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Nan Cheney, a prominent Madison peace activist whose pleasant demeanor masked one tough cookie, died Friday at age 79 after decades of social justice, anti-war and environmental activism.

The cause was an aggressive cancer discovered after a stroke in March, said her daughter, Nina Cheney of Mount Horeb.

There was little Nan Cheney wouldn't do for a cause she believed in - she traveled to Selma, Ala., to march with Martin Luther King Jr., hit the front lines at immigration reform rallies and helped found several organizations, including the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice. The statewide organization of 168 member groups celebrated the beginning of its 20th year at a gathering in Milwaukee the night before her death.

"So many people in the peace movement believe in it in their hearts and souls, but they don't always feel comfortable talking about peace issues," said Judy Miner, the network's executive director. "For Nan, it was always on her mind."

With her husband David's help, Cheney was instrumental in the formation of the Wisconsin Coordinating Council on Nicaragua and the Social Justice Center, a Madison incubator for fledging nonprofit organizations.

The center, opened in 2000, is in the building formerly occupied by the Willy Street Co-op. After the co-op moved out, Cheney went to a banker to inquire about a loan for the incubator project, said her daughter.

"The banker said, ‘This isn't really feasible.' My mom said, ‘Good, how do we get started?' People either got behind her or got the hell out of her way."

The mother of four and a former legislative aide to Democratic lawmakers, Cheney served on the Madison Parks Commission, the Madison Board of Ethics and the Madison Plan Commission. She had been chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Dane County and sang protest songs with the Madison-area Raging Grannies.

On Friday, Gov. Jim Doyle called her a "dear friend to (first lady) Jessica and me" and a "great citizen" who "worked for every worthwhile cause of her time."

Cheney donated her body to UW-Madison for research, and there will be no funeral, family members said. They are working on plans for a celebration of her life.

"She lived for justice," said her son, Aleck Cheney of Pasadena, Calif. "She used her life as a weapon to help other people."

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