John K. Otto, Oct. 1, 1936 – Aug. 28, 2010

'He was a Freeman guy until the end. He loved the paper.'
Otto worked at newspaper for more than half a century

By BRIAN HUBER - GM Today Staff

August 31, 2010

 John Otto stands in front of The Freeman’s press while it runs in this June 2002 photograph. Otto was remembered and respected for his ability to keep up with the changes in the printing industry over his six decades of working at The Freeman.
Freeman file photo

After more than half a century with the newspaper, John Otto became as close to being “Mr. Freeman” as anyone who didn’t own the place could.

“He was even up until last week talking about getting better and coming back,” his wife, Ann, said Monday. “He tried so hard to stay. He was a Freeman guy until the end. He loved the paper.”

John Otto, a man as well-known to his co-workers for his warm smile and hearty laugh as he was for his mechanical skills, died Saturday after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 73.

Otto began his career with The Freeman shortly after graduating Waukesha High School in 1955, where he was an accomplished volleyball player and distance runner and was known as “Net Man” on the volleyball court due to his height, his wife said. Otto was 6 feet 6 inches tall.

He started in the press room stereotype department as it was known at the time, and he worked his way up to become pressroom stereotype superintendent, former Freeman President John W. Hillmer said. For the last several years, Otto was facilities manager at The Freeman, even in semi-retirement.

But it almost didn’t happen.

Ann Otto said John Otto started out in the press room, but he quit for a period of time at about age 18 because “his boss wouldn’t show John anything.

“John worked briefly for the A&P (grocery store). And I don’t know if it was Bud Youmans that called him and said, ‘We want you to come back,’ but John said, ‘I won’t work for’ that bleep. They said no, he’s gone. The next day, he went back.”

Always there

Hillmer recalled Otto was instrumental in helping The Freeman move from “hot type,” working with molten metals, to “cold type.” Otto accompanied other Freeman officials to Colorado, where a new plastic polymer plate had been used in printing at a paper in Grand Junction. Otto converted The Freeman press to run it, an example of the skill that earned him a membership and great renown amid other Upper Midwestern newspaper people affiliated with the Great Lakes Mechanical Conference, Hillmer recalled.

  John Otto positions a full-page film negative over a Dyna-Flex plate in preparation to “burn” an image into the plate in this March 1974 photo.
Photo courtesy of John W. Hillmer

“John was very likable. The people he worked with enjoyed working with him,” Hillmer said. “He was very responsible and when push comes to shove, whatever might happen, power outages or whatever, John was always there to make sure the newspaper got printed.”

One of Otto’s co-workers for 34 of his years at The Freeman was Chet Laughhunn, who said he felt like he and John were brothers and referred to him as “probably the best friend I ever had in my life.” They worked together so long it took only a gesture from one to let the other know what was needed, Laughhunn recalled.

“Anybody that needed anything, any help or anything at all, just say something to him and he was right there for them. He did that all the while he worked at The Freeman; he was just that type of person,” Laughhunn said. “All you ever had to do was ask him. He never turned anybody down. He was one of the finest men I’ve ever known and could hope to know. ... There wasn’t a finer person I’d ever known in my life. He was just that kind of person and everybody felt that way about him.”

Hans Hamm agreed. Hamm started at The Freeman in 1947 and worked there 32 years until the Youmanses, his family by marriage, sold the paper to the Des Moines Register and Tribune. He recalled Otto helping him move to his current home on his own time, not the company’s, as a friendly gesture.

“Very friendly, very nice guy, good press man, ran a tight ship,” Hamm said of Otto. “It was under his tutelage or managership we went from the old tubular duplex to a better and larger press and he adjusted to all those changes. We also switched from hot metal to cold type and he adjusted to all the changes that came along in the printing world.”

Freeman Editor Bill Yorth said The Freeman wouldn’t be the same without Otto’s deep, booming voice and wonderful laugh.

Dick Leban, left, John Otto, center, and then-Publisher Henry Youmans take in a scenic vista while on a trip to Grand Junction, Colo., in November 1971 to visit the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel to learn about a new printing process. Otto helped revamp Freeman operations to accommodate that printing process.
Photo courtesy of John W. Hillmer

“He really cared about The Freeman and the people who work for it. He was a towering figure at the newspaper – because of his tall stature and because of the respect he earned with his many decades of hard work. I have always had tremendous admiration for him and I will miss him very much,” Yorth said.

Freeman Publisher Phil Paige said, “When I think of John, I think of trust, and its two components – character and competence. He made us all better people for knowing him. He leaves behind a legacy that we will try to live up to every day.”
Freeman Sports Editor Lee Fensin said he’s worked for the paper for 44 years and still felt like a rookie next to Otto.

“We once had a reporter that on his first day was sent out on assignment but never came back. When John left the building, he always came back,” Fensin said. “There have been many valuable publishers, editors, salespeople, reporters, mailroom employees, etc., who have worked at The Freeman, but as production manager, John has always been my MVP. I have been told that when new owners would ask what people they could not afford to lose, John was always at the top of the list.”
Fensin also recalled that they searched for the perfect potato pancake, reporting to each other when one of them tried a new restaurant, and Otto finally found it in a Rome bowling center.

A fearsome foursome

Otto, Fensin, Laughhunn and former Freeman Publisher Jeff Hovind were a regular group on the links for years. Hovind recalled Monday that Otto got a kick out of the “Fearsome Foursome” T-shirts that they had, depicting Otto’s image amid a famous shot of The Three Stooges in golf apparel, with Otto representing himself, Laughhunn as Moe, Hovind as Curly and Fensin as Larry.

Hovind recalled coming to The Freeman in 1996, reviewing personnel records, and seeing Otto started there the day Hovind was born. He soon learned, he said, Otto was “the backbone” of the organization.

“When I came to The Freeman and Conley took it over ... here I am some guy coming from Beaver Dam trying to tell these guys how to do our newspaper, I thought I had some good ideas and tried to identify who was who, and one of the things I learned very quickly was The Freeman was a family,” Hovind said. “It wasn’t the Youmans family, it wasn’t the Conley family or anybody in between. It was the people who worked there, showed up every day, rolling the boulder up the hill not sure when it was gonna roll back on us. And they made it a great institution and a great paper and John was the key guy in all of that. He was there for everything. There are many things John taught me about life, and one was to take everything as it comes and make the best of it.”

John Otto, seen in this undated file photo, worked until a few weeks before his death Saturday. He was 73.
Freeman file photo

Hovind, now owner and publisher of the Merrill Courier, said he told Otto earlier this month he would come to see him after putting the weekly paper to bed Aug. 19. He called Otto a day earlier to tell him he was coming. But by the time Hovind got to AngelsGrace Hospice, it was after 10 p.m.; however, staff let him visit Otto anyway.
“He perked up as soon as I walked in and said, ‘I told you Jeff was gonna come. He talked to me yesterday,’” Hovind said. “We sat there, John and I, we drank a little bit ... talked and laughed and had just a wonderful visit.”

The next day, before heading back up north, Hovind stopped back.

“I went to shake his hand and he grabbed my hand in both of his mitts and said, ‘You are going back to God’s country, huh?’ I said, ‘Yeah, back up north.’ He said, ‘I am going to God’s country, too.’”

Ann Otto said her husband was an excellent handyman.

“He could fix anything and if John couldn’t fix it, it was really broken,” she said.
When not working, Otto loved to watch sports. The couple owned Packers stock and bought a personalized brick at Lambeau Field, but also followed the Brewers, NASCAR, Little League baseball, the state basketball tournaments and University of Wisconsin hockey.

The Ottos loved antiquing and traveling around Wisconsin, using guides to find scenic drives and antique stores, where items of interest were always related to the Weber Brewery, Waukesha’s springs or Schley’s Dairy.

His wife also remembered John Otto loved to cook and garden.

This 1959 photograph was made of a young John Otto while he was working as a member of The Freeman’s press room.
Freeman file photo

“He was the cook in our family,” Ann Otto said. “If it didn’t turn out, he was so upset with himself. It tasted fine to us, but no matter what we’d say to him, he’d say, ‘Nope. Didn’t turn out. I am not making it again.’”

Although Otto did “retire,” he continued coming to work at The Freeman until a few weeks ago.

“His loyalty to that paper was unsurpassed,” Ann Otto said. “He was so loyal to that paper because he loved it. I told him he could retire and I’d find insurance. He said, ‘Honey, I love to go to work.’”

John Otto is survived by his wife, Ann, his daughters Terra Jean (Rob) Chambers of Olympia, Wash., and Jodi Otto of Pewaukee, as well as other relatives. In addition to his parents, he was preceded in death by his former wife, Joyce Geisler, his daughter Joan Lamp, and his son, Andy Otto.

Visitation will be from 10:30 a.m. Thursday until the 1:30 p.m. funeral service at Randle-Dable Funeral Home, 1110 S. Grand Ave., Waukesha.


This story appeared in The Freeman on August 31, 2010.