Beyond the Famous Name

What do the Milwaukee Brewers, the Emperor of Japan, and a famous shipwreck and song have in common with Owen ? The answer can be found in the life of the late Edmund B. Fitzgerald.

From the Summer 2014 edition of Vanderbilt Business

What do the Milwaukee Brewers, the Emperor of Japan, and a famous shipwreck have in common with the Owen Graduate School of Management? The answer can be found in the life of the late Edmund B. Fitzgerald, adjunct professor of management and Owen benefactor, who died Aug. 28, 2013.

Edmund Fitzgerald
Edmund Fitzgerald

The retired chairman and CEO of Northern Telecom Inc. (now Nortel Networks Corp.), “made life-changing contributions to students at the Owen School as a teacher, mentor and philanthropist,” says Joseph D. Blackburn Jr., the James A. Speyer Professor of Production Management, Emeritus.

“In Fitzgerald’s popular course on globalization and international business, he drew on his vast corporate experience to teach students the importance of a global mindset long before it was popular to think in that way,” Blackburn says. “The scholarship he established gives a deserving student full tuition to complete their studies and begin a career in international management.”

Edmund Bacon Fitzgerald was born on Feb. 5, 1926, to a prominent Milwaukee family. His father, also named Edmund, was president and chairman of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co.

After serving as an officer in the United States Marine Corps during World War II and Korea, he earned a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan and joined Cutler-Hammer, a Milwaukee-based electrical products manufacturer founded by his maternal grandfather, Frank R. Bacon. He rose through the ranks to become chairman and chief executive officer of the company.

Play ball!

Fitzgerald, along with Bud Selig and two others, brought major league baseball back to Milwaukee in 1969 a few years after the Braves left for Atlanta. Selig, who became president of the new Milwaukee Brewers franchise and later commissioner of Major League Baseball, has said that Fitzgerald played a crucial role in recruiting the Brewers to Milwaukee. Fitzgerald became the Brewer’s vice president and chairman of the board. He was also a member of the MLB Executive Council.

In 1980, Fitzgerald became head of the Nashville-based subsidiary of Northern Telecom, a multibillion-dollar Canadian telecommunications company. According to one account, Fitzgerald’s “contacts, credentials and Yankee know-how… helped the Canadian firm overcome its unfamiliarity with more free-wheeling U.S. business practices.”

“Big Ed … was a consummate gentleman, team builder and a good listener …”

His success in Nashville resulted in Fitzgerald being named president and CEO of the parent company, which he helped transform into a global communications leader. Author John Tyson writes in his book, Adventures in Innovation: Inside the Rise and Fall of Nortel, that Big Ed (as his employees affectionately called him) was “a consummate gentleman, team builder and a good listener who embraced the (Canadian) corporate culture with ease.”

He served on President Ronald Reagan’s National Telecommunications Security Advisory Committee and chaired the U.S. Committee for Economic Development. In 1997, the Emperor of Japan awarded Fitzgerald the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold & Silver Star, in recognition of his long devotion to improving trade relations between the U.S. and Japan.

For many years, Fitzgerald and his wife, Elizabeth McKee Christensen Fitzgerald, lived in Toronto and Nashville. The pair was married for 65 years until Elizabeth’s death in 2012. They were the parents of four and grandparents of nine.

Connection to tragedy

Fitzgerald’s name is known to many through association with one of America’s most tragic shipwrecks, made famous by singer Gordon Lightfoot in his ballad, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

In the 1950s, Northwestern Mutual named its new freighter after its chairman, Fitzgerald’s father. The Edmund Fitzgerald was one of the largest ships ever to navigate the Great Lakes. On Nov. 10, 1975, it sank in icy Lake Superior, drowning all 29 sailors aboard. The reasons for the wreck are still uncertain, but the connection followed Fitzgerald throughout his life.

Edmund Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald as most of his Owen students remember him.

Unpaid and loving it

After Fitzgerald’s retirement from Nortel in 1990, Owen Dean Martin Geisel persuaded him to teach globalization courses on a pro bono basis, which the businessman continued until 2008.

Fitzgerald gave more than his teaching salary. He used a combination of annual and planned gifts to establish the Edmund B. Fitzgerald Scholarship in Global Competitiveness at Owen. Awarded annually to a second-year student who exhibits an extraordinary grasp of and commitment to global issues, the scholarship has already benefited six Owen students.

“Education was very important to my father,” says his daughter Kathleen Fitzgerald Picoli. “He was very impressed with the talented students and faculty at the Owen School. He wanted to leave a gift to the next generation of students who shared his commitment to global issues as a way to improve the world.”

Matt Clemson, MBA’10, was one of those students.

“The Edmund Fitzgerald scholarship provided me enormous financial assistance as an over-indebted first-year business school student,” says Clemson, now a senior manager with RockTenn, an Atlanta paper manufacturer. “But taking Professor Fitzgerald’s class and reading his book Globalizing Customer Solutions had an even greater lasting impact on me. It gave me a framework for evaluating decisions with an appreciation for and understanding of different cultures, perspectives and tactics, and for that I’ll be ever grateful to Professor Fitzgerald.