“Thought this might be of interest to you”

This was the statement on easily more than 100 yellow post-it notes I’ve received from my Dad throughout the years. 

No matter where he was or what he was doing, whenever he’d see an article in the Wall Street Journal or some other publication, or come across something of interest – including letters he would write to newspaper editors, he would mail them to me with a note that said “thought this might be of interest to you.” Sometimes, that was the only thing he wrote.

This was just one of many ways my Dad showed me and his entire family that he was thinking about them and he cared.

Today, my Dad, Thomas Alan Friesch, passed away at the age of 90 with his wife, Marlene, at his side. 

It never occurred to me until just days before his passing, but my Dad was somewhat of an introvert. All of my friends knew him as an exceedingly calm and thoughtful man. I knew him as a gentle man. Or, a gentleman. Perhaps one of the last remaining gentlemen in a country where they are fewer and farther between.

My Dad’s normal reaction to any controversy, or any trouble his kids may have found, was to say: “OK, OK. There’ll be plenty of time to get angry later. First, let’s figure this out and solve it.” He was pragmatic and level-headed, seldom raising his voice or getting angry. His disappointment was far more effective at generating my guilt than any sort of yelling or other signs of anger.

Many would remember my Dad as very logical and patient. And he was. But some think that means he wasn’t emotional. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing brought a tear to his eye like watching his children conquer a tough problem, accomplish something they’d been working toward, or simply winning a meaningless track meet. Sometimes we kids, when we were younger, would tease him about it. Now I see it as his expression of love.

Family was absolutely my Dad’s number one priority, and he showed this as often as he could. He loved his parents. He loved his brother. He loved his wife. He loved his children. He loved his grandchildren. And throughout his life, he would do everything he could to be there for them.

My Dad worked at Wisconsin Bell for more than 30 years, and one of his few laments in life was how far “Type A” personalities would get in the company, often based solely on their brash behavior. In contrast, my Dad’s style was always understated and mild-mannered.

In 1967, he wrote and implemented an Installation Force Management Plan that would become industry standard and save the company $50 million between 1967 and 1977. But you wouldn’t know.

My Dad grew up in a time when character was defined by what you did when no one was looking. It was defined by what you did for people who couldn’t do anything for you. This was my Dad. He was never one to take credit for things. In fact, if you were to ask him about this, he would tell you all about the people who helped him or implemented the plan, leaving himself out entirely.

It was only later in his life that he would start talking about this in terms of the possible promotions and salary it would cost him by not promoting himself. In this he was at odds. But in the end, it was his belief in character and humility that won out over trying to be someone he was not.

In 1987, just four years before he would retire, he wrote a letter to two Wisconsin Bell VPs about the flaws in their desire to seek “Type A” personalities. In it, he wrote of a management assessment test the company was using. As always, he stuck to his principles and made the case to expand their thinking beyond this limited worldview.

“The standard profile is used as a base to compare personality traits. The base standard is the classic “Type A” personality, and a high achiever. In my mind, the program makes a mistake – it uses the terms interchangeably.”

“The program accurately determined that I match the accepted profile in very few areas. They correctly identified that I am not a “Type A” personality. Never have been, and have no desire to become one.”

“However, what they couldn’t know (and they probably would consider unlikely) is that I have a thirty year record of high achievement and successful innovation, creativity, and risk taking that compares favorably with any individual in our company at any level.”

At one point, one of his managers told him that to get promoted in Wisconsin Bell, he’d have to work long days and come in on weekends. My Dad simply told him, “No thanks. My family is more important, and they need me.” This was consistent with something he would say to me often: “No one on their deathbed ever said, ‘I just wish I had worked a few more hour.'” (Turns out he was right. At least he didn’t say it.)

We often discussed the difference between letting your work speak for itself and engaging in non-stop self-promotion, but I never got the sense he was able to wrestle the two ideas to conclusion. My gut tells me he would never have abandoned being who he was, and that meant he would always make his job about the people doing the work, and not himself.

I’m confident that is why he had a positive effect on so many people. His management style, and his approach to most everything, was to inspire people and give them the freedom to do what they thought necessary to solve problems and accomplish their goals. Over the course of my career, I’ve hired and managed more than 80 people, and my Dad was my main inspiration for how I managed and tried to help each and everyone be their best.

His belief in giving people the freedom they need to be their best was part of his professional self from the beginning. In 1956, six months into his life at Wisconsin Bell, he was asked to write a paper sharing his initial impressions. I found this while looking through his things.

On it, he wrote a note saying, “I wasn’t trying to be a smart ass; it was my honest feeling… it wasn’t well-received.” The premise was that the people of Wisconsin Bell had a reputation of being “…stable, conforming people who do not seek individual expression. People who want security rather than striving ambition.”

He thought the processes necessary in such a big company had bred a culture of rule-following complacency that stifled creativity and innovation. Knowing him as I do, I wasn’t surprised by his opinion. But I was impressed by his sincerity and honesty in sharing his opinion with corporate management, facing down the possibility of losing his job as a result.

This approach was the foundation of his standard piece of advice to me over the course of my life. Whenever I faced a challenge, whether at work, in coaching, or in my personal relationships, he always advised me, “Consider all of the people who’ve gone before you who’ve faced something similar. Think about all of your gifts and how smart and capable you are. Many of the people who’ve gotten through this didn’t have those gifts, and they figured it out. You can, too.”

One could read arrogance in that. Some may think he’s telling me I’m smarter than others. But his real point was that so many people of varying abilities had the courage to face the challenge, and they made it out the other side. My Dad knew that everyone has gifts they bring to a situation. Everyone has strengths. He always helped me see and understand mine.

No one was more supportive of our family than my Dad. He believed in every one of us and supported us as much as he could – no matter what it was we pursued.

When Tom, my oldest brother, wanted to head West to become a ski instructor and see what opportunities presented themselves, he was right there for him, giving him some seed money and a car. When my sister Ann wanted to pursue nursing, he backed her all the way and would often proudly tell others of her career.

My brother Joel was the one person in our family who was singularly focused on his career from a young age, always wanting to do something in art. Joel spent his pre- and teen years building military-themed dioramas, and my Dad was the first to encourage him to travel to shows like an international show in Chicago, where Joel was the youngest to win.

Like his children, my Dad was just as supportive of my Mom. In his diary, he referred to her as “one hell of a mother. I think she has been the biggest influence on our kids.” They were always unified and never broke ranks in making decisions about the kids. Though my Mom worked through my childhood, she started with Tom and Ann as a stay-at-home Mom. She will tell you that he always appreciated how difficult her “job” was and would encourage her to take a weekend here and there just to get away and have some time with her sisters or friends.

For years, my Mom toyed with art before getting serious with watercolor painting. My Dad always encouraged her and was quite proud of her, writing in his diary, “Marlene has become a very excellent watercolor artist and finally exhibited three of her paintings. She got outstanding comments.”

My Dad would rather that all four of his children live close by in Wisconsin. I think it hurt him a bit, especially as he got older, that we weren’t accessible. (It would later hurt a bit more as he only had limited access to five of his eight grandchildren, not realizing it would hurt each of us a little bit, too, that his West Coast grandchildren wouldn’t know him as well as we would like.) But even still, he put our dreams and desires above his own and strongly encouraged each of us to pursue our interests – even if it meant we would end up in Seattle and San Francisco.

Many believe the political climate of the United States has never been more divisive than now. But I would be remiss in not mentioning my Dad’s politics, as it was such a significant part of who he was.

My Dad was a patriot. He believed in the greatness of America, and believed in everyone’s ability to pursue their dreams and find their happiness – so long as it didn’t negatively affect others.

Growing up, my Dad treated everyone as an individual. In this, he led by example. He never thought of people by the demographics to which they belonged. He never talked to us kids about “black people” or “Asians” or anything else. As a result, we didn’t grow up with any embedded stereotypes. People were people. It was that simple. Sometimes they did good things. Sometimes they did bad things. But that spanned all people, regardless of their gender, race, or any other meaningless characteristics.

My Dad believed people were inherently good because he, himself, was inherently good.

At work, there were many minorities that my Dad hired and promoted. But he didn’t need affirmative action to do it. He did it because of their performance, which meant everything to him. As I described in his impression of his own career, he didn’t promote the loudest person or the person best able to articulate their own accomplishments. He promoted people based on their work and their ability to work with others.

He wasn’t proud of his record as a white manager who promoted black people. He was proud of his record as someone who supported, enabled, and promoted people.

My Dad followed politics closely his entire life, and he was an unapologetic conservative. He and my Mom had many friends who were liberal. They would discuss and sometimes argue issues all the time. But at the end of the day, it never spoiled their eating and drinking together.

Free speech and freedom were my Dad’s greatest concerns politically. He was proud to have friends with whom he disagreed. Prouder that neither he nor the others allowed these disagreements to get in the way of the friendship. As such, in the days before his death, my Dad shared his deep concern about cancel culture and the growing inability of the people in America to discuss disagreements. I share his concern.

Despite his fairly serious demeanor, he had a fantastic sense of humor. In fact, I think it was his normally serious demeanor that made him even funnier. His delivery was so straight and serious, and his comments so clever, that you almost had to guess if he was kidding. I think this rubbed off on his family.

A little more than a month ago, we had a chance to all get together after my Dad’s first heart attack. Thankfully, he made it home, as did all of his kids. It was the first time the original six family members had gotten together, without our spouses or kids, in decades. What in some families may have been a deathly serious or perhaps hysterical discussion about my Dad’s health was instead brutally honest, and often brutally funny.

Likewise, many may be surprised to find out what a great artist he was. When I was home, my Mom shared with us some photos of a mural he painted in one of the buildings of his military base. It was styled like those classic 1940s Mickey Mouse cartoons.

At about the same time, he wrote four songs, gathered three of his friends, and found a recording studio to record them all. Unlike today, when everybody has a recording studio in their laptop, these songs required a real recording studio and real instruments. These are the four songs. He sang on each of them:

Along with singing, he could also act, playing roles both in high school plays, as well as the community playhouse in Oshkosh, starring in the lead role of “Twelve Angry Men,” and the young romantic in “Matchmaker.”

Later in life, he would take up wood carving, making dozens of figures, Santa’s, and other more playful carvings for his grandchildren. They were pretty solid, considering he’d never done it before. His range of artistic talent was vast, and somewhat unexpected. It wasn’t a side he showed too often in company.

My Mom and Dad built a very close family, and we all get along really well. Of course, we all have opinions about the others, but when it was time, we all unified around our parents, and I’m proud of how we all came together, supported each other, and made the best of what turned out to be a terminal situation.

When my Dad passed, we thought about any quotes that were either meaningful to him, or quotes from his that he would say to others in the family. While not discussed, he was known for many quotes. It’s just that none of them would have been appropriate for a public memorial.

Every now and again, he would say something with such earnest sincerity, that it would take on a life of its own within the family. It got to the point that no one was ever really sure that he ever even said it. My Dad owned his love of sweets. He enjoyed ice cream and cookies with the best of them.

Every Saturday for the bulk of my childhood, he and I would wake up and go to Kohl’s for donuts. (At the time, Kohl’s was a Wisconsin chain of grocery stores.) I would go into the Phillip’s Pharmacy and get comic books (every time he traveled he would bring home some Marvel Comics, which I thought was really cool… having comics from other cities) while he would get the donuts – enough to last for Sunday’s breakfast, as well. He loved to put butter on his cruller, and would later be oft-quoted by the kids as saying he’d like, “just a little taste of something sweet,” after a meal.

I’ve no idea if he ever even said it, but he never shied away from it. In fact, I think he unapologetically embraced it. But that’s just the power of donuts. (I can still remember nibbling the edge off of Kohl’s crullers before devouring the meat of it. Standard practice.)

In 1978, I attended my first Milwaukee Brewers game at Milwaukee County Stadium. It was the Brewers versus the Boston Red Sox. I never knew until about two weeks ago that my Dad, who loved baseball, thought of the Red Sox and Brewers teams as sports heroes. He loved the Red Sox and Milwaukee Braves as a child, and then the Brewers and Red Sox as an adult.

Without knowing that, I had forever embraced both teams as my own after that very game. In fact, I even liked the Red Sox more. Who couldn’t love Jim Rice, Dwight Evans, Carl Yastrzemski, and the rest of the Red Sox. And Milwaukee had Gorman Thomas, Cecil Cooper, and Sixto Lezcano.

Baseball was my Dad’s first sports love, probably stemming back to his Dad, George Friesch, playing minor league baseball in his youth. He loved the complexities of the game and knew it for the fast-paced game of strategy and possibility that it is. My Dad and I talked baseball all the time, and now, with him gone, there’s no one that cares what I think of the Milwaukee Brewers.

As I mentioned, my Dad was somewhat of an introvert. But to his point, you don’t have to be a “Type A” personality to get involved and make a difference. Consider his record of involvement throughout the course of his life:

  • Wauwatosa High School Class Treasurer
  • Captain of the Track Team
  • Member of the State Champion basketball team
  • Placed fourth in the high jump at the State track tournament
  • National Honor Society member
  • Won an award for “outstanding leadership” in his senior class
  • Letter in track in college (high jump and high hurdles)
  • President of his fraternity (Alpha Delta Phi)
  • First Lieutenant in the Army
  • Qualified as an Army Expert Rifleman with 9-out-of-9 bullseyes from 200 yards
  • Coached youth basketball
  • Coached youth baseball
  • Member of the Elmbrook School Board
  • Member of a committee that established paramedics in Brookfield, WI
  • Member of the Property Assessment Review Board
  • YMCA youth basketball referee
  • President of the Midwest Exchange Club in Milwaukee
  • Traveled the world with my Mom: England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Russia, China, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Austria, Yugoslavia, Mexico, and Hawaii

Without getting into too much detail, the nature of my Dad’s demise was two heart attacks within a month of each other. The second put him in hospice care. (This means he was given less than six months to live.)

During his first week in hospice, I was fortunate and blessed enough to be able to spend the bulk of the week with him. As usual, he had a very pragmatic view of the situation and assessment of his life. He had a great family who made him proud, he had many good friends, a wealth of memorable experiences, worldwide and countrywide travel experiences, and largely good health for the bulk of his life.

He had very few regrets and looked back at his 90 years with satisfaction and fondness. When he departed, he was holding hands with his wife, who whispered in his ear that it would all be OK.

Death is a sad and unfortunate thing, but I believe my Dad was blessed to have done it with the class, dignity, and fearlessness that anyone who knew him would have expected.

My Dad meant a lot of things to many people. My Mom (Marlene), my sister (Ann), and my brothers (Tom and Joel), all have their own precious thoughts and memories of him that they will carry forever and pass on to their children (my Dad’s grandchildren). This post represents some of my own.

Thomas Alan Friesch was a truly great man, and the world is going to be just a little worse off without him. On the other hand, that he was here and influenced those he did might just means the world is going to be better off because of him.

My Dad was a good man, a good husband, and a good father. He was as he wanted to be remembered. We love him, and we will miss him.

Just thought this sad but inevitable news might be of interest to you.

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2 Responses to “Thought this might be of interest to you”

  1. Jason Colberg says:

    Nice! My father just turned eighty-two, having had a heart attack and no heartbeat for nine minutes six months ago. The doctor had to break four ribs and his sternum to resuscitate him.

    Glad you have fond memories of your father! Our fathers are a lot alike in being dedicated to family, work, community, recognizing people as individuals and low key. I’m glad to be able to spend a lot of time with mine as he and GJ, my mom moved here to be with their grandchildren.

    ~ Jason Colberg

  2. John Wright says:

    You are indeed a ‘fortunate son’ Jon, in a family blessed to be led my such a fine man. Thank you for sharing your memories of him.

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