Genrich, Jon Peter Our dad, Jon Peter Genrich, 77, was born in Wausau, Wisconsin on June 7, 1936. His parents were Ewald and Gertrude (Jaeger) Genrich. A graduate of Wausau East High School, he excelled at debate, extemporaneous speaking, baseball, and in history and civics as taught by his favorite teacher, Arthur Henderson.
Dad went on to graduate from the
University of Wisconsin
at Madison, and after service in the Army returned to the University of Wisconsin at Madison to earn his law degree. One of the many quotes our dad would recite, admire, and build writings around was from the "sifting and winnowing" plaque outside UW-Madison's Bascom Hall, which "encourage[s] that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found." Dad was a fearless sifter and winnower.
In 1968, dad married Susan Ione Mitchell of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. They moved to Milwaukee and had four children together, David, Thomas, Elizabeth, and Daniel, whom they raised together in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. Although our parents would later divorce, our dad always said that he had married the perfect mother for us kids.
In 1969, he was hired by District Attorney E. Michael McCann into the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office, the only law job he ever wanted and would ever hold. He worked as an Assistant District Attorney and public servant for twenty-six years before retiring. Prosecuting many cases and trying many matters to jury, dad would impress upon us the meaning of justice. He shared with us often Justice Sutherland's admonition that because a prosecutor's goal is not to win but to do justice, "he may strike hard blows, he is not at liberty to strike foul ones." Dad encouraged us to live life with the passion of hard blows forever tempered by fairness.
Dad brought to law and life a richness steeped in the tremendous strengths and weaknesses of the great figures in history. In command of all of the American experience, he was a lifelong student especially of Lincoln and Darrow. Of Lincoln, there is so much our dad read, wrote, and reflected upon. When dad passed, his daughter remembered his love of Markham's poem "Lincoln, Man of the People." Markham wrote that Lincoln was a Captain with a mighty heart, made of the tried clay of the common road mixed not only with the thrill of human tears, but also with laughter amid the serious stuff. Our dad was that too. For us, his passing, like Markham wrote of Lincoln's, is the falling of a mighty cedar that "leaves a lonesome place against the sky."
Darrow, and others like Darrow's contemporary Altgeld, were symbols of the pursuit of truth and justice and the importance of compassion and forgiveness. Dad embraced and immersed himself in Darrow's enormous - and very human - strengths and weaknesses. Whether calling us together as kids to watch "Inherit the Wind," sitting beneath a picture of Darrow as he read in his living room, or sharing the lessons he drew from Darrow's words and actions, dad saw life's great truths in Darrow's triumphs and missteps. Dad shared those truths with us, and we are richer for it.
As his family, friends, and all the way up to whoever reads letters addressed to the President of the United States know, our dad did not just share those truths with us. His favored method of communication across his public and private life was the single spaced, manually typewritten letter, disseminated to the world at large in care of newspaper editorial boards and public officials. Those letters numbered in the thousands. They formed the basis of years-long correspondence with figures like former Milwaukee mayor Frank Zeidler. They were essays on the social and political issues of the day, densely packed with allusions culled over a lifetime of reading philosophy, literature, and especially history. They harnessed the power of symbols, and they discovered and explored unifying themes among wide ranging events. And on occasion they were also grandiose: His was the voice of a prophet on high, of the last sane man in a world gone mad.
Through it all, our father regarded truth as something sacrosanct and eternal, as not to be wielded but to be wielded by, and to be served regardless of the professional and personal consequences. His pound-wise perspectives did not always make sense to four young children much more in tune with the penny-foolish perspectives of their peers and of society at large. But we grew to understand and forgive him those difficulties. More than that, we grew to admire them. Because underneath it all, and as the source of his unyielding and uncompromising will to truth, we discovered something exceedingly rare in this world, and impossible not to admire, and to love. He was, at his core, incorruptible.
There were so many other facets to our dad. He walked his entire life, never owning a car. He loved listening to radio shows like "The Shadow" as a kid and Milt Rosenberg on WGN as an adult. He was rather wary of severe weather and the threat of a tornado. He played handball, and sometimes got his kids up (too) early to play with him. He was a reader of literature, moving seamlessly between the satire of a Twain or Mencken and the transcendence of a Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. He had a sweet tooth that left no cookie or pie outside of harm's way. He was a proud German and a proud Mason, just like his dad. He used too much postage on even the thinnest of letters and wrapped gifts within impenetrable layers of packing tape. He had a wonderful generosity of spirit. He had an impish grin and mischievous sense of humor. All of those things and so much more make us smile.
And then there was baseball. Our dad grew up playing baseball and rooting for his favorite player, Chicago Cubs first baseman Phil Cavarretta. The love of the game was passed down to us through hours we spent with him playing baseball on playgrounds, attending many Brewers games at County Stadium, and visiting places like Wrigley Field and Busch Stadium. Memories like going early to the stadium to watch batting practice, cheering on Molitor and Yount and the rest of Harvey's Wallbangers, and being in the stands when Rob Deer hit his blast on Easter Sunday 1987 all feel like just yesterday. So do the games of catch and the little poems he would make up to encourage good throws and level swings. Baseball became one of the things that bound us most closely to our dad. When we tell our own kids to "keep their eye on the ball," we hear our dad's voice in the telling.
Jon Peter Genrich is survived by his sister Jennifer of Apache Junction, AZ. He is also survived by his son, David (Marcy) and their children, Quinlan and Holden of Minneapolis, MN; son, Thomas of Minneapolis, MN; daughter, Elizabeth (Chad) Burroughs and their children Mason and Max of La Crosse, WI; and son, Daniel (Tanya) and their child, Jack of Minneapolis, MN. He is also survived by other relatives and friends.
He was preceded in death by parents and by his brothers Jack and Jay.
On Sunday, December 14th our father suffered a large stroke on the heels of several smaller ones. Upon hearing the news, his young grandson Mason lovingly diagnosed the cause: "I know what happened. Grandpa Pete tried to squeeze one too many facts into his brain." He was in a bad state, but not so poorly off that he didn't recognize surviving in his greatly diminished condition would have deprived him of the independence of mind and body that he held so dear. His last Earthly fear, expressed many times, was feeling like he was a burden on his four children.
Our dad died on Christmas Day. He knew it was Christmas when he passed, and we have asked why Christmas. Somewhere he is typing a single-spaced occasional piece with the answer. For our part, we want to believe that after a lifetime of giving us gifts - Christmas and non-Christmas, material and non-material - that were freighted with meaning, he felt he had one last gift to give. He held on until Christmas and then, in the process of letting go, some part of him was still there looking down on all of us. He held on until the clock in his room ticked down to the moment he chose to leave. Because he spent his life teaching us how to fit events into themes, and showing us the power of a symbol. We want to believe that his death certificate shows that he passed on 12/25 at 12:25 PM because he trusted that all of us would recognize the gift of knowing when the time had come.
Our dad ended nearly every personal note he wrote to us, every inscription he wrote inside a book given to us, every Christmas card he sent to us and our kids with the phrase Lincoln had inscribed inside the wedding ring he gave Mary Todd Lincoln. We end with that phrase. It is what he meant to us and what we meant to him.
Love is Eternal.
Published in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Jan. 12, 2014
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