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Mayor served 'the public welfare'

Longtime city icon known for integrity, energy, principles

By ALAN J. BORSUK
aborsuk@journalsentinel.com
Posted: July 8, 2006

Long before he died Friday night at the age of 93, Frank Zeidler had become a legendary Milwaukeean.

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The man who was mayor from 1948 to 1960 was an intellectual who loved serious issues and debate, a human encyclopedia of Milwaukee history, a meticulous recorder of everything he did or was involved in.

During his three terms at City Hall, Milwaukee nearly doubled in size and peaked in population. More than three decades later, Zeidler, a nearly lifelong Socialist, remained widely active in civic organizations and a respected voice on central-city issues.

"A large part of Milwaukee's history is quieted," Vel Phillips, the first African-American woman elected to the Milwaukee Common Council, said Saturday. "But his legacy will live forever."

Zeidler suffered from congestive heart failure and passed away at Columbia St. Mary's a day after being admitted to the hospital, son Michael Zeidler said.

Frank Zeidler had grown fragile, said Milwaukee historian John Gurda, who last saw Zeidler two weeks ago, "but the light was still intense in those eyes."

It was a light that shone in many different ways.

Zeidler didn't drink, didn't smoke, didn't drive a car. He read relentlessly, loved statistics and collected fossils. He rewrote Shakespeare in contemporary language but didn't like going to shows or plays very much.

He had a sense of humor, but the furrowed brow was much more his trademark than the broad smile.

His older brother Carl became mayor in 1940 after upsetting incumbent Daniel Hoan. Carl served as mayor for nearly two years before leaving for the military in World War II. He was killed in a German U-boat attack in 1942.

Eight years after Carl was elected mayor, Frank Zeidler took the oath of office on April 20, 1948, before 600 people in the Common Council chambers in ceremonies that a newspaper story of the time said had "very little excitement."

He outlined his driving motives succinctly in that inaugural address: "I propose to offer vigorous leadership and action with only one purpose - the public welfare."

Few would question that Zeidler kept his commitment to being vigorous on behalf of his visions of the public good.

In six decades in the public spotlight, he was never involved in a situation where the propriety of his conduct was called into question. Many disagreed with specific issues or philosophies he held, but few ever suggested he was not a man of deep commitment to principle.

He held tight to his political principles: He was elected as a Socialist when it was possible to be one and still be in the mainstream in Milwaukee, and he stayed one to the end, when it was a movement on the political margin.

Principle sometimes meant more than family to Zeidler. When Carl ran for mayor, Frank endorsed Hoan, who had been mayor since 1916, because Hoan was a Socialist and Carl was not. Frank said his endorsement didn't cause hard feelings in the family.

Relentless, life-long student

Zeidler was born Sept. 20, 1912, in Milwaukee and never lived anywhere else, except for a brief stint as a student at the University of Chicago. He grew up in Merrill Park neighborhood on the west side; his father, Michael, ran a barbershop for many decades. Frank went to grade school and high school in the neighborhood. He enrolled for college at Marquette and Chicago, but he dropped out from both because of health.

Although he never earned a college diploma (except for an honorary law degree in 1958 from the University of Wisconsin in Madison), he was a relentless, life-long student.

"This is a man who read probably every book in the Merrill Street library," Michael Zeidler said.

Frank Zeidler said he chose his political affiliation in 1933 after, characteristically, undertaking a study of ideologies.

"I particularly picked socialism," he said in an interview years later, "because of several things in its philosophy. One was the brotherhood of people all over the world. Another was its struggle for peace. Another was the equal distribution of economic goods. Another was the idea of cooperation. A fifth was the idea of democratic planning in order to achieve your goals. Those were pretty good ideas."

Zeidler distanced himself from communism, especially Soviet style, and in the 1950s, he was a big proponent of civil defense, including calling on Milwaukeeans to build fallout shelters in their homes.

For Zeidler, public advocacy and a good debate were things to be treasured. Consider an anecdote from 1943:

Issues of the Milwaukee Turner magazine that year carried articles under eight different names that all turned out to be written by Zeidler.

In a 1948 interview, he said: "I am particularly proud of that debate in the September 1943 issue - the one between E.H. Johnson and W.W. Schmidt on the question, 'Will America Become More Nationalist?' I call your attention to the fact that in the first, under the name of Johnson, I conclusively proved that America would. And then, under the name of Schmidt, I showed, unanswerably, that she wouldn't. Very nice debating, if I say so myself."

Zeidler traced many of his principles to his religion. He was involved all his life with German Lutheran churches. He worked for Lutheran and Catholic institutions in recent decades and participated in ecumenical efforts. He said he felt that clergy and religious groups offered the best hope for solving society's problems, and he was steadfast in his personal religious commitments.

He approached his involvements in public issues as if they were a religious vocation for him, a way to put his ethics and principles into action.

Zeidler was first elected to public office in 1938, when he ran as a Progressive Party candidate for county surveyor. He was elected to a six-year term on the Milwaukee School Board as a non-partisan in 1941 and re-elected to it in 1947.

In 1948, Zeidler became Milwaukee's third Socialist mayor, prevailing in an election that offered the most politically potent field in city history. Fifteen candidates ran, among them three who ultimately accounted for 64 years as mayor. But neither Hoan, trying to regain the office he lost after six terms to Carl Zeidler, nor Henry Maier, who served seven terms beginning in 1960, made it to the final election.

It was Henry Reuss whom Zeidler defeated in the final election by a vote of 124,024 to 92,277. (Reuss, who also lost to Maier in the 1960 election, served in Congress from 1955 to 1983, becoming a powerful national political figure.)

"I think I won primarily because the name Zeidler was so well-known," Zeidler said later.

The hottest issue in the election was whether the city should borrow money for projects such as public housing. Zeidler, worried about the impact of debt, was more conservative than Reuss on the issue.

Pat Stawicki, a 50-year employee of the mayor's office, was 18 when she started work there under Zeidler. Phillips served her first term as alderman during Zeidler's third and final mayoral term. Both said Zeidler treated them with a level of respect that they didn't necessarily expect from a man his position.

Phillips recalled her first conversation with the mayor as "stimulating, it was intellectual, it was fatherly without being condescending.

"He had all of my respect and fondness. He was a very special person and so well read in municipal government. Such a brain."

John W. Kole, a former Milwaukee Journal reporter, who covered both Zeidlers, remembered with amazement a morning routine in Zeidler's office that included letting reporters help him open the mail.

Improving city service

Zeidler took over at a time when Milwaukee had an urgent need of an overall updating of its services. The Depression in the '30s, followed by World War II, meant that little had been spent in many years on improvements in either physical structures or the way the city did its work. Add to that the demands of a growing population in the postwar era, and it was clear that improving the nuts and bolts of city services needed to be high on the municipal agenda of the time.

The city still was collecting garbage in horse-drawn carts when Zeidler came into office. The first fleet of garbage trucks was purchased during his tenure.

The Fire Department was refurbished with nine new stations; the size of the Central Library was doubled and library branches were created; bridges and streets were rebuilt and repaved; the Milwaukee Arena was built; a new museum was launched.

He took pride in for many years in the creation of WMVS-TV (Channel 10), the first public educational TV station in the state. Although city government played a lesser role, construction of the freeway system began, and County Stadium was built and occupied by the Milwaukee Braves during Zeidler's years in office.

Many of the areas that had been unincorporated township areas became municipalities, including Brown Deer, Glendale, Oak Creek and Franklin. Zeidler warned of creation of a suburban "iron ring" around the city that would leave Milwaukee with no room for growth and nearly all of the area's poor people. Control of undeveloped areas became a hot issue.

Victory for Zeidler in two annexation battles added what is now the southeast side (Town of Lake) and the northwest side (Town of Granville) to Milwaukee and doubled the city's size from 46 square miles to 92.

During his tenure, 3,200 units of low-income and veterans housing were built in five projects: Southlawn, Northlawn, Westlawn, Berryland and Hillside.

Milwaukee's problems of race relations and poverty began to sharpen during Zeidler's mayoral terms. The African-American population grew between 1948 and 1960 from about 17,000, which was 3% of the city, to about 62,000, which was 8% of the city.

Zeidler was an advocate for public efforts to improve conditions in what were then the relatively small impoverished parts of the city.

At the 1955 groundbreaking for the Hillside housing project, he decried the conditions that some Milwaukeeans lived in and defended public efforts to help them.

"If it is the philosophy of any that the forces of government should not be used to overcome these conditions, which private enterprise did not overcome, that philosophy borders on the immoral," he said.

Sympathetic to the civil rights movement that was growing, Zeidler was subjected in the mid-1950s to a rumor campaign that he had arranged for billboards to be put up in Southern cities encouraging blacks to move to Milwaukee. There was no truth to it.

'Drain on a guy's energy'

Zeidler won re-election in 1952 and 1956. On Oct. 6, 1959, he told supporters to look for someone else to run for mayor in 1960. He said: "This job is an awful drain on a guy's energy. . . . I'm tired all the time. It's a hard thing to swim upstream all the time and carry the banner of progressive ideas."

Zeidler had had several serious illnesses as mayor, including a virus infection in 1949 that put him in the hospital for seven weeks; surgery to remove a fibrous tumor in his lungs, which took him out for five weeks in 1951, and two rounds of Asian flu in 1957.

He also was having more trouble politically. Aldermen had soundly overridden some of his vetoes.

Many political leaders - including then-state Sen. Henry Maier - urged him to run again, but on Oct. 30, he announced he would not run in 1960. Maier announced his candidacy the next day.

Although it would be easy to argue about how much credit Zeidler deserves, Milwaukee at the end of his dozen years as mayor was at a powerful point. The population had reached its highest official level - 741,324 in the 1960 census, making it the 12th-largest city in the nation, up more than 100,000 from 1950. The economy was booming as Milwaukee's factories turned out the core goods of America's postwar growth. Poverty and crime were low.

Zeidler was only 47 when he left office.

In the following decades, Zeidler held only one major office - director of the state Department of Resource Development - under Gov. John W. Reynolds in 1963-'64. He worked as a teacher, labor arbitrator and mediator, and consultant.

No Zeidler political machine carried any clout once he was out of office; no alliance or bond melded Zeidler and the powerful in the city's public and private circles. The man who had been elected mayor three times often found only a handful of people listening to what he had to say, and almost none of that handful had any power.

Zeidler and Maier were actively antagonistic at many points, and Zeidler never set foot in the mayor's office from the day he left office in 1960 until the day John O. Norquist was inaugurated in 1988.

Zeidler was undeterred by the fact that his stands were often lonely. To him, politics was never just about winning; it was about principle and issues.

"This was not someone who said, 'Look at me,' " historian Gurda said. "This was someone who was being a citizen."

In 1976, he was the presidential candidate of the Socialist Party USA., winning 5,427 votes.

Zeidler continued to live modestly, act modestly and stand actively by his beliefs. He was sought increasingly as a sage on city history. His undisputed personal integrity and the longevity that made him a living invocation of Milwaukee's past were keys to what appeared to be a revival of affection and respect for him in recent years.

Zeidler became such a local institution that instead of just receiving awards, an award was named after him. In 1985, the Greater Milwaukee Conference on Religion and Urban Affairs began awarding a Frank Zeidler Award for contributions to social concerns in the religious community. James Groppi was the first winner.

In 1995, the city government office building immediately east of City Hall was named the Frank Zeidler Municipal Building.

Zeidler is survived by his wife, the former Agnes Reinke, whom he married in 1939. The couple had six children.

Michael Zeidler, a Milwaukee Public Schools math teacher, lives in Riverwest. He said three of his sisters - Mill Road branch librarian Dorothy Zeidler; Anita Zeidler, a professor of educational psychology at UW-Milwaukee, and Clara A. Scolare - were living with their parents. He said his sister Mary Zeidler works in theater in New York City and his sister Jeanne Zeidler-Craypol, is mayor of Williamsburg, Va.

Zeidler was asked in a 1975 interview with the Bugle-American, an alternative paper at that time, what he would write for his epitaph.

He answered, "About all I could say is: 'He tried hard.' "

Tom Tolan and Tom Kertscher of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.


From the July 9, 2006 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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