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Jerry Frautschi and Pleasant Rowland: Who is Jerry Frautschi?
What kind of man would donate $100 million for a Madison arts district?

This article originally appeared in Isthmus on Oct. 15, 1999.

W. Jerome "Jerry" Frautschi does not want to be interviewed. On the phone the Madison businessman, whose $100 million gift will transform the Madison arts community, is polite but resistant to the idea of being profiled. Though the Madison Symphony Orchestra's John DeMain describes Frautschi as "a prince of a fellow," and public figures like Mayor Sue Bauman, philanthropist Marian Bolz and businessman Terry Haller attest to his sincerity and charm, Frautschi says he adamantly avoids the limelight. When he agrees to speak to me, he wants it done as soon as possible, like he's taking bitter medicine quickly.

Sitting the next morning high in the Firstar building on the Capitol Square, Frautschi, 68, talks with the pride of a planner about the arts district that will be built with his donation. The Overture Foundation offices, decorated with strong modernist pieces in red and orange tones, have an atmosphere of positive purposefulness. This reflects Frautschi's status as a doer, an active man whose public life is aptly summed up by the name of his foundation -- Frautschi makes overtures. He reaches out, he gets things started. His gift -- the first $50 million announced in 1998, the second $50 million last July -- has set in motion a massive building and remodeling of civic arts facilities on State Street, a nationwide architect search, and an unprecedented cooperation among local arts groups.

But Frautschi is also like a musical overture in that he often sets the tone, gathers together the dominant players for a summary of the program, but then yields to the main action. When Frautschi decided to make a gift to the arts, he gathered a staff of pros like former city planner George Austin to run his foundation, he called together a massive advisory committee of artists and civic figures, and then he stepped back. While he certainly works on the Overture project, Frautschi is retired, and he wants to be able to play golf and travel. Besides, he says, "This isn't about Jerry Frautschi."

Frautschi remains an intensely private person, uncomfortable with self-disclosure about his thoughts, his tastes, his family. The only personal touch in the Overture offices is the bold art on the walls, chosen, Frautschi says, by his wife and inspiration, Pleasant Rowland, founder of the Pleasant Company and a philanthropist in her own right.

When he talks about Rowland, Frautschi's face lights up with adoration, but he's also deeply reluctant to speak about his personal life. That reluctance registers as actual pain, not false modesty. The same expression is apparent when he speaks of his sons, his brother or his parents. A big, friendly man whose Wisconsin accent emerges only when he talks about vacations to a family cabin outside Minocqua, Frautschi has old-fashioned manners. Yet when he does talk about his family, himself and the controversy surrounding his gift, he seems as keen as he is kind. Frautschi gives the impression that he has assessed the world with a shrewd eye, chosen his commitments, and honored them with integrity.

Any portrait of Frautschi is incomplete without noting that this gentle man of few words and moderate tastes loves to tool around the country on his Kawasaki motorcycle. Frautschi's Kawasaki is one of his few idiosyncrasies. The motorcycle represents a side of him that isn't so much "wild" as it is personal. Terry Haller, Overture Board member and co-founder of Exel Inns, says Frautschi "loves to ride his Kawasaki motorcycle and go up to Lodi for breakfast." In fact, Frautschi is said to have courted Rowland by taking her for rides on the chopper.

Haller says that more recently, Frautschi took Pleasant on the motorcycle to American Players Theatre one cold September night. "And she'll never forget that ride," he says.

Like his love for his Kawasaki, Frautschi's relationship with Rowland hints at a depth to his character that he hesitates to reveal. Frautschi's first marriage, to Ellen Johnson, lasted 13 years and produced three sons, Paul, 38, Lance, 36, and Grant, 32. But when Frautschi met Rowland in 1976, it was as if fate had taken hold. At that time, Frautschi was a sales representative for Webcrafters, the local printing firm founded by his father. He was the rep serving Rowland, who was then the Boston-based author of a language-arts program Webcrafters was printing.

"She came to Madison for a press check on the first printing to see if the color was right," says Frautschi. "There were problems with the film, and there was going to be a three- to four-day delay. So as a good salesman I felt I should take care of this customer."

The four days proved decisive. "It was a very wonderful four days for a salesman, and I hope for a customer," says Frautschi. "That was in May, and we were married in November."

During their first year of marriage, Frautschi and Rowland had a long-distance relationship because Rowland still needed to be in Boston. "In those days she did most of the commuting," says Fraustchi. And since it was a time before e-mail and pagers, Frautschi says, "we used to write letters." Frautschi is protective of Rowland, who he says "is sensitive" and "does not like the press." It's clear that some of the reason Frautschi avoids the spotlight is to preserve their mutual privacy. Yet the energy in the relationship motivates both of them.

"I couldn't be happier," says Frautschi. "It's a loving and very exciting relationship. We never run out of things to talk about."

Frautschi, whose artistic tastes run toward the symphony, the opera, Wisconsin author Steve Ambrose and Southwestern art, says he particularly values Rowland's guidance in matters of taste. "I like to learn. Pleasant is much more involved with the arts," he says. "I like being with her in a museum."

People who work with the couple observe that Frautschi and Rowland's relationship is indeed intense and dynamic. John DeMain, conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, says that Frautschi is "extremely affectionate and close to his wife. They keep it fresh." Regina Millner, president of the board of directors at the Madison Children's Museum, says, "Everybody knows that they're a team."

The bond between the two affects not only their relationship, but the projects they found as well. Haller says, "The interaction between them has been at the center of the Overture Board. We all want to hear what they have to say."

The vital relationship between Frautschi and Rowland is mirrored in his relationship with his younger brother, John, 69. Civic Center director Bob D'Angelo says the brothers are "equivalent souls." Haller describes them as being "both cut from the same cloth."

The brothers' emotional tie reflects their lifelong connection. In high school, John and Jerry both attended the same boarding school in Colorado Springs. Though Jerry spent his first year of college at the University of Virginia and John went to UW-Madison, Jerry returned to Wisconsin because at that time the University of Virginia was not coed. "After boarding school, I'd had enough of that," he says.

In the Mendota Yacht Club, John and Jerry sailed together competitively. Lake Mendota was their training ground for a lifetime of partnership. "We have tremendous respect for one another. We're very close to one another," says Frautschi. "I think that all started early on when we were sailing on Lake Mendota. We owned one boat between us and would trade off every other race. One would be skipper and one would be crew, and we had to work as a team that way. We got to know each other well enough that it was almost intuitive."

Says John: "We were competitive. It was synergistic. It was a commitment. We enjoyed it."

After college, which was prolonged for Jerry by a stint serving in the Naval Reserve during the Korean conflict, the brothers went to work for their father, who had started the printing company, Democrat Printing, that eventually became Webcrafters. "The two of us made a good pair," Frautschi says. "John was mechanically inclined and enjoyed the inside operations. John is the type of individual who loves gadgets, works with computers. I enjoy meeting and being with people, traveling."

Over Frautschi's 42-year career at Webcrafters, the closeness between the brothers never disintegrated. That would be remarkable in many families, but it strikes the Frautschis as normal. "I would expect that," says John. "Why do you think it's unique?"

That sense of family solidarity is one of the keys to understanding Frautschi's character. Frautschi looks to his grandfather, Emil, his father, Walter, and his uncle, Lowell, for examples of commitment to each other and their community. "What I remember about my father and my grandfather," says Frautschi, "is their integrity and the warmth of concern they felt for other people."

And though the Frautschi family is now one of Madison's most important -- D'Angelo says that their "fingerprints are on everything that we value in this town" -- Frautschi remains surprised by his prominence. "The Frautschi family was not a socially or financially prominent family in the early years," he says. "My grandfather did not have a college education." And though he's given $100 million, Frautschi still thinks of himself as part of the hard-working tradition of Swiss immigrant Christian Frautschi, who came to Madison in the 1860s and founded Frautschi Furniture, which specialized in "cabinets and coffins."

Haller says that Frautschi's parents taught their children that they "were not to value themselves over their own community." D'Angelo recalls Walter Frautschi at age 92 coming from his apartment at the Inn on the Park to attend the Civic Center's volunteer-appreciation dinner and sitting among the volunteers anonymously. As for Jerry, philanthropist Marian Bolz says he is "always the first to volunteer and the last to take credit." Indeed, there is a pioneer, spartan demeanor to the man.

DeMain thinks the Frautschi family is a perfect example of the American dream in action. "Jerry Frautschi is what we're all supposed to think being American is about," DeMain says. "He's had success, he receives it in a humble way and remains rooted in his community. He's a man who is unashamedly in love with the small town he lives in."

Haller says this self-effacing quality distinguishes Frautschi from other big donors in the country. "A lot of donors are obsessed with personal recognition," Haller says. "They want a form of immortality. Jerry is more concerned with what Madison will look like in 100 years."

Examples of Frautschi's humility abound. Millner mentions that reporters had to insist that Frautschi speak at the announcement of his second $50 million gift in July. Mayor Bauman says that on the day he announced the additional gift, Frautschi called her and thanked her for her support.

Still, Millner says it is absolutely a conscious choice on Frautschi's part not to be a public figure, because he possesses skills and charm more than equal to the job. Millner says she once watched Frautschi give an acceptance speech for an award that "just tugged at your heart. It was gracious, heartfelt and appropriate. But with the Overture work he chooses to downplay himself. He is understated."

Overture Foundation president George Austin says, "It's the measure of the man that he downplays himself and focuses on the project."

Perhaps the reason Frautschi is so uneasy talking about himself is that his greatest strength, according to friends and colleagues, is as a listener. "At table meetings he's a very good listener," says D'Angelo. "He sets down what he wants, but then he asks questions. I've never heard him raise his voice. I've never seen him get agitated."

DeMain concurs: "He is absolutely digesting what you say when you speak, and his responses are always one step ahead of you, which is to me the sign of a great intelligence."

Since Frautschi made his gift, he has been criticized in the media for giving to the arts when there are still problems with homelessness and poverty in Madison. This accusation makes Frautschi's expression grave, but he says, "I accept that criticism. I feel that I want to be generous with the United Way, but if there are people who are not being fed, not being clothed, I think that becomes the government's primary responsibility. One of the other things I felt strongly about is that I think there is a difference in some areas of responsibility of taxpayers and consumers and the other area where the private sector comes in."

As for another controversy surrounding his project -- the store owners who don't want to sell their property to the arts district -- Frautschi says, "A project of this size is never just going to move smoothly, but there are no obstacles I see that will be insurmountable."

Frautschi's cautious optimism is indicative of how pleased he is simply to have made it this far, since the genesis of the project was a mixture of hope and coincidence. He says the name Overture came to him in the middle of the night years before he started the foundation. He says he woke up and thought, "What a wonderful name," but assumed some other foundation would already have it. When he found out the name was free, one bit of the puzzle fell into place. When he started the Overture Foundation in 1996, a year before retiring from Webcrafters, he knew he wanted to help create an arts district, but wasn't sure he could do it alone.

Frautschi's goal was to keep the arts groups in town from splintering their funding sources by having to launch separate capital campaigns. He also wanted to encourage cooperation among the groups. Then, all at once, Frautschi's vision, the $700 million sale of his wife's Pleasant Company and the availability of city planner George Austin to work on the project came together to allow him to make his historic gift. "I had no long strategic plan," he says, "but I will take pride when I attend an event in the arts complex, knowing that I'm somewhat responsible for the local development of the arts."

The importance of Frautschi's gift lies both in what it will do for the local community and in the model it sets for other donors, local and national. His gift has been praised in The New York Times as unique because of its flexibility, and local fund-raisers are thankful for its recognition of the arts community's needs.

For his part, Frautschi is glad he's able to be generous while still alive. "I think it's very sad that people only give substantial wealth upon their death. I think many of those people would be disappointed with how their efforts have been disbursed. For me, there have been no major disappointments."

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