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Geoffrey Fieger: Behind the mouth

Jack Kevorkian has become an integral part of the Fiegers' lives. Keenie Fieger, left, Jack Kevorkian and Geoffrey Fieger relax in the Fiegers' home on a recent Sunday. (Free Press photo by David P. Gilkey)

His father's son

Once, many years ago, Geoffrey Fieger was just . . . Geoff Fieger.

He was a big, aimless, aggressive kid who grew up in a happy, stormy home with a small circle of people who shaped him. He is loyal to all of them -- especially his parents.

"The thing that I like most about Geoffrey Fieger -- and I do love him," says Janet Good, founder of the Michigan chapter of the Hemlock Society, which advocates assisted suicide, "is how well he speaks of his parents and how well he treats his mother."

But no one affected Fieger more than his father.

Bernard Fieger was a Jewish, Harvard-educated lawyer who joined the civil rights crusade in Mississippi. He opened one of the Detroit area's first interracial law firms. He was talented, articulate, aggressive and explosive. Geoffrey grew up to be just like him, and the two thundered famously at one another when Geoffrey joined his father's firm in 1979. (When Geoffrey signed on, the other partners quit.)

But beneath the thunder was Geoffrey's thirst for his father's approval. Fieger says today his father did show approval in his own way. Others aren't so sure.

"Some people think Geoffrey's an ogre in the office. His dad was worse," says Keenie Fieger, Geoffrey's wife of 16 years. "The walls used to shake. He was really gruff. And Geoffrey was saying 'Look Dad, I won, whatever it was, a million,' and his dad would say, 'So what are you gonna do tomorrow?' And then it was, Oh, I've gotta do better, I've gotta do better."

Fieger was deeply affected by his father's death in 1988. Bernard's long suffering from complications of diabetes probably figured into his son's ready acceptance later of Kevorkian's assisted-suicide crusade.

Fieger has never removed his father's name from the door of his Southfield law firm, Fieger, Fieger & Schwartz.

Fieger's mother, June, is Norwegian by descent and a teacher by profession who also worked as a union organizer. She kept a picket sign in her trunk and loved nothing better than rabble-rousing on picket lines. June Fieger also taught one of the Detroit area's first sex education classes.

Now semiretired, she lives in a West Bloomfield Township home that Geoffrey bought, gutted and refurbished for her.

"I've always gone by the saying, 'Don't judge me by my friends, they may like me for many reasons. Judge me by my enemies, for I choose them very carefully,' " she says.

Her son, the oldest of her three children, seems to have taken that to heart, except he isn't too fussy about enemies.

Fieger's brother, Doug, gained fame with the rock band the Knack, known for the hit, "My Sharona." Doug lives in California, as does Fieger's sister, Beth Fieger Falkenstein, a TV scriptwriter. Both declined to comment for this article.

When they were under the same roof, family members apparently communicated best through confrontation. Detente was not an issue.

"I thought, this is wild," Keenie Fieger recalls of her first meetings with the Fiegers. "I've never seen anything like it."

Tall and forceful, Geoffrey could be a bully to his little brother, June Fieger recalls, and he spoke his mind. Always early-to-bed, early-to-rise, he went to sleep with the sun "and he'd tell everybody to shut up," his mother says, chuckling.

A few other people also touched Fieger's life. He admires his uncle, Walter Eugene Oberer, dean of the University of Utah's law school, and his Norwegian grandmother, who helped raise Geoffrey and kept her house spotless. She may have influenced's Geoffrey's compulsive neatness. He called her Ma; June he called Mother.

And there was Jimmy Jefferson, the Fieger firm's janitor for many years. Fieger says Jefferson was uneducated but "very wise," and Fieger loved him. When Jefferson developed cancer, Fieger sued his doctors for diagnosing Jefferson too late, and won a settlement of about $50,000.

For the duration of Jefferson's illness, "Geoffrey stopped by to bring him lunch and milk shakes," June Fieger recalls. "He went to make sure he ate. He shaved him regularly, for as long as Jimmy was sick. He's not, like, 'Hire somebody else to do that.' He did it."

Fieger paid for Jefferson's funeral, gave an impassioned eulogy and then took everyone to dinner. Today, a plaque designates the law library at Fieger's firm as the W.J. Jefferson Library.

Fieger attended Oak Park public schools. He was a decent student who loved theater and sports. He was a lineman in football, wrestled and swam. He dated one girl at a time, usually a blond, and drove a Volkswagen Beetle.

As a teenager, Fieger was nearly killed in the Bug when he was rammed at an intersection. His mother bought him a sturdy Volvo. He still has it, and has driven Volvos ever since. Michigan's most flamboyant lawyer says he likes Volvos because they are staid and safe.

Fieger graduated from Oak Park High School in 1969. In 1974 and 1976, he earned his bachelor's degree in theater and master's degree in speech from the University of Michigan. For a while, he hung out in Europe, then decided to pursue a doctorate.

June Fieger remembers telling her son, "You can get your PhD in sand tile if you want, but I'm not paying for it." She suggested law school.

Fieger figured what the hell. He entered Detroit College of Law and fell in love with the world of judges, juries and verbal combat.

About the same time, Fieger also fell in love with Kathleen (Keenie) Podwoiski, a reserved, attractive woman from Garden City. She had been a bridesmaid in a mutual friend's wedding. They attended Shakespeare plays, jogged, worked out and listened to each other's music: hers, jazz and classical; his, rock and roll ("Who's the Knack?" she asked him).

"I thought he was quite unusual myself," Keenie recalls. "I had never seen anyone so self-confident." He was intelligent, funny, asked "a billion" questions about her, and then talked a lot about himself.

They were married in 1983, seven years before a phone call from a retired pathologist put Geoffrey Fieger onto center stage of public opinion.

Free Press story by Sheryl James

Continues: Kevorkian's choice


Behind the mouth | His father's son | Kevorkian's choice | Trickery and bluster | 'The play is the thing' | Price of fame


CONTENTS

Behind the mouth

His father's son

Kevorkian's choice

Trickery and bluster

'The play is the thing'

Price of fame

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