It couldn’t have been easy for one of John Stanley’s staff members to sign his death certificate. Stanley was greatly respected by his fellow professionals in law enforcement, medicine, and in county service. Stanley, who has been Dane County Coroner since 2000, died of an apparent heart attack at his DeForest home Sunday afternoon. John Stanley was only 63.
During my years as a morning news anchor in Madison, I got John out of bed a lot of times, calling at 3 or 4 AM to get the details of a tragic death or to confirm some element of a news story. Any request for information that I made of his office, he either handled himself, or put me in touch with someone who could get me the information I wanted.
In the emotionally-charged days right after the 9-11 attacks, John helped me put the details of the story in perspective, and gave me huge insights into the dreadful process that followed the attack on the World Trade Center. I will never forget our early-morning phone calls in those days, before I wrote the morning news stories. He patiently explained details for me, helped me understand the jargon of medical examiners, and helped me keep a human perspective on the tragedy.
But that was something John Stanley did every day of his professional life, dealing with notification of family members following some tragic car wreck, boating mishap, or industrial accident. He knew how to help people cope with the horrible news he had to give them. He did three tours of duty in Viet Nam and saw plenty of death before he ever stepped into the Coroner’s office here, in 1991.
At that time, Ray Wosepka was Coroner. All of us in the media called Ray “Whitey” because of his full head of brilliant white hair - a big contrast to Stanley’s dark hair. Whitey was appointed Coroner after the tragic incident in the City-County Building in 1988, when his boss, Coroner Bud Chamberlain, was murdered by a crazed man with a sawn-off shotgun.
Whitey decided to retire in 2000 after he was diagnosed with cancer, and John Stanley ran for and was elected to the job. He’d been Whitey’s Chief Deputy Coroner. Stanley ran the Coroner’s office with consummate professionalism and great empathy, and the tributes continue to pour in from his colleagues like the County Exec, District Attorney, police chiefs, and medical professionals.
He’d been looking forward to not running for Coroner in the next election, and stepping down to spend a lot more time with his wife and three adult children. No more calls in the middle of the night after a horrid car wreck; no more being the bearer of sad news to a family; and no more calls from the media at 3 AM.
But I have no doubt that had John been able to achieve that well-earned retirement, he would have continued to share his tremendous expertise and insights with anyone who asked him. He was that kind of guy. John Stanley lived a life of exemplary service to his nation, his county, his colleagues, and his friends.