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
“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 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.”
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.
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 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
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
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
“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
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.,