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Thomas Wynn recalled as ‘visionary’ in veterans affairs

By ALICE CHANG – Posted: Nov. 6, 2004

National veterans’ rights activist Thomas H. Wynn, Sr. died Friday, November 5, 2004, after a 15-month bout with kidney cancer. Wynn, 73, a Whitefish Bay resident, helped establish the National Association for Black Veterans and the Center for Veterans Issues, both based in Milwaukee. “He was a visionary,” said Robert Cocroft, chief executive officer of the Center. “He had the utmost integrity.” Born in New York and raised in Portsmouth, Va., Wynn attended Virginia Union University in Richmond. He served with the U.S. Army in Fairbanks, Alaska, during the Korean War era, said his wife, Kay Shellestad. After the war, Wynn worked a number of jobs, from driving buses to selling insurance, said Jill Ralian, director of operations at the Center. Then Wynn took a job counseling veterans at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“He started noticing a lot of returning vets who were disenfranchised were minority,” said Shellestad, a retired high school Spanish teacher. He got together with a few Vietnam veterans to start the two veterans groups which now have offices nationwide, she said. Wynn worked and volunteered 6 1/2 days a week. He was employed full time at the Social Development Commission working with veterans and also served on an advisory panel that testified before President Clinton a number of times concerning veterans’ issues. He retired from the SDC in July. Shellestad remembered he always took a canvas bag with him to the White House. “He didn’t carry a briefcase,” Shellestad recalled. “We laughed a little about that. His favorite (bag) was bright red. With all these lawyers, Thomas would pull papers out of his canvas bag.”

Former co-workers spoke of his dynamic personality and compassion. “A lot of times, he would upset people by bending rules to help veterans,” Ralian said. “He believed in trying to make the program fit around the veteran. It was the one thing that drove people nuts about him and the one thing that people loved about him.” Wynn’s passion was to serve minority and homeless veterans. “He was a dreamer,” Shellestad said. “He wouldn’t say no. He always made other people believe things could be done and did them.” Wynn is survived by his wife, Shellestad, and seven children – Cynthia, Thomas Jr. and Spencer Wynn, and Hillary Wynn Beavers, Worthington Aaron, Dayna Ward and Dynnea Walls, all of Milwaukee. “He was my strength,” Shellestad said. “He was the love of my life. I respected him more than any other person I know.” Other survivors include 13 grandchildren.

A service will be held at the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center on Wednesday at 3 p.m.

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