Friends remember Janesville's Fitzgerald for charming personality, business acumen
Fitzgerald later led investors to ownership of the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors basketball franchises. He died Monday at his Janesville home. He was 86.
"He was very much a people person. He wasn't the life-of-the-party type, but he could go into a room full of strangers and would come out and tell you he had a couple of new friends," said Brian Fitzgerald, one of his six children.
"Jim could get along with anybody, whether it was one of the guys in one of his gas stations or the commissioner of the NBA. He was a people guy," said brother-in-law and business partner J.P. Cullen.
Fitz, as he was often called, grew up as one of three children in the Great Depression in a duplex on East Milwaukee Street. His father was a traveling wholesale flour salesman. His mother was involved in civic pursuits and was one of the best bridge players in the city, recalled Mike Fitzgerald, Jim's kid brother.
Jim was not the kind to get into trouble.
"If there was an angel among us, that was Jim," Mike said.
Mike said their father was "a great guy" but strict—a description similar to Brian's description of his own father.
Fitz served on ship in the Navy during World War II, graduated from Notre Dame in 1947 and got into the gas station business in Janesville in 1948 with Fred Weber.
He had started a family with Marilyn, who survives him after 62 years of marriage.
Fitz was called up to serve in the Korean War, so he left Marilyn, three children and his business to serve his country again, Mike recalled.
The gas stations, car washes and related fuel oil business survived and thrived after his return, and Fitz later got into real estate and banking
As downtown business districts gave way to shopping centers in the 1960s, Fitz joined with his father-in-law, Mark Cullen, and brother-in-law J.P. to build the Creston Park and Sunnyside shopping centers.
Fitz and the Cullens joined several other businessmen of Irish heritage to start Total TV in 1965, when few people knew what cable TV was all about.
Total TV grew to own cable systems in Wisconsin, Illinois and Florida.
The investors came to be known as Janesville's Irish Mafia.
"We were proud of it. We didn't have any problems with Norwegians or anybody else. We just happened to all be Irish. That's how the Good Lord made us," J.P. Cullen said.
The investors built the city's first Holiday Inn and the Oasis restaurant and motel. They also brought Bessie, a giant fiberglass cow, to town.
Cullen said Fitzgerald was the group's leader.
"He had a nose for business and a way to seek out a deal," Cullen said. "There's a lot of deals we said 'no' to and a few we said 'yes' to, and we were happy campers."
Fitz's nose led him to the Milwaukee Bucks.
It started with Total TV's need for capital to build new cable systems. Fitz put together a deal with the Bucks' owner, who lent the money, Cullen recalled.
"We put one of their people on our board, and Fitz went on the board of the Milwaukee Bucks," Cullen said.
"He saw the opportunity after sitting on the board and other extenuating circumstances that we probably could purchase the basketball team."
So they did in 1976. Fitz became chairman of the board and president of the Bucks.
Fitz knew little about basketball, but he drove to Milwaukee to attend most games and usually visited players in the locker room afterward, win or lose, according to a Gazette story from the '70s. He formed friendships with players and especially with Don Nelson, who coached the Bucks under Fitz and has gone on to become the NBA's most successful coach.
Fitzgerald presided during the Bucks' run of seven consecutive division titles.
Nelson visited Fitzgerald in Janesville recently, Brian said.
Talk is going around that Nelson and former Bucks standouts will attend the funeral, but nothing has been confirmed, Brian said.
The group sold the Bucks in 1985. According to stories at the time, one suitor wanted to move the franchise to Minnesota, but Fitz wanted to keep the team in Milwaukee, so Fitz's group sold the team to a group that included Sen. Herb Kohl for considerably less money.
Fitz and friend Dan Finnane took over the Golden State Warriors in 1986. Fitz was an owner until 1995.
Even in his later years, Fitz could not stop developing businesses. In the 1990s, he got into a business that sold golf shoes with plastic cleats instead of the traditional metal spikes. It was called SoftSpikes.
When golf courses banned metal spikes, SoftSpikes was the only alternative, Brian said.
An outsider might think Fitz had the golden touch.
"He had good luck, but I'll tell you, he was one smart fella," said brother Mike. "If he got a little bit of a break, he turned that luck into multi-luck."
"In life as in business, he always tried to treat people fairly, and when he made a deal, he always wanted to make sure both sides were happy. I think that's kind of unique," Brian said.
Fitzgerald had been in poor health for many months and had medical problems that go back to his first heart bypass surgery in his 50s, Brian said.
"He's been through a lot medically in the last 30 years. He never complained about the doctors or the needles or the pain or anything he had to endure," Brian said.
"He was a deeply religious fellow who cared a lot for his family—a damned good, regular guy," Cullen said.