The last time I saw him was at Columbia St. Mary’s. As I gazed out the window and up the Lake Michigan shoreline that he protected for years as a Milwaukee County Lifeguard he didn’t share many details but I got the feeling the diagnosis wasn’t good. A day or so later his family broke the news and my intuition proved correct. As more details were shared we knew he likely didn’t have long.
I meant to stop by and see him one last time, to add my name to the list of people who thanked him for all of the young lives he formed and influenced for the better – albeit in an unconventional way that was all his own. Thought I had more time to fit that in. Turns out I didn’t.
For many, Jim Tietjen's legacy will be defined first by football but for me it was his service to the people of Milwaukee County that most sharply frames my memories. I first met Tietjen in 1985 when he was the Milwaukee County Aquatics Director and I a rookie lifeguard. Not long thereafter I latched onto his coattails or rather his signature pair of camouflage work pants that he affectionately called his "Cameos" and road along with him has he ascended the ranks of Milwaukee County Government, a journey that also took me from lifeguard, to Workers Compensation Analyst to Budget Assistant and ultimately to Special Assistant to the County Executive during the tenure of David F. Schulz.
As I look at my life and career, I need to say thanks to Jim and the many lessons I learned from him along the way.
Going back some 30 years, there was a self-confidence about him that to some came across as arrogance. The seemingly self-important though energetic and optimistic manner in which he called 200-plus lifeguards to duty at every summer kick-off meeting was legendary. Call it confidence or arrogance, underneath it was a genuine set of principles and values that guided everything he did.
Thoughts go back to traveling on South 27th Street, somewhere around Lincoln Ave. A young man supported himself with crutches and arm cuffs as he struggled his way across the street, delaying our day while we sat at a green light waiting for him to get out of the way. Jim shook his head and I wondered what was on his mind. He sighed. "Can you imagine having to play the hand that poor guy was dealt? How sad – sometimes we don’t realize how good we have it." And that was Jim Tietjen – Tough? Absolutely. Resolute and stubborn? Often. Noble ends justifying unconventional means? Always. But at the core of it all was a truly empathetic man who had his very own way of showing it.
Jim was never one to let precision get in the way of a good story. The speed at which our unmarked squad car torpedoed through rush hour traffic to avoid being late for a 1991 press conference seemed to rise a mile or two per hour every time we reminisced about it. Over the years the height of the snow drifts through which he used brag about barreling his old Chevy Blazer on the way to Port Washington to buy ice cream on a snow day grew so large they eventually exceeded the height of the truck itself, and the waves on Lake Michigan during his time as a lifeguard rose to heights not recorded before or since.
But in a big way these were manifestations of that which made Jim Tietjen the leader he was. His ability to make everything we did seem epic – before and after the fact - was part of what made us so willing to follow his lead and rise to each occasion. From the events he championed honoring our nation’s veterans to the entertainment he brought to so many through Holiday in Lights to the positive effect the Merrill Park Summer Sports Camp had on Milwaukee’s inner-city youth to his success on the gridiron and everything in between, his ability to think bigger than most, and his tenacity to see his ideas to completion, were quintessential Jim Tietjen.
Through his leadership Jim taught me the value of a hard – and oftentimes a really, really long – day’s work. I learned the importance of goal setting, keeping my word and never forgetting what and who got me to where I am.
I learned the power of humor – twisted as it sometimes was - and that if the end is honorable it’s alright to go into something not quite sure how I’m going to work my way out of it so long as I have the confidence that I will figure something out when the time comes. These are just a handful of the many lessons I, and I’m sure countless others, learned from Jim Tietjen.
So for the tuxedoed usher who, in a self-deprecating fashion, referred to himself as Quasimodo while ringing the steeple bell that signaled the end of my wedding ceremony, a man for whom a bell of another sort tolled way, way too soon, whose speed has slowed, who longer needs to negotiate the snow drifts of life and whose waves have given way to calm….
Not on the beach nor on the turf but in the course of a life that has left so many with so much…as your new season begins may hope spring eternal.
So long, Boss. And thank you.
Funeral arrangements have been announced. Visitation is 4-7 p.m. Friday at Feerick Funeral Home. The funeral mass is at 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Monica Parish, 160 E. Silver Spring Dr., in Whitefish Bay. Memorials may be made in Coach Tietjen’s name to the Blue Dukes Gridiron Club.
Matt Kirchner is president of LAB Midwest, a provider of technical curriculum, equipment and eLearning solutions for education and industry. He lives in Whitefish Bay, with his wife, son and daughter.