JANESVILLE - James Francis Fitzgerald Sr. "Fitz," age 86, was born, lived and on Monday June 4, 2012, died in Janesville, Wis.
"People will forget what you said, but people will never forget how you made them feel." This belief was exemplified in virtually everything Fitz did, from raising a family to becoming a respected businessman who was best known for having been an owner of the Milwaukee Bucks and the Golden State Warriors.
Fitz was the firstborn of Chloris "Ty" Beiter Fitzgerald and Michael H. Fitzgerald Jr. Upon graduation from Janesville High School in 1944, he joined the Navy and was placed in the Officer’s Training Program at Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. He was transferred to the University of Notre Dame, where he fully embraced the Fighting Irish traditions and became a devoted, lifelong fan. Fitz graduated from Notre Dame in 1947 with a degree (cum laude) in Business and a degree in Naval Science. After graduation, he returned to Janesville to start a service station and oil jobbing business.
In 1950, he married Marilyn Cullen, who was the love of his life for 62 years. They were blessed with six children. He was at home almost every night and regularly ate dinner with Marilyn and their children and talked with them about their lives. His desire to gather the clan over a meal continued even as the family grew to 40 members.
Fitz was recalled into the Navy for 20 months and served during the Korean Conflict before he moved back to Janesville to focus on business again. In 1956, he was awarded the Janesville Man of the Year Award. Later, with his father-in-law, Mark Cullen and brother-in-law, J.P. Cullen, he opened the first two shopping centers in Janesville–Creston Park and Sunnyside. Fitz joined forces with the Cullens and fellow entrepreneurs Ryan, Kennedy and McGuire to form a partnership that became known as the Janesville Irish Mafia. Together they built the first Holiday Inn in Janesville and became pioneers in the cable television business. “It took until my generation before the Irish were fully accepted into the community," he said. "Yet we are highly motivated people.”
His varied business involvement, often conducted on the golf course, included not only professional basketball teams, but also banks and the golf business (SoftSpikes and Laser Link Golf). Retirement never enticed Fitz, who loved being in the midst of excitement and opportunity.
Fitz had a remarkable ability to connect with people, understand their points of view and win them over. People universally admired him and enjoyed his company. Former NBA player and team executive Chris Mullin recently described Fitz as the greatest owner in basketball. When NBA Commissioner David Stern heard what Mullin said, he responded by saying, “I’m not allowed to give that designation because I’ve had many, many, many (owners), but there were none better.” Don Nelson ("Nellie"), former NBA coach, calls Fitz his mentor in business and life. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” said Nellie. Nellie never signed a contract to coach the Bucks or the Warriors. A simple handshake with Fitz was all he needed. Fitz was thrilled to learn that Nellie will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame later this year.
As Fitz's business acumen thrust him into the national spotlight, his roots stayed firmly planted in Janesville, where he lived in the same home for 52 years. A notorious tie hater who thought they were an evil invention from the French, Fitz partnered his casual approach with casual dress. “He was from Janesville and he was very comfortable being in the room as the guy from Janesville,” said his son, Jim Jr.
For more than five decades, Fitz was a member at St. John Vianney Parish. He was a man of faith and integrity. He was an usher who brought new meaning to passing the plate. “One of his favorite things to do was, if one of his friends didn’t put something in the collection basket, he’d just hold it in front of him and then give it a little shake and embarrass the guy. And that would be followed by a huge smile,” Jim Jr. said. Fitz's smile was always present everywhere he went. Nellie knew why. “He’d always said how lucky we were,” Nellie recalled. “It was `Nels, we’re the two luckiest guys in the world.’ He said that every time that we talked. And, boy, was he right.”
Fitz was a wonderful husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather and friend who will be deeply missed but happily remembered.
He is survived by Marilyn, his wife of 62 years; six children, Michael Fitzgerald of Scottsdale, Ariz., Marcia (Rob) O’Loughlin of Madison, Brian Fitzgerald of Janesville, James (Laurra) Fitzgerald Jr. of Monument, Colo., Carolyn (James) Foss of Janesville and Ellen Fitzgerald of Jefferson; 15 grandchildren, Melissa (Richard) White of Seattle, Wash., Sarah (Tim) McClure of Oregon, Wis., Nick (Kate) Fitzgerald of Janesville, Jim (Jess) Fitzgerald of Austin, Texas, Shannon (Mike) Palmer of Janesville, Ryan Fitzgerald of Denver, Colo., Juliya Fitzgerald of Madison, Parker Fitzgerald of Portland, Ore., James Fitzgerald III of Portland, Ore., Jaimie Ty Fitzgerald of Portland, Ore., Olivia Fitzgerald of Madison, Conner Fitzgerald of Fort Benning, Ga., Cody Foss of Janesville, Justin Foss of Janesville and Alex Foss of Janesville; and nine great-grandchildren, Natalie, Alexandra, Nicole Frances, Annabelle, Katherine, Vassili, Sean, Morgan, and Henry (with a 10th on the way). He is also survived by a brother, Michael H. (Claudia) Fitzgerald, III of Janesville, and many nieces and nephews.
He was preceded in death by his parents and his sister, Carolyn Fitzgerald Klug.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 11 a.m. on Thursday, June 7, 2012, at ST. JOHN VIANNEY CATHOLIC CHURCH in Janesville with the Rev. William Nolan, Monsignor Donn Heiar and Monsignor Delbert Schmelzer officiating. Friends may call on Wednesday from 4 to 7 p.m. at SCHNEIDER APFEL SCHNEIDER & SCHNEIDER FUNERAL HOME, Janesville. Interment will be in Mount Olivet Cemetery.
For online condolences and registry: www.schneiderfuneraldirectors.com. Memorials may be made to St. John Vianney School in Janesville, St. Coletta of Wisconsin in Jefferson, or whoever is running against Barack Obama.