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Ex-NBA team owner recalled for integrity, kindness, charm

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NEIL W. JOHNSON
June 8, 2012
— Whether it was a game played by the Milwaukee Bucks, a golf outing with friends or a gathering of his large family, all Janesville mogul Jim Fitzgerald wanted was to fill every seat, his son-in-law Rob O’Loughlin said.

On Thursday, Fitzgerald would have been proud.


There was kneeling room only at St. John Vianney Catholic Church, where 400 people attended a funeral Mass for Fitzgerald, who died Monday in Janesville. Every pew was filled Thursday as family and friends eulogized the former NBA team owner and businessman, who was 86.


At the service were scores of dapper, middle-aged businessmen with grey hair and pinstriped suits—some with lapel pins bearing the seal of Fitzgerald’s alma mater, Notre Dame.


Pallbearers were a cast of 20 of Fitzgerald’s closest friends and confidants, an all-star list forged from a lifetime of successful business moves in professional basketball, cable television and other ventures.


Along with a host of prominent local and national businessmen, the pallbearers included former NBA players Bob Lanier and Junior Bridgeman. Both played for the Milwaukee Bucks, which Fitzgerald once owned.


Add to that list a tall, stone-faced Don Nelson, the legendary Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors coach whose contract Fitzgerald is said to have formalized with a handshake.


Although its list of guests was impressive, the funeral service had few rousing moments. With the exception of a kilted bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace,” the service was mostly muted and intimate.


Family shared eulogies and soft laughter over the life of the Janesville native who friends said showed integrity, kindness and pride to the core in his humble, Irish roots.


“He loved Dewar’s scotch, free enterprise and the American way,” O’Loughlin said of Fitzgerald during a eulogy Thursday. “He loved Ronald Reagan and John Wayne.”


Others said Fitzgerald’s character changed their lives.


Although Fitzgerald seemed to vault through life, leaping from one heady business venture to the next and parlaying success in Janesville real estate development into cable television and then pro basketball team ownership, friends said he never grew arrogant.


“He had a businessman’s mind and an Irishman’s heart,” Bucks executive John Steinmiller wrote in a statement printed in the funeral service program alongside comments by former President George H.W. Bush and musician Larry Gatlin, both of whom Fitzgerald golfed with.


During the service, Monsignor Donn Heiar said Fitzgerald “didn’t puff himself up” when meeting new people, and he treated everyone with respect and dignity.


Heiar told of a golf outing with Fitzgerald when they came across a groundskeeper who looked rough and unpolished.


Fitzgerald refused to judge the groundskeeper as being beneath him. Instead, Heiar said, Fitzgerald approached the man and yelled, “Top o’ the morning to you, lad.”


The groundskeeper’s weathered face brightened, and he rushed toward Fitzgerald, Heiar said.


“McGinty’s the name,” the man said to Fitzgerald. “Proud to know you.”


Heiar said Fitzgerald took time that day to sit down and learn about McGinty’s life, which had been a hard one, scraped out on the south side of Chicago.


Years later, as Fitzgerald’s health was declining, he reflected on the encounter.


“The only regret I have is whether we did enough for McGinty,” Heiar recalled Fitzgerald saying.


Fitzgerald’s success perhaps shone through brightest in his family life. He and his wife, Marilyn, who survives, were married 62 years. They had six children and dozens of grandchildren.


A few of those dozens recounted memories of Fitzgerald Thursday.


Fitzgerald’s granddaughter Melissa O’Loughlin-White said she’ll remember how he’d greet her after a long absence. He’d envelop her hand in both of his and gaze at her with his “big, hopeful eyes.”


To her, it was not a handshake; it was an embrace.


O’Loughlin-White said the secret to Fitzgerald’s success as a businessman and a family man was his genuineness and sense of humanity. She said everyone could feel it.


“He put people at ease. He won them over,” O’Loughlin-White said. “He was oh so good at it.”



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