Trading salutes for roots: Colonel prepares to be Janesville city manager
JANESVILLE--Even Mark Freitag sounds a bit surprised he got the top job in Janesville.
The 47-year-old retired Army Colonel who hasn't worked off a military base in his adult life just moved into his Briar Crest home and is readying for his Dec. 2 start as city manager.
Earlier this month, Freitag meticulously checked off each packed box carried in from the moving van, directing haulers to the right rooms and affirming his skill at moving. The longest he has lived anywhere was just shy of four years at West Point Academy.
In the basement, his wife, Patty, took apart and reassembled a jammed CD player left behind by the previous owner.
The couple are sure they'll like it in Janesville.
They have observed and appreciate Midwestern core values—common courtesy, general friendliness and respect for elders.
That doesn't happen everywhere in the country, Freitag said during a recent lengthy interview with him and Patty.
“Those are all the things we together want to have as we move into this second phase of our life," he said.
“Those are the things we want our granddaughter, Abby, to grow up with and we'd like (daughter) Bethany to experience as a young adult.”
Janesville is neat, clean and orderly, another thing that stood out for the couple.
They appreciate the national companies represented here, such as Olive Garden and Target, venues not available in Fairbanks, Ala., where Freitag was deputy commander of Army forces in Alaska
“Having been with the bare minimum of things, there is more than enough for the average person to do, see and experience in Janesville,” Patty said.
The Freitags caught a whiff of a pungent Midwest aroma—manure in the air—when he interviewed for the job in August.
And they even liked that.
“We thought, this was neat,” Patty Freitag recalled.
Freitag doesn't view the Janesville city manager job as a stepping stone for another place or career.
“If I can stay here 20 years … that's fine,” he said.
Patty said she's tired of moving. She is a software developer and tester and works out of her home. She hopes to find something locally.
“I want to be part of a community and keep track of friends other than by email,” she said.
FROM COLONEL TO CITY MANAGER
Freitag decided in spring 2013 to forge a different career path and leave the Army five years short of mandatory retirement knowing a promotion to brigadier general would be almost impossible.
“I thought I'd take my chances in the civilian world,” Freitag said.
Retiring is not an option for him or his wife, he said.
“He's already driving me nuts,” Patty said.
“The biggest challenge was people didn't understand the military,” Freitag said.
Freitag is confident his military experience will translate to a civilian job and is grateful the Janesville City Council has given him a chance to prove it.
He acknowledged his resume different from other candidates steeped in city management experience.
But Freitag's resume includes a nugget that convinced first the recruiter and then the council to give him a second look: two years as garrison leader of Fort Hood, a Texas installation of 90,000 surrounded by another 300,000 Army families, survivors and retirees.
It was at Fort Hood that Freitag realized his passion for city management and for leading by consensus as opposed to the top-down style of the military, he said.
In his 25 years in the military, Freitag's responsibilities grew from platoon leader in charge of 35 soldiers to deputy commander in Alaska overseeing 12,500 troops, Freitag said.
City council members took a chance to “at least listen to me and talk to me and see how I played out,” he said. “I had 25 years of leadership experience running large organizations, and that played in my favor.”
The council's recruiter had just placed someone else with a military background in Fond du Lac, so the recruiter had an open mind, Freitag said.
The council was looking for a certain set of leadership, behavior and management characteristics, recruiter Karl Nollenberger recalled. Freitag was friendly and outgoing.
“By the time I finished interviewing him, he matched the (profile) … right to the T,” Nollenberger said.
Freitag doesn't have technical city government skills, Nollenberger said, but Freitag can learn them from Janesville's high-quality staff. He already has people skills, he said.
“It's hard to learn management style and leadership skills,” Nollenberger said.
BORN INTO THE ARMY
Freitag was born in Arizona in 1966 between his father's tours of duty in Vietnam. Lt. General Merle Freitag retired after 32 years, last serving as comptroller of the entire Army. Freitag's parents—his mom is Phyllis—live in St. Louis, Mo.
Freitag said he thrived on the military lifestyle, living throughout the United States and overseas.
“I found it absolutely exhilarating to move every three years, to see new places, meet new friends,” he said.
“As a kid, there was not anything I wanted to do other than be a soldier. To be perfectly honest, I didn't know anything different.”
Freitag was accepted to West Point Military Academy, where he earned an engineering degree. He also has master's degrees in business management and national security studies.
Freitag's first duty assignment was at Fort Bliss, Texas, where he met his wife, Patty. She was a waitress off base.
The couple's daughter, Bethany, 23, was born in El Paso, Texas. Their granddaughter, Abby, 17 months, was born in Alaska.
As garrison commander in Fort Hood, Texas, from 2010 to 2012, Freitag oversaw a $450 million budget for areas that included emergencies services, public works, utilities, planning, neighborhood services, morale, welfare and recreation.
Freitag started at Fort Hood six months after an Army major shot 13 people and wounded another 32. Some of Freitag's time was spent tightening security at the facility and dealing with the ensuing trauma.
There, Freitag said, he learned the beauty of consensus.
“It's much better to come to consensus, for thoughtful, well-intentioned leaders to come to a good solution,” Freitag said. “I didn't have the experience, knowledge or skills they (his administration team) did. I actively listened, and that made all the difference.”
Freitag found he enjoyed leading such a team. He enjoyed providing a service. And he found the 24/7 job stimulating.
“There was always something going on I was responsible for,” he said.
“Every time I heard a … siren on the installation, I knew my guys were going to take care of an emergency. If I saw a tree limb down, I knew I could make a phone call and my guys would come out there and fix it. I knew if a kids' soccer game was going on, those were my (people) running that program.”
TEAM OF TWO
In the Army, a commander and his or her spouse are called a “command team,” Freitag said.
It's not an official term, but the expectation is the spouse will be involved in installation activities and support military families.
Patty said she loved helping others on the base.
She was part of the care team that helped after a family was notified of a death or severe injury, for example. It was hard and draining, and Patty said she still cries today if she allows herself to think about it too much.
“But I wouldn't trade it for the world,” Patty said.
Once, she cared for a 1-year-old girl for a month while the baby's mother joined her seriously injured father at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Freitag said city council members told him they wanted someone who would be visible in the community. With Patty, they might get more for the money.
READY TO ROLL
Freitag still misses the sound of bugles heralding revelry and retreat and the cannon salutes that rocked his house at 06:30 and 17:00.
“It was fabulous,” he recalled.
But Freitag promises he won't order city staff to roll out of bed for 06:30 PT (physical training). There will be no bugle calls or tanks thundering down the center of Janesville.
Freitag is trying to rid military acronyms and jargon from his speech—an occasional “check” still slips by—and is trying to think in civilian rather than military time.
He is happy to trade salutes for roots.
“We're hoping Janesville will become the longest we stay in one place."