, and he loved Wisconsin. And he loved his family, and everyone knew he loved Pat.”
Rev. Michael Hammond, who officiated the ceremony at People’s United Methodist Church, said in talking with people about Wilkening, the word “devotion” kept recurring.
“Devotion is love, loyalty or enthusiasm for a person, an activity or a cause,” Hammond said. “And from what I’ve come to learn, and from what many of you already know, that definition definitely applies to Al.”
Wilkening has been credited with developing the framework for managing deployments, as well as the state’s protocols for when Wisconsin service members lost their lives serving overseas.
He joined the Air Force as a pilot in 1968, demonstrating such proficiency that he became a flight training instructor after one year. He joined the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 176th Fighter Interceptor Squadron in Madison — precursor to today’s 115th Fighter Wing — in 1973, and tallied more than 3,000 flying hours over his career.
After retiring in 2007, Wilkening was active with the Wisconsin chapter of the Employer Support for the Guard and Reserve.