Janesville's Axtell remembered as 'a gentleman's gentleman'

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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Janesville man who sold Parker Pens around the world, wrote books about international etiquette and worked for both Democratic and Republican governors is gone.

Roger Axtell, 80, died unexpectedly Sunday in Arizona.

Friends—and Axtell had many—remembered him as an intelligent, patient and helpful man who loved to tell stories.

Axtell gained national fame by telling some of those stories in a series of books, starting with 1986's "Do's and Taboos Around the World—A Guide to International Behavior."

The book and its nine sequels sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

National news outlets wrote about the books, catapulting Axtell into guest spots on TV shows such as "Good Morning America" in the 1980s and '90s.

Axtell traveled extensively. He once estimated he had visited 71 countries on behalf of Parker Pen. He joined the Janesville-based company in 1956 after earning a degree from UW-Madison and a stint in the Army.

The pen manufacturer hired Axtell as a public relations assistant, but he quickly moved up the ladder. Parker sent him on a tour overseas in 1963. The next year he and his family moved to London, where he worked in international marketing efforts for three years.

Axtell was named a vice president in 1974.

While busy selling Parker Pens around the globe, Axtell also was active in his city and state, serving on the board of the Janesville Public Library and the state Historical Society and donating his time to the American Cancer Society, YMCA and Forward Janesville, which gave him a lifetime achievement award in 2008.

Axtell was a great conversationalist, friends said.

"He was very articulate and interesting and intelligent and well rounded in every way, so being around him was always fun and entertaining," said Dick Rost. "He always had a story to tell, and he did it very well."

Axtell once was on a speaking bill with football great Fran Tarkenton and astronaut Jim Lovell. He encountered a limo driver who had ferried both men to their hotel and got a signed copy of the books they had written.

Axtell said he, too, had written books. Would the driver like one?

"Nah, I'm not interested in that international crap," the driver replied.

Axtell didn't mind telling a story in which he became the butt of the joke.

Attorney Bob Collins joined Parker Pen soon after Axtell, and they became fast friends.

"He was very eager to share his knowledge with other people," Collins recalled, and everyone just referred to him as Roger—no last name needed.

"If you had Roger's friendship, you could count on it," Collins said.

Jim Cripe said Axtell had friends from many generations.

"He was just a guy you could depend on," Cripe said. "He was a mentor to my grandson, my son-in-law. He was just that kind of guy."

Axtell retired in 1987 as Parker Pen's vice president of worldwide marketing. But that was just the start of a career of service, writing and public speaking.

Soon after Axtell retired, Gov. Tony Earl appointed him special assistant for business—at a salary of $1 a year.

Tommy Thompson defeated Earl in that year's fall elections, and Thompson kept Axtell on board. Axtell was writing more "Do's and Taboos" books at the time, and speaking about them around the country.

"It's kind of a retirement dream come true," he told The Gazette in 1989.

Thompson appointed Axtell to the UW Board of Regents in 1999, a post Axtell held until 2006. Axtell became the regents' representative to the UW Hospital and Clinics Authority Board, serving on that board until his death.

Contacted Monday, Thompson recalled that Axtell would not take any payment above the $1 a year.

"Roger was a gentleman's gentleman. He was a friend extraordinaire. He loved Wisconsin. He loved the country. He loved international travel and the University of Wisconsin," Thompson said.

"He will be sorely missed by his family but also by the state of Wisconsin. This was a huge loss. I loved and respected him," Thompson said.

Axtell is survived by his wife, Mitzi Forsyth Axtell, and their three children, who all have careers in the medical field, Axtell told a Gazette reporter last year.

Information about funeral services for Axtell had not been announced as of Monday night.

Last updated: 7:38 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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