MILWAUKEE – Edmund Fitzgerald’s office at the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Milwaukee overlooked the blue of Lake Michigan.

Peering out his window or at the walls, hung with pictures of seagoing bulk carriers – one named for him and another for his father – he often would ruminate about his own maritime heritage.

His father and grandfather ran a Milwaukee shipyard. His grandfather’s five brothers were master mariners on the Great Lakes. Fitzgerald himself spent many of his younger days amid the sweet-smelling wood shavings and tarred rope yarn found within the yard.

So it seemed a natural fit when, as president of Northwestern Mutual in the 1950s, Fitzgerald pushed for the insurance giant to invest in what would become, at the time, the largest bulk carrier ever to ply the inland oceans.

More than two football fields long and weighing more than 13,600 tons when empty, the ship was an engineering feat and christened in 1958 with a champagne bottle by Fitzgerald’s wife at a dock on the Detroit River.

The iron ore carrier made 748 round trips from western Lake Superior to Detroit and Cleveland without incident.

Thursday is the 30th anniversary of its interrupted 749th trip, when the “Mighty Fitz” sank during a storm on Lake Superior, scant miles from safe harbor, killing the 29 men aboard.

The tragedy and its remembrance, fueled by the ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Canadian singer Gordon Lightfoot, have captivated residents of the region almost since the day of the horror, when the ship’s captain last reported, “We are holding our own.”

Scores of books, films and articles have been produced, and the ship remains the most noted of the some 6,000 to go to the bottom of the Great Lakes.

This interest has in many ways overshadowed the legacy of the ship’s namesake, a leader for decades in Milwaukee whose fingerprints are on almost every enduring civic investment here. Perhaps understandably, the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald has as story eclipsed the work of Edmund Fitzgerald the man.

From the port of Milwaukee to the arts center, the post office to the War Memorial, Fitzgerald was a “one-man army” as the Milwaukee Journal editorialized, for aggrandizing the city’s institutions in the post-war period. He was a national innovator in health care provision, served on countless boards and commissions and was a strong patron of the city’s arts organizations.

“He was extraordinarily active, one of the several, but not too many giants, of the city,” said his son-in-law, Richard Cutler of Mequon, Wis. “People remember what he did in getting things done.”

Fitzgerald died in 1986 at the age of 90.

He was born in Milwaukee, served as an artillery captain during World War I and graduated from Yale University before returning home to work at the Milwaukee Malleable Iron Co., where he rose to be secretary. He was elected to the board at Northwestern Mutual in 1933 and was made its chairman in 1958, retiring two years later.

His health was already in decline at the time of the sinking, though his two children, both surviving, acknowledged in interviews this week the hold the ship had on their father’s life.

Edmund B. Fitzgerald, 79, himself a major figure in Milwaukee’s civic history who worked with Bud Selig to bring the Seattle Pilots to Milwaukee and restore the city’s baseball status, recalled in an interview the great swell of pride his father felt for the ship.

It was named for him after he was ushered out of a board meeting in a sort of parliamentary trick, since other members knew that the humble Fitzgerald would decline the bestowal.

But he grew into the idea and on June 8, 1958, he was there at the Great Lakes Engineering Works in Michigan for the ship’s debut.

As it was launched sideways in “guillotine” fashion, loud blasts were heard from another ship that steamed by, the carrier William E. Fitzgerald, named for his father.

“Without a doubt, that was the happiest day of my father’s life,” said Edmund B. Fitzgerald, a retired executive and now a professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “I think (Nov. 10, 1975) was probably the worst day of my father’s life. He was terribly distraught that a ship with his name on it would sink and take so many lives.”

“It was such a terrible thing,” said his daughter, Elizabeth Cutler, who has continued his legacy through her involvement with a maritime historical society.

Richard Cutler said his father-in-law later rarely spoke of the disaster.

Lightfoot himself had tried to visit with Fitzgerald but was turned away. Edmund B. Fitzgerald met the singer at a dinner in the 1980s hosted by the Canadian prime minister.

“I told him what my name was and he looked rather surprised,” said Edmund B. Fitzgerald, who called the artist’s 1976 hit a “fine song.”

As for their father, he and his sister said they did not believe their father ever had heard it.


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