It was April 16, 1975, and Mayor Patrick Zielke expressed mild frustration over his disorganized office and the slate of appointments set for his first day on the job.
“I don’t want to spend the whole day here,” Zielke said. “I want to go out there and see what the people are thinking.”
Known for his connection with the people of La Crosse and his humble disposition, Zielke often stopped at local businesses to chat.
“He always kept his common touch,” recalled former Mayor John Medinger, who served in the Wisconsin Legislature before succeeding Zielke as mayor. “He would do a lot of one on one. Being mayor never got to his head.”
“He was the kind of person (for who) if you were the leader of a Fortune 500 company or a janitor it didn’t matter,” said former La Crosse Common Council member and family friend Phil Addis. “He didn’t care about the money you had or the clothes you were wearing. He cared about everyone. He never wanted praise.”
For more than three decades, Zielke served the city, first as a council member, then as council president, and finally for 22 years as La Crosse’s longest-serving mayor.
Zielke, 85, died Wednesday in the community he called home, having left an indelible mark as a city leader and devoted family man. He fell ill after lunch and was taken to Gundersen Health System. The cause of his death has not yet been confirmed.
A Logan High School graduate, Zielke married the former Beatrice Forer in 1949, and the couple had six children. Pat and Bea Zielke had been married 67 years when she died Oct. 6.
The former Trane Co. engineering assistant began his long service in city government in 1965 as a council member. He defeated incumbent W. Peter Gilbertson in the 1975 mayoral election. At his swearing in April 15, 1975, Zielke opened his statement to the council with, “Close the door on yesterday and open the one to tomorrow.”
Council Member Andrea Richmond recalls Zielke’s communication style with council members.
“If he disagreed with a vote, he would pick up the phone and call you to see if it could be resolved and ask questions,” Richmond said. “He was very open to discussion. I enjoyed his leadership and skills — he did so many great things for everyone.”
On the extensive list of Zielke’s successes were the development of Valley View Mall, the construction of the La Crosse Municipal Airport and the US Bank building, which he insisted stand 10 stories, and the signing of an agreement between La Crosse and Onalaska that resulted in La Crosse receiving 100 acres of land near the county landfill.
However, the construction of the La Crosse Center and the Radisson Hotel next door in Harborview Plaza — previously occupied by deteriorating warehouses and other buildings — is considered his greatest achievement. Harborview began a revitalization of downtown La Crosse that continues today.
At the time, the construction of the La Crosse Center was estimated to have cost $10 million.
“It was his best accomplishment (as mayor),” Medinger said. “It was vital to the future of La Crosse.”
Art Fahey, director of the La Crosse Center, says Zielke was also instrumental in the 2000 expansion of the La Crosse Center, and that an extensive update to the building set for next year “has his fingerprints.”
“(As a board member) he would always challenge us,” Fahey said. “’Is it good for the city of La Crosse?’ He thought about that a lot.”
Not every venture was a home run. His push to build a multi-million-dollar baseball stadium to bring minor league baseball to the city was rejected by voters, as was a proposal to build a casino on Barron Island. Zielke pointed to the shuttering of the downtown Montgomery Ward department store as a disappointment.
“Losing that kind of hurt,” he said.
That site languished as a parking lot for years but is now home to Weber Holding Inc.’s Belle Square, a $68 million, 255,000-square-foot office-residential-retail complex.
Longtime Tribune government reporter Grant Blum remembered Zielke for being straightforward and frank. And he could be intimidating at times.
“He would come to the Tribune angry about some stories. We had some knock-down, drag-out fights,” Blum recalled. “But this all cooled off. He never held a grudge.”
“What happened in council chambers stayed in council chambers,” Addis said. “Outside, you were friends. He had his disputes, but his greatest skill was he could make a compromise out of anything.”
Blum was impressed by Zielke’s dedication as mayor, citing his attendance at “every event having anything to do with the city” and his persistence in advancing the local economy.
“I would truly rank him as the best mayor La Crosse ever had,” Blum said. “He had the interest of the city first.”
Zielke was devoted to his friends and family, especially wife Bea, with whom he frequented area restaurants nearly every day during his retirement.
“You can’t really talk about Pat without talking about Bea,” Medinger said. “You’d see them at a half dozen restaurants. Pat would be drinking his coffee and talking to people. He loved that.”
Zielke enjoyed woodworking in his spare time, and treasured visits to his cabin — Zielke’s Hideaway. The simple structure, free of phone service and amenities, was a near monthly retreat for Zielke, who went at times alone and at others accompanied by his family. Even in his daily life, Zielke was a man of simple tastes, preferring casual dress and naming spaghetti and apple pie as his favorite foods.
“Some people are surprised to find I don’t live like a king, but a farm boy can’t live like a king,” Zielke said in a 1982 interview.
Zielke’s everyman persona endeared him to a constituency that elected him to seven consecutive terms. He could enter a room knowing no one, strike up a conversation, and leave having made several new friends. He was witty, saying upon his retirement, “I’m doing the things I enjoy, and mostly a lot of nothing, although there’s not enough time to finish even that.”
While his friends and colleagues in public service each have a favorite recollection of the La Crosse legend, he was recalled consistently Thursday as a man of integrity.
“He was a great guy, no doubt about it,” Richmond said. “It was an honor to serve with him. He will certainly be missed in the community.”
Funeral arrangements will be announced by Jandt-Fredrickson Funeral Homes and Crematory, Woodruff Chapel.