APPLETON – Cody Splitt, a distinguished lawyer who was a national trailblazer for civil rights, served in the Navy during World War II and had a far-reaching political influence dating to the 1950s, has died. She was 101.
“She was very influential, and she was a wonderful person who was so full of life,” said Maureen Radtke, an 87-year-old Appleton woman who served with Splitt in the U.S. Navy WAVES in the 1940s. “She was an inspiration to all of us.”
Splitt was described by longtime friends as a woman of style and grace who was deeply involved in philanthropic endeavors, especially providing scholarships for young people to attend colleges and technical schools.
“She was just a great person who was a trailblazer and had so many stories about the history of Appleton, our state and our country,” said Bill Kloiber, an Appleton resident who was a close friend of Splitt’s for the past 30 years. “She was active until the end.”
Splitt, who was raised by her mother during the Great Depression, accompanied her to the White House in 1927, where, at age 8, she met President Calvin Coolidge. In 1952, she escorted Republican presidential candidate Robert Taft to Lawrence University for a campaign appearance. She also campaigned around the state with U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy.
She enlisted in the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) when it was created in 1942 by Congress. She served until the end of World War II in the Bureau of Naval Personnel in Washington, D.C., and was instrumental in establishing the Fox Valley Unit 153 of WAVES National.
Splitt was among the first women attorneys in Wisconsin and was one of the first women to take advantage of the G.I. Bill.
Splitt also campaigned around the state for McCarthy, the senator from Appleton whose notoriety continues to resonate nationally decades after he left office.
“She showed me a side of McCarthy — the passion of a true believer as well as blinding ambition — that made the Red-baiting senator more fully dimensional,” said Larry Tye, a former Boston Globe reporter and author who interviewed Splitt in Appleton for his book, “Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy.”
“I interviewed more than 200 people for my McCarthy bio, and none was more gracious and illuminating than Cody, who by then was in her late 90s,” Tye said.
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Splitt was born in Wausau on Aug. 13, 1919. She and her mother lived with limited means, and Splitt turned to attending court proceedings at the Marathon County Courthouse for entertainment.
That experience led her to pursue a legal career, graduating from the University of Wisconsin Law School. She opened an office in Appleton, focusing mostly on family law, until retiring in 1994.
She was married in 1948 to Harley Splitt and they settled in Appleton. They had a daughter, Leigh Splitt. The Splitts were deeply involved in charitable efforts through the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region.
Splitt was appointed to the Wisconsin Equal Rights Commission by former Gov. Warren Knowles in 1966.
“She was a strong civil rights supporter,” said Kloiber, who visited Splitt often at her Appleton home to watch Turner Classic Movies and discuss current political issues.
She was a godsend to Republican politicians for decades, including former U.S. Rep. Toby Roth and former legislator and Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser.
“She was very active in the Republican Party,” Roth said. “She was well-loved in Outagamie County and the state of Wisconsin. She liked everybody.
“She was full of life. Everybody knew when Cody came into the room. What the world needs is more Cody Splitts. She had a good, rich long life.”
Prosser said he was grateful for Splitt’s support over the years.
“It was never dirty politics,” he said. “She was always someone you looked to as a solid person. She was popular and respected.
“I don’t think Cody had any enemies. She was outspoken. She was first in a lot of things. She had countless friends and she was a very significant role model for everybody.”
Splitt also had a creative, graceful side. She was heavily involved in Attic Theatre performances and modeled for the Grist Fur Store in Appleton in the early days of television.
Appleton’s Sandra Mills, who knew Splitt for more than 50 years, vividly recalls the bright red hat she wore and her flair for style.
“People were always in awe of Cody’s vast knowledge,” Mills said. “All of the people whose lives she touched reflect her wonderful characteristics.
“She was intelligent and had this Irish courage and strength of conviction, and will always be in my heart.”
Mills, who accompanied Splitt to numerous political events over the years, said she was engaging and a joy to be around as she aged beyond 100.
“She had grace and elegance and beauty,” Mills said. “I treasured my close friendship with Cody and I will miss her very much.”
A Mass will be held Aug. 13, 2021, at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Appleton. Gifts can be made to the Harley and Cody Splitt Donor Advised Fund of the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley.
Andy Thompson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Thompson_AW.
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