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Charles D. Gelatt


1918 - 2014 Notice Condolences
Charles D. Gelatt Notice
Gelatt, Charles D. Businessman, philanthropist, scholar, railroad and Roman Empire history aficionado, died on August 9, 2014, at age 96. His life was influenced by the loss of his mother in infancy, his older brother, Jim, a childhood divided between LaCrosse and Miami Beach, and by his father, whose dominance as a businessman in LaCrosse began in the early 1900's. Charles, with good nature, determination, and courage, lived a life of quiet success. These gifts earned him a reputation throughout the state of Wisconsin as one of the leading businessmen of his time. Born January 4, 1918 to Philo and Clara, his Capricorn tendencies and conservative lifestyle served him well. In his personal life, he was known for his belief in consistency and self-control; he ate the the same lunch every one of his working days a simple peanut butter sandwich and once waited three years before wearing a newly purchased suit. In matters of business he had a "do it now" personality, having been influenced by his father's maxim "If eventually, why not now?" His childhood was spent in LaCrosse and Miami Beach, where his father had purchased a home in the early 1920's. The family left for Florida each October and returned every May. He would begin the school year in LaCrosse, then attend the Colburn School in Miami Beach, finishing the school year upon his return to LaCrosse. Charles was a graduate of Lincoln Middle School and Central High School. He attended Lake Forest Academy and then on to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he received his Bachelor's and Master's Degrees in three and one half years, thereby disproving his father's maxim "college bred equals a four year loaf!" He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year. Scholarship was a strong ongoing interest for Charles as he returned to the University of Wisconsin in the late 1970's to pursue a doctorate degree in Economics. Returning to La Crosse from a European tour in 1939, Charles joined his father in the family business, Northern Engraving and Manufacturing Company. In the early days of WWII, he was in active control of the company as it became a prime contractor for the U.S. Navy in the manufacture of 20mm cartridges cases. During this time, the company accomplished one of the first practical methods for drawing metal cartridge cases out of steel rather than the softer conventional brass. The company received the Navy E Award for its contribution to the war effort. Throughout his working years at Northern, Charles' ongoing use of R&D and manufacturing inventions furthered the company's growth. By the 1960's, when Northern moved from La Crosse to Sparta, WI, it was the industry leader in the making of decorative industrial products for use in automobiles and on home appliances and other consumer products. Companies such as General Motors, Honeywell, King Seeley, and Maytag were regular customers. He inspired his sales force, telling them that, by bringing the shape, style and legacy of art to the average consumer, they were the Michaelangelos of democracy. Proximity to art was previously reserved for popes, kings and nobles- his sales team helped bring it to the middle class. In 1947 he became the youngest individual ever appointed to the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents. He served as President of that Board from 1955-1957, and then again in the turbulent anti-war years of 1968-1969. He remained a Regent until 1974. He was also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company (Milwaukee) for 28 years. Charles maintained strong connections to Florida, especially to the Surf Club, Surfside, FL, a club where his father Philo was a founding member. Charles served on its Board of Directors starting in 1973, and was its President from 1976 to 1978, and again from 1992 to 2000. He served on the Miami Beach First National Bank Board of Directors from about 1945 to 1962, and again in the 1960's. He joined the Indian Creek Country Club in 1954 and was a member of The Bath Club, the LaGorce Country Club and the Cat Cay Club. Charles recognized at an early age that his physical strength was no match for his brother Jim. Perhaps this was because Jim hung him by his feet from a second story window! Consequently, Charles would never consider himself an athlete. But he did find intellectual enjoyment in sports, teaching himself the most efficient method for fielding a groundball at third base and how to compete in basketball without being repeatedly knocked into the bleachers by heavier opponents. Later in life, as an original investor in the Milwaukee Brewers, he helped bring Major League baseball back to Milwaukee and the La Crosse Catbirds of the Continental Basketball Association to LaCrosse. A golfer by family tradition, he shot 79 at the La Crosse Country Club and soon thereafter retired happily from '"that unbeatable game." Through his foresight and generosity, the current La Crosse Country Club was able to economically relocate when the City of La Crosse did not renew the long term lease at what is now Forest Hills. Ping-pong and bridge became his athletic pursuits, as did regular daily walks. In his personal life, Charles was a gentleman, a scholar and a student of all that makes life worthwhile. He participated in over forty years of psychoanalysis and came to understand that what he most enjoyed was his own study of the psychiatrists. In the 1950's, before television was available to every household, winter Sunday evenings in the basement of his home on Cass Street became a neighborhood movie theater for the children of family friends. Cartoons, travel adventures, football newsreel highlights and other films rented from the public library filled the 'witching' hour while the parents upstairs could enjoy cocktails and a respite from a weekend with small children. Charles' yearning for consistency led him to purchase three identical white Lincoln Town Cars, when they had the long wheelbase and soft ride that he enjoyed. Between them, he thought that he would have spare parts for at least one working automobile for the rest of his life. As with the psychiatrists that he outlived, he also outlived the three Lincolns. Married to Sue Conner Jimieson December 11, 1983, they enjoyed over thirty years together, raising her son Colin, entertaining family and friends at the family home on Cass Street and the cottage in Dresbach, MN, and at the Surf Club. Not only did they travel back and forth annually to Florida, but also enjoyed their trips aboard the Royal Scotsman railroad, a cruise through the Panama Canal, and a visit to Barrow, Alaska. Charles is survived by his wife Sue; his daughter Sarah (Brent) Gephart; sons C. Daniel (Roberta), Philip (Melissa); and stepson Colin (Jennifer); 14 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. Preceded in death by his parents; brother James Gelatt and half sister Jane Getchell. Charles is also survived by his two former wives, Jane L. Kaiser and Paula J. Gelatt. Charles' love of American railroads and the Roman Empire, (two examples of how to manage and operate a wide spread enterprise effectively) gave him the tools of proper communication, effective training, and the mental exercise of logistics. He used these two examples not only in his business approach, but also in making his personal plans. Every year, his new year's resolution would be maybe five words listed on a 3x5 card, one of many filling his front pocket, simple directions for those activities he planned to emphasize for the next 12 months. Outside of his wife and family, business, education and the city of La Crosse were his three greatest loves. His provision of effective counsel for Gundersen Clinic led to the Gundersen Medical Foundation's success, and with his help, Viterbo University is now a fully accredited institution of higher learning and an leading independent university. His counsel and his financial gifts have helped make LaCrosse a great place to live. The Community Theater, the Washburn Fund and LaCrosse Public Library, the LaCrosse Historical Society, Chileda, Franciscan Skemp (Mayo) Medical Foundation, Coulee Region Humane Society, St Claire Health Mission, Family and Children's Center, YMCA, have all benefited from Charles' generosity. Memorials may be given to any of these organizations. The family would like to thank Dr. Udell and Lois Tucker of Gund-ersen Health, Ms. Sketer Blake, and also the Home Instead and Recover Health organizations for professional and kind assistance. Visitation will be Sat., August 16, from 4:00 until 7:00 PM at the Dickinson Funeral Home, 1425 Jackson St., La Crosse. The funeral is at the First Congregational Church, 2503 Main St., La Crosse at 2:00 PM, Sun., August 17, with visitation one hour beforehand. The reception is at the La Crosse Country Club, 300 Marcou Road, Onalaska, WI. Burial will be held privately by the immediate family. There is a Roman maxim suitable for Charles' life: "As children, learn good manners, As Young Men, learn to control the passions, In middle age, be Just, In Old Age, give good advice, Then die, without regrets"
Published in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Aug. 12, 2014
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