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John E. Wall: The Importance of Fathers [Up Against the Wall]

John E. Wall.

My father, John E. Wall, age 91, passed away on Monday, October 30th, 2017. He was one hell of a guy; I ought to know, I knew him all my life. I know, I know, everyone says that about their own father, and I get that, but consider this. My father, the oldest of five children, raised 11 children and in spite of one child being deaf, another requiring heart surgery, another with psoriasis, another falling from a cliff and dying far too young, in spite of job changes, city changes and more, in spite of it all, he persevered.

John came of age during World War II and rather than be forced into the infantry, he graduated high school early and joined the Navy at an age when today’s high school kids’ biggest concern is their iPhones. He became a rear gunner on a Navy Hell-diver; his job was to keep the enemy away from the plane while his pilot dive-bombed the two of them straight down on targeted ships. He was given orders to ship out for the invasion of the Japanese home islands when Japan surrendered. Not too many years later his own father suddenly died and he was left on his own, alone.

He went to work at one job and then another, before being laid off with 11 hungry mouths to feed and private school tuition to pay, but as my mother said, in spite of overwhelming odds, he always provided for us. He raised us using a process unknown to today’s over-involved helicopter parents, something I like to jokingly call “active neglect.” We were free-range children, free to roam the neighborhood on hot summer days and fight our own fights, but when we heard him whistle, it was time to come home. (And man, could he whistle.)

John e wall
John e. Wall

Later in 1968, he was recruited to move to Madison from Chicago to head up a small ($5 million sales) library supply business. The only problem was that when he arrived here, he learned that the business was virtually broke. In an over-indulged tech society, he always said “It’s all about people,” and he proved it right, working tirelessly with others to turn the business around and build it into the largest library and educational supply company in the world.

All the while, he never let the business get in the way of family or community; serving the Lions Club to promote better lives for those without hearing, the Boy Scouts, and volunteering at Downtown Rotary and United Way and St. Mary’s Hospital, serving a term as President for each, and still he managed to be home for a family dinner each night, prepared by my tireless mom. And if that wasn’t enough, he had to make sure his youngest son received critically needed open heart surgery and tend to his family when a few years later his oldest son passed away while only in high school.

And if that wasn’t enough, he volunteered with the National Ski Patrol at Devil’s Head (doing so for 44 years) so that his family could learn to ski; it was simply math when he started – he couldn’t afford ski passes for all those kids! But later it was about serving his fellow patrollers around him. (Eventually, six of his kids became ski patrollers as well.) He loved helping people on the hill with first aid, one time even climbing on his knees into a car crash on the way home on a dark and cold night to try to save a man’s life.

He believed in tough love, setting high expectations for his children and all those around him. As kids, I never wanted to cross him, but I knew he loved me – spending countless hours reading to me and my sister and giving us bear hugs when he came home. One time (only one time), when I was naughty in front of the siblings he took a hairbrush to my bottom, but the brush never actually touched me. I realized then and there that his love for his son would never overwhelm his need for discipline with a small navy of children, but what was I to do? I couldn’t dissolve his discipline structure, so I cried. It was an implicit deal; he pretended to spank my bottom and I pretended to cry. We both knew what we were doing, but we couldn’t admit it to each other or to the others. He’d have a mutiny on his hands if we did!

My dad always said nothing was ever accomplished by a committee; if you wanted something done right, you had to do it yourself. He always encouraged us to go to the front of the line – “Never stand in line unless you know what you are standing in line for,” he pontificated. And while we were embarrassed as he marched us up to the front of line after line, damn if he wasn’t right; unbeknownst to the crowd, the door was either unlocked or they were in the wrong line almost every time!

Meanwhile, while all that volunteering was going on, he restored financial stability to the business that he worked for, and even though the elderly owner ‘fired’ him multiple times, he still came back to work the day after. (Imagine anyone doing that today!) He sold the business to Banta Corporation on behalf of the prior owner and then worked for Banta as a subsidiary for a number of years. Then in 1978 when Banta was experiencing a strike and needed to raise cash, the head of Banta offered John three choices; either succeed him as head of Banta, take over as head of the parent company buying Demco, or stay where he was as a subsidiary of the buyer. My father, never believing in what fate had handed him, chose an alternative path – to buy Demco in one of the first leveraged buyouts in the country, taking on enormous debt with a 22% interest rate and betting his family’s future on a love of reading.

Within three years, two years ahead of schedule, he paid off the purchase loans and became a true entrepreneur; a man determining his own destiny, changing his life and the life of his family forever. John grew Demco to become the largest supplier of libraries in the world, with 10 other education-related businesses, and becoming responsible for hundreds employees and their families too. But that growth didn’t come easy, he had to restructure the company multiple times; first taking it from being a salesman-focused business to a direct mail company with catalogs, lots of mailings, and an 800 number and then later to an internet business. (He was the first in the country to put the 800 number on every catalog page.)

He became recognized as a leader in the direct mail industry, leading the association for a number of years. Where did he get the time? Even with all these commitments, he still had time to attend almost every event in our lives and take us up skiing every Saturday in winter.

Dad was also a problem solver; his life was one long list of challenges to solve. I remember once in senior year at Edgewood High School the priest calling Dad to tell him that I wouldn’t graduate unless I attended the senior retreat that ran from Thursday through Saturday evening. Fortunately for me, Dad always taught us to stick religiously to our commitments to others, so when the retreat conflicted with my ski patrol duty on Saturday, I thought I had him boxed in!

“But Dad, you’re the one that said I made a commitment to the patrol and that I have to follow through on it.” He knew he was in trouble; how could he please the priest and school and also not break his biggest life lesson to his son? Well, Dad figured it out, just like he always did.

While other kids sat in a circle to complain about life and their parents, my dad drove up to the front door of the retreat on that Saturday morning with the skis on the car rack to pick me up for patrol duty! He had cut another deal; I’d attend the retreat, but I wouldn’t miss ski patrol either. Typical dad.

Later in life, he became a leading philanthropist, being a major donor to the American Family Children’s Hospital, Tenney Park, Boy Scouts, Edgewood, DAIS, Madison Central Library and the North Madison library, humane society, and literally many dozens of other needy charities and causes. When one of his co-workers needed a bone marrow transplant and the company insurance wouldn’t cover it, he personally raised funds to cover the cost.

Did he have his particulars? Yes, just like everyone does. I remember whenever a waiter would ask if he wanted coffee, he’d say ‘no’, but then be upset later when he wasn’t offered coffee at the end of the meal (you know, like in the “old days”), so I started telling the waiters in front of my dad, “no, he’ll have it when it’s most inconvenient for you”. That cured him fast. And it took years to convince him to leave food on his plate to cut his weight. Growing up a depression-era kid, he just couldn’t waste a morsel.

How many of us can say we have done as much with our lives as he has? He set a standard that today others would say is impossible; raising 11 children and 22 grandchildren, building a business, supporting the community, mentoring others, volunteering, donating, and making our community the better place it is today. He was an icon. He was always there for me, and now it’s hard to believe he’s gone, but his legacy lives on – in his children, his co-workers, his business, his community. The rest of us should be so fortunate and so dedicated. Goodbye, Dad, I’ll miss our monthly dinners and movies.

Love, your son, T.

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