One of the Founders of Leeson Electric
Corporation (Grafton, WI) has Passed Away
A Tribute to John Chapman Widstrand Sr.
 




John Chapman Widstrand Sr.

(1946 La Farge High School Graduate & Class “Salutatorian”)

John is the Son of Arnott Sr. and Eleanor (Aeschliman) Widstrand.

Date of Birth: August 30, 1928 (Hibbing Minnesota).

John was born to Heaven and Eternal Life on September 8, 2013 at the age of 85.

John Married the “Love of his Life” Phyllis Gunnell Larson on June 17, 1950 in La Farge Wisconsin.

Phyllis is the Daughter of Olen and Roberta (Steinmetz) Larson.

John and Phyllis recently celebrated their 63rd Wedding Anniversary and also there 65th 1st date Anniversary.

John is survived by his Wife Phyllis (Larson) Widstrand of Cedarburg, WI; Son’s John Jr. (Audrey) of Plymouth, WI, Paul of Cedarburg, WI; and Daughter Susan (Steve) of Mequon, WI. John’s four (4) Grandchildren include: Amy Wiltzius (Jeff) of Middleton, WI; Andrew Widstrand (Amy) of Sun Prairie, WI, Emily and Olivia of Mequon, WI (Daughters of Susan and Steve). Great Grandchildren include: Nathaniel and Gweneth Wiltzius of Middleton, WI.

John is also survived by his older Sister Elaine (Widstrand) Gudgeon.

 

Soon after John and Phyllis were united in marriage (June 17, 1950), the couple set up their first residence in Zanesville, Ohio. John was first employed out of College by Line Material Company, a Manufacturer of Distribution Transformers. Preferring to live in Wisconsin (both John and Phyllis), John accepted a new position at Marathon Electric Corporation in Wausau, Wisconsin in 1951. Marathon Electric Manufactures Electric Motors (even to this date). In 1952, John was inducted into the United States Army during the Korean War conflict. His basic military training was with the 101st Airborne Division located in Camp Breckenridge, Kentucky. Following basic training, John was selected to join the Army Scientific and Professional Group at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds (located in Maryland). John and his colleagues worked at the Ballistic Research Laboratory, which was engaged in the Red Stone Missile Program headed by Werner Von Braun, the German Ballistic Rocket Pioneer! John always had a fascination and love for Astronomy which resulted in a good fit for him being part of a Missile Ballistic program. The Red Stone Rocket launched the first U.S. Satellite into space immediately after the Russians launched their “Sputnik” Satellite. Red Stone was prepared to launch the first Satellite, but was not allowed to do so because the Navy Vanguard Program had the political green light to do so first. When Vanguard did not produce, and the Russians launched “Sputnik”, the Red Stone was given the go ahead and was immediately successful. Following John’s Army Tour of Duty, John and Phyllis returned to Wausau and Marathon Electric. In the following years, the couple was blessed with three (3) children, John Chapman Widstrand Jr., Paul Olen Widstrand, and Susan Elaine Widstrand. In Support of the children’s development, John and/or Phyllis engaged in activities such as Cub Scout Den Mother, Assistant Scoutmaster, PTA President, Wesley United Methodist Church Class Instructor, and member of the Financial Auditing Committee for the Church. By 1960, John had become Chief Engineer of Marathon Electric. During his time there, he received a number of Electric Motor Patents to his credit. In 1973, John, Phyllis, and family moved to Cedarburg, Wisconsin where John was one of the Founding Members, along with seven (7) members of the Doerr Family to form a new Electric Motor Company. John was initially approached by Tom, Lee Sr., and Ed Doerr (Lee Sr.’s Brother) to become a key member of the newly forming Company. The Doerr family pursued John and was very focused on hiring him since he was such a well known and highly respected Engineer throughout the entire Electric Motor Industry. John was considered an icon in the Electric Motor Industry. Lee Sr., a well seasoned Businessman and Industrialist, knew he needed an Engineer of John’s caliber to design, develop, and Engineer a Product Line for the company to succeed John accepted the challenge to build a new company from the ground-up and was hired by Tom Doerr (oldest son) and Lee Doerr Sr. The new company (Leeson Electric Corporation) was named by John and Phyllis Widstrand in honor of Lee Doerr Sr. (the major financial backer). Lee had four (4) son’s (Tom, Dan, Chris, and Lee Jr.). All but Lee Jr. were involved in the beginning stages of the company since he was in College at the time of the start-up. John was the 1st non-Doerr family member (or 1st outside hire) for the newly formed company. Tom (President) and Lee Sr. (Chairman) hired John based on his past experience, reputation in the field, and expertise in the Electric Motor Industry! They needed an experienced Engineer to design and develop all of their products. John also had extensive Customer and Vendor contacts from his prior experience in the Electric Motor Industry which helped ramp up Leeson’s sales efforts in the early years. Before John was hired, they had nothing to manufacture or sell. The company was built around John’s product knowledge, design skills, customer and vendor contacts, and manufacturing experience. Starting in April of 1973, having just a couple of employees, no products, and zero sales, the company began in a small building on Beech Street in Grafton, Wisconsin (referred to as the “Tin Shed”). John’s 1st Chair was a turned over Waste Basket. He was always very easy to please. In order to make the 1st A.C. Motor samples (or Prototypes for their new customers), John would hand wind the Stator’s with Copper Wire. After completing the winding process, the samples were then dipped into an open container of Electrical Grade Insulating Varnish and then baked in a small Hot Point Electric Oven. It was a very simple but effective operation in the beginning. In the early stages of Leeson Electric, a significant number of individuals from the Manufacturing Group within Marathon Electric contacted John directly to see if they could also become part of the newly formed Leeson Electric Corporation. Those individuals had significant years of experience in the Manufacture of Electric Motors. In addition, they had many years of prior working experience with John when he was Chief Engineer at Marathon Electric. They knew his abilities and reputation in the Electric Motor Industry and knew that he was a highly talented and well respected Engineer. They wanted to help build the new company with John and the Doerr Family. The Leeson Team at that time was more than happy to hire experienced manufacturing members that would have an immediate impact on their present and future successes. Those newly hired individuals built the Manufacturing Foundation for the Company. All of the new hires were willing to resign from their present jobs and up-root their families to join a start-up company based on their past working experiences with John. They were highly confident in his abilities and knew that he had a solid reputation in the Electric Motor Industry in addition to knowing that the Doerr Family was providing the necessary financial backing to help make the company successful. As a result of the new hires, the manufacturing side of the business was able to quickly ramp up to speed once the new Product Designs were provided by John and approved by their new customers. Lee Sr. and John developed a great bond, both personally and professionally. John moved Lee Sr.’s vision forward as a loyal and trusted key employee. As the years went by and the company continued to grow in sales and size, Chris (3rd son of Lee Sr.) was named President. Chris and Dan (2nd oldest son) were also named Co-CEO’s for the Company and held those positions until the company was sold. By the year 1999, Leeson had grown to approximately 1,300 employees with seven (7) factories located around the United States and Canada. Leeson also had significant connections in Mexico and China. They marketed a line of A.C. and D.C. Motors, Electronic Controls, Geared products, and other associated products. Those products ranged in size from 1/50 HP to 1,000 HP. John’s travel adventures for Leeson was extensive with engagements in Canada, Mexico, Germany, Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, China, and Hawaii. John retired from active participation in 1997 as Senior Vice President of Engineering and the Head of Research & Development activities for the company. During his time at Leeson, John received a number of Electric Motor Patents to his credit. He was also appointed to the Underwriters Laboratory (U.L.) Association as an Honorary Member based on all of the contributions that he made over the many years in the Electric Motor Industry. The Engineering and Research Test Laboratory at the former Leeson Electric facility on Washington Avenue in Grafton, Wisconsin was considered a state of the art facility in the Electric Motor Industry. The Lab was officially named after John by the Doerr Family in John’s honor for all of the contributions that he made that led to Leeson’s success. A large glass door at the lab’s main entrance was inscribed with John’s name for all that passed through its doors to see. Leeson was sold to Regal Beloit Corporation in September of 2000’ (three (3) years after John retired) for a sum of $260 Million! The company’s success from 1973 to the year 2000’ (27 years) is tightly connected to John’s efforts, technical abilities, drive to succeed, and his many other contributions. John loved what he did while helping the Doerr family build Leeson Electric into the successful company that it became. He gained a lot of personal satisfaction with the Companies success and for all of the good jobs and careers that it provided for those individuals and families that passed through its doors! Against all odds and the admission of the naysayers stating that this start-up company would never make it. John and the Doerr Family proved them all wrong! John spent nearly 50 years of his life in the Electric Motor Industry. He is an icon that will always be remembered for his many great accomplishments and his place in history will be everlasting!

 

Historical Background:

John was born in Hibbing, Minnesota on August 30, 1928 in the South Hibbing Road Hospital. He was the 3rd and youngest child of Eleanor Mildred (Aeschliman) and Arnott Simon Widstrand Sr. John was named after his Maternal Great Grandfather (John Chapman) and his Maternal Uncle (John Aeschliman). John’s Maternal Grandmother was Sarah (Chapman) Aeschliman.

Schooling began with Kindergarten (1933) through 3rd and 5th through 6th grades at the Alice School in Hibbing; 4th grade was spent at a Crystal Falls, Michigan Grade School. At that time, Mother (Eleanor) was helping care for her Mother Sarah Aeschliman who was in ill health. Activities at Alice school included School Patrol Street Crossing Guard. John received Performance Awards for two weeks at patrol camp in Brainerd, Minnesota, and also for an Editorial Staff Position that he held on the “Adventures of Alice” School Paper. Walking to school everyday involved a trip around and under the Horses at the Island Farm Dairy Corral. Also in the walking loop was the Norvich Junk Yard. Round trip was about one mile. John typically traveled in groups of up to 10 to 12 youngsters that all lived near his St. Louis Avenue home. Entertainment for the many youngsters in the area surrounding his home involved street games such as “Kick the Can”, “Flag Football”, “Pum-Pum Pull Away”, and “Softball”. Coasting down and over the “Hump-Back” wooden Saint Louis Avenue Railroad Bridge (D.M. & I. Railroad Tracks) with scooters, wagons, wooden homemade race cars, bicycles, tricycles, and anything else with wheels was exciting. Climbing on the underbracing of the Railroad Bridge was like playing on a large Jungle Gym. Walking on the Horizontal beams near the track was a thrill. John liked to place pennies and nails on the railroad track and have them flattened by the passing wheels of the heavy Steam Driven Trains that typically were hauling Iron Ore from the local Mines. During the summer and other warm weather days, swimming was almost an every day affair in a flooded Gravel Pit that was called Cliff Lake. It was located in a pasture just north of the end of St. Louis Avenue. The water was always cold so John and his friends would start a fire in a nearby pit to keep them all warm.

John spent many summers at his parents Lake Cottage on Swan Lake (located in northern Minnesota). John and his Mother (Eleanor) spent as much time there as possible because it was such a relaxing place to be. There were always endless things to see and do. Most of his time was spent swimming, playing on the sandy beach, and fishing for the plentiful Walleye and large Northern Pike. There were very few (if any) Boat Motors at that time so it was generally very quiet on the lake. The Oars of the Row Boat that John used provided plenty of exercise and led to blisters that toughened his hands. Large vegetable and berry garden’s made for excellent eating all summer long.

Winter fun was sledding and skiing down the Wooden Railroad Bridge and also the steep banks surrounding the Railroad Tracks. Ski jumping and sledding down the steep sides of the Mine “Overburden Dumps” (that were as tall as several hundred feet) were always a challenge and fun to conquer. Deep winter snow made for great snow forts and tunnels. Snowball fights were common. Ice Skating was fun at the indoor rink located in the Hibbing Memorial Building. Nice, relaxing, and continuous music made for rhythmic skating.

7th through 12th grade school years (late summer of 1940 to the spring of 1946) were spent at the school in La Farge, Wisconsin. Some of John’s Scholastic Honors included Graduation as Class Salutatorian. Athletic activities included being a four (4) year Letterman in various sports (Baseball, Basketball, Boxing, and Track). A notable achievement of John’s was in Boxing where he won the Golden Glove Championship in the Welterweight (148 lb.) division during a 2-day Kickapoo Valley Boxing Conference Tournament. A notable achievement in Basketball was being selected to the All-Tournament 1st team at the Guard position during the Viola, Wisconsin District Tournament. Other extra curricular activities included staff duties on the High School Annual Committee, and for being the Sports Writer for the High School Sports column that was placed in the local Newspaper (La Farge Enterprise). John’s Parents (Arnott Sr. and Eleanor) were the owners and Arnott was the Publisher of the La Farge Enterprise at the time. In addition, John participated in the High School Glee Club and was a member of the Future Farmers of America group (F.F.A.) which included a one (1) year appointment as Vice President of the group. He was part of a Male Vocal Quartet that received an “A” rating at a La Crosse, Wisconsin State Level Competition. Aside from School activities, entertainment for John and his buddies around La Farge in the summer was swimming in Bear Creek or in the Kickapoo River above the Dam north of La Farge. Bear Creek and the Kickapoo River both held nice size Brown Trout. John always enjoyed and had fun climbing the hills around La Farge while hunting for Squirrels, Rabbits, Pheasants, and Quail in the fall. His Cocker Spaniel (named Mike) was a wonderful companion that could hardly wait to go on the next adventure with John. Mike was a wonderful and playful pet. In the winter, there was good Ice Skating on Norris Slough where there was plenty of wood for building nice bonfires. All of this occurred during the period of WWII. Most of the local men over the age of 18 were in the service, including John’s older Brother Arnott (Bud) who was active in the Air-Force overseas and stationed in the Burma-China Theater. Gasoline and tire rationing limited travel to nearly nothing during the war. Food rationing and war related concerns permeated daily life.

 

John’s first job experience was a six (6) year stint (1940 to 1946) as a “Printer’s Devil” at $0.50 per week in allowance at his Fathers Newspaper. John operated all of the machinery with the exception of the “Intertype” Type Setting Machine. Job duties included operating the large Drum Newspaper Press, small Job Press, Folding Machine, returning “Set Type” to their appropriate drawers, and re-melting Type Metal for future use of the raw material. Additional summer experience during College was with the Smith Hi Line Company. John was paid $0.75 per hour as a member on the Dynamite Crew. The crew was responsible for blasting holes in the rocky ground to allow for the placement of large creosoted wood Power-Line Poles. A normal workweek included 10 hours per day, seven (7) day’s per week (weather permitting). Some of the holes were as large 9 feet deep and 6 feet in diameter after blasting away the solid rock. The Power Lines ran east from the Mississippi River Power Plant toward La Farge and then east from their through very rough hills and rock bluff terrain. A souvenir of John’s for working the Mississippi River Bluffs is an “8-Unit Rattle” from the tail of a 4-foot long Rattle Snake that had been roused by his buddy Jack Harris after Jack nearly stepped on it. During the chase of the Rattle Snake, the first one to dispatch the Snake got the Rattles (John).

 

John’s College Education included two (2) years of Engineering studies at Hibbing Junior College (1946 to 1948), followed by two (2) years of Engineering studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison (1948 to 1950). John’s son Paul (also an Electrical Engineering graduate of UW Madison) had some of the same Engineering Teachers and Professors that John had. Those instructors were in the early stages of their Teaching Careers when John attended and were in the later stages of their careers during Paul’s time at UW Madison. Upon receiving his degree, John was honored by Graduating “Cum Laude” with a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering. The graduation ceremony was held on June 16th, 1950.

Immediately following graduation (the next day), John Chapman Widstrand was united in Marriage to the “Love of his Life” Phyllis Gunnell Larson, Daughter of Olen and Roberta (Steinmetz) Larson of La Farge at the original United Methodist Church on June 17th, 1950.

Following his retirement from his nearly 50 year career in the Electric Motor Industry, John and Phyllis kept busy with their properties. They also enjoyed travel (both by car and airplane), antiquing, dining out, among many other things. John loved to play the Piano. When he did so, it was a joy to listen to. Playing the Piano was a skill that he learned as a child. He was not always happy with his Piano Teacher since on a few occasions she would swat the top of his hands or knuckles with a stick if he made an error (a “clinker”) while learning how to play a new song. He had a special love for Classical Music whether playing a tune on the Piano or listening to the Classics while on a scenic drive. He enjoyed driving along Lake Michigan or lake country in general (stopping at a beach or scenic overlook to enjoy the view), through the cities, or on a country road. He also loved watching old movies (westerns, war, action movies, etc.). As a young boy, John would spend hours in the local theater watching the latest movie release if he had time and the pocket change to do so. His recall memory was beyond words (in many subjects). John enjoyed sitting and swinging in his outdoor swing’s while watching the activities surrounding him. Enjoying a good Cigar now and then was one of the many pleasures that he enjoyed. His favorite sport to watch (in person or on TV) or listen to (Radio) was Football (Packers and Badgers). On one of his trips to China (for Leeson), John bumped into Muhammad Ali at an airport in Taiwan. John was surprised how approachable and friendly Muhammad was since he was such a famous person (and former Boxing Champ). John received an Autograph and was told by Muhammad that he was happy to run into someone that could speak English. What a happy experience that was for both of them. John and Mohammad also posed for a photograph together. The Children, Grandchildren, and Great Grandchildren occupy a great deal of Phyllis and John’s time. When he retired from Leeson (at the age of 70), one of his new activities was to baby sit his new Granddaughter Emily. A few years after that, Olivia was born, so it became his turn to now babysit her. John enjoyed reading a variety of magazines, playing cards (solitary, cribbage, etc.), and completing cross-word puzzles (generally within a very short time frame). His mind was always very sharp. It was always fun for John when he and his two sons (John Jr. and Paul) would go on a fishing trip or Hunting adventure. John enjoyed spending time with Paul working on property related projects (building something new, planting trees, etc.). They would also discuss topics of shared interest including the Electric Motor Industry of which they both shared a passion for. Both John and Paul spent their careers (more than 80 combined years) in that industry! John also enjoyed traveling with his Daughter (Susan) and two Granddaughters (Emily and Olivia) to the Farm along with their Golden Retriever (Cody). Together, they would plant a couple of vegetable gardens in the spring that would be ready for harvesting in the late summer and early fall. Fresh Tomatoes were one his favorites. Paul generally helped with the Tomato planting and harvesting and would till-up the gardens in the spring with his Roto-tiller before the new seeds and Tomato plants were arranged and planted in their specific rows. The rows would be carefully identified by Emily and Olivia with labeled jumbo sized wooden craft sticks. They would plant Beans, Carrots, Potatoes, Sweet Corn, Sunflowers, Pumpkins, Squash, among other things. John loved all of the family gatherings (at John and Phyllis’s home) at Christmas time or any other time of the year. It was always exciting when Granddaughter Amy and Grandson Andrew John came to Grandpa and Grandmas house for vacation. John enjoyed life to the fullest and will be greatly missed. He was one of those special individuals that are few and far between. He made a significant impact on the lives of many. His Engineering skills along with the Doerr Family (and a few others) built Leeson Electric from the ground up into a large and successful company that provided many good jobs for a lot of families throughout the U.S. and Canada. There are many other achievements that he can be proud of and we (as a family) are very proud of! We all love him.

We wish to express our thanks to the Doctors and Nurses at Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital in Mequon, WI. Special thanks also to Pastor David Blackmere of Community United Methodist Church in Cedarburg for his prayers and the special care that he provided.

A private service and burial was held by the family for John on Saturday, September 14th, 2013. A 21 gun Salute was part of the ceremony to honor his Military Service during the Korean War conflict.

If you wish, Memorials may be sent to the Cedarburg Community United Methodist Church or to a Memorial of your own choice.