Remembering Frank Zeidler (1912–2006)

Photographs from “The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.”

Please send your memories about Frank Zeidler, your comments on his life to:
; they will be added below.

Milwaukee celebrates the new mayor 1948–1960

See also:

Debbie Metke’s interview with Frank Zeidler on World Federation

Roger Bybee’s “Last Socialist Mayor in US - Frank Zeidler’s Remarkable Legacy” (read it here on

Nik Kovac March 2005 Interview with Mayor Zeidler (read it here on

UWM/Frank Zeidler (read it on

CounterPunch/Kevin Prosen: Goodbye Mr. Zeidler, You Will Be Missed (read it on

Photos from Mayor Zeidler’s Funeral

The Socialist who made Milwaukee proud, our Mr. Mayor
Photo from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

At 10:01 PM 7/8/2006, Peter Holzberger wrote:

Former Mayor Frank P. Zeidler passed away late Friday, July 7, 2006. I am honored to have known him for the last twelve years and honored to be able to call him my friend.

Frank knew so much about so many things. As I would ask him questions about Milwaukee, indeed, questions about so many varied subjects from government to botany, to poetry, to the history of Milwaukee and the world, I came to know this was a special person. I remember him saying a few times that he remembers it like it happened yesterday and could talk for hours about those subjects.

He was known the world over by many people of many countries. Through his leadership Milwaukee became one of the great cities it is.

I wish I had known him personally since I first heard of him. As many of you can relate, we were his “groupies”, wishing to be involved in everything he did, to hear the width and depth of his knowledge, to seek his wisdom and counsel and to take on the causes he inspired us to be involved in. Among so many other things, he was involved in the beginnings of our library system, our park system and our public television stations and personally inspired me in those areas.

In spite of his increasing frailty, he was still witty about his inevitable mortality and could always raise a laugh out of us, even to the end.

Our dear beloved friend will be missed more than I can think of words to describe.

He was by far the greatest individual I have ever personally known.

Peter Holzberger

Date: Tue, 11 Jul 2006 10:35:49 −0500
From: Michael Neville


Jay Joslyn, the Sentinel’s drama critic for years , was, to me, on the same high plane as Frank Zeidler. When Jay died, I was assigned to write a piece about him for Footlights Magazine. The problem was, “how do I get in touch with Mr. Zeidler (he preferred “Mr.” to “Mayor”)?” He’d been retired for some years, and Alderman Charlie Quirk of the 4th Ward was the only person (at that time) I knew who’d known him personally. And I couldn’t get a hold of Charlie. Then I got this strange inspiration: Look in the phone book. There was a Frank Zeidler on N. 2nd Street, but that couldn’t be him! Not right there in the phone book, not on N. 2nd Street. Old mayors move to Chicago or Atlanta and live in condos, right? But I gave it a try. So who answers? His Nibs! We had a long chat, and after that I talked to him when he was standing in front of Gesu and other time when he was at the Old-Timer’s picnic at Sacred Heart. How could this man who was a living legend and an example to us all be so nice and so accessible? Well, I guess that was Frank Zeidler, that’s all.

Date: 7/11/06 8 a.m.
From: Reuben Harpole

Jim, it is true. I lived across the street from Frank P. Zeidler for 6years. I was a member of the 13th Ward Community Council (North Central Community Council) for most of those years. It was Mayor Frank who advised me to seek help from the University for our Neighborhood that started me on my 31 year career with UWM. He and his wife, Agnes have always been super human beings. The children are similar. The family is great. Thanks for putting on the web so that all can know a great family that loved this community.

Subject: Milwaukee’s Greatest Mayor
From: Jeff Eagan <[email protected]>, Bethesda, Md.
To: ZeidlerReme[email protected]

(Published in Journal-Sentinel 7/11/06)

On a hot Fourth of July in 1958, my dad took me, at age 10, to the celebration at what is now Rose Park on King Drive. As we left, a balding and bespectacled man in a blue suit and red suspenders shook our hands: “Hi, I’m Frank Zeidler,” he said. “Who’s that?” I asked later. “The greatest mayor Milwaukee ever had,” Dad replied.

Many years have passed, but my dad’s words still ring true today. Zeidler addressed the cutting-edge concerns that still challenge Milwaukee - housing, transportation, schools, crime, jobs - with a commitment to both progress and equity.

Ultimately, Zeidler took on the issue of race relations in Milwaukee, and his dedication to social justice led him to retire rather than face probable defeat. He became the Jimmy Carter of retired mayors, actively supporting public enterprise and improvement, even organizing block clubs around his 2nd St. home in his 80s.

Let us draw from the example of Zeidler his humility, compassion,civility and, most of all, his willingness to learn and share with others progressive lessons to improve our community. He will always be arole model for Milwaukee and the nation.

We need more Frank Zeidlers.

In 2001 the Society for Economic Anthropology held its annual meeting in Milwaukee. I think it must have been Alice Beck Kehoe’s idea to invite Mayor Zeidler to be the keynote speaker, because the conference theme was ‘labor.’ I wasn’t sure what to expect. Politicians can be capable speakers, but there are few who might ever qualify as experts on any one thing, and fewer still who might impress an auditorium full of academics with an analytic presentation. We were all delighted and edified by Zeidler’s address, which lasted over an hour. His lecture was not only replete with tales from a history he participated in personally, but was also a carefully-scripted history and analysis of socialism in Milwaukee, from the great German traditions of the nineteenth century and through his own administration—the “sewer socialism” years. History doesn’t usually speak in its own voice, but here he was, inspiring, wise, accessible, entertaining and honest.

I was designated to drive Mayor Zeidler home. I live here and had helped with the land arrangements. When I went to find him, someone told me he’d already left. He had said thank you for the offer but then took the bus home. The bus? An 89 year old former mayor on the city bus? Yes, he only took public transportation, as a principle and a preference.

Could there have ever been another politician like Frank Zeidler? Could there ever be another? Bless his memory.

Kalman Applbaum
Dept. of Anthropology
Univ. Wisconsin-Milwaukee
P.O. 413, Milwaukee, WI 53201

As an elected official serving the city of Milwaukee, I have always looked to Frank Zeidler as a role model. He, along with a handful of other elected officials in Milwaukee’s history, showed me that it is indeed possible to be a politician guided by moral principles. In contrast to the current leadership model of dominance and absolutism, Mayor Zeidler’s service demonstrated a model of humane leadership, proving that one can be an effective and strong leader by addressing the complex social, emotional, and practical needs of our constituents.

He was the type of ethical and compassionate leader our democracy needs now more than ever if we are to recover the institutions that our country’s founders left in our care.

Jennifer Morales
5th District Director
Milwaukee Board of School Directors

Date: Tue, 11 Jul 2006 13:22:29 −0700 (PDT)
From: Barry Stuart

I’ve only had a couple of occasions when I’ve met Mayor Zeidler and seen him as somebody deserving nothing less than my respect. Our current politicians are nowhere near the standard Mr. Zeidler set for Milwaukee. If I continue to push for better bike facilities and safer conditions for cyclists, I side with a true “Sewer Socialist” and not with the “Great Society” or Marxist brands of Socialism which have proven themselves to be abject failures. Building and maintaining a strong public infrastructure can only strengthen Milwaukee. I’m ashamed of the current standard of politicians in Milwaukee. My county supervisor seems to be AWOL until it’s time for an election. And it seems that few show accountability to their constituents unless those constituents can kick in to their war chests. We bike advocates sometimes have a problem getting traction in getting bike racks on buses or a bike path on the Hoan Bridge. I think Mr. Zeidler would have backed up our fight to incorporate bicyclists into the fabric of Milwaukee. It may sound like a cliche, but Milwaukee politics needs more people like Mr. Zeidler.

Date: 7/11/06
From: Eric Beaumont

At Party meetings, Frank would read correspondence to and from the Party. (He was our secretary until very recently.) He also would give book reports. At one meeting he gave us his thoughts on Meta Berger’s book, A Woman’s Life on the Left. He recalled how Meta tried to woo him on behalf of the Communist Party. Frank was a prominent socialist by the 1930s, when this happened. I think it was 1933. Who wouldn’t want Frank on their side? He was so brilliant. At any rate, Frank refused Meta’s political advances. “That’s total dictatorship,” he said of the communism Meta espoused. After that argument, Frank recalled, he and Meta Berger never spoke again. I think it caused him sadness, but he was a man of total conviction. I can’t picture him making small talk at tea parties with politicians with whom he disagreed so profoundly.

Date: 7/11/06
From: Michael Pettit

I remember there was a great radio interview on NPR with Mayor Zeidler recorded at age 87 and rebroadcast last year. In this interview, he talked at great length about his life, the inspiration he found in the love of his wife and his love of writing poetry. Did you know he is a published poet?

They also reviewed the fact that he, and his Socialist American ideals of using government to create a supporting infrastructure for the people, were the engine and the motivating source
for all of the institutions that have established Milwaukee as a model city. Many of these institutions and concepts have also been adopted by other cities and states, changing the way that power is used; to defend and enable, rather than exploit and profit from the people.

Very honorable and impressive.

Date: 7/12/06
From: Laura Murphy

A great man and a good man - that rarest of all creatures.

Date: 7/13/06]
From: June Eastvold

Reflections on the man Frank Zeidler

Frank Zeidler was an immigrant. He knew this was not his permanent address. The time came when he had to cross the border and leave his family behind. Even up to the moment when he stepped over the line, his mind was clear. He was not trapped in confusion. He died as he lived, immersed in real feelings and aware of the actual moment of change. He was focused on what was going on, sensitive to those who stood around him saying good-bye. Although steeped in historical details he did not rest his case on where he had been or what he had done. Death was not a problem to be solved but a natural part of the cycle. His eyes, his heart, his physical strength had failed. But his vision, his compassion and his integrity remain among us. Nothing for him was ever a totally private act, not even dying. His dying, as his living, forged the bonds of human society.

I saw that at his funeral. This man was not about this man. This man was about all of us. His concerns, his direct touch with the real demands of the city sprung from listening to us, seeing and experiencing with us what it takes to build a city of hope. Children need swimming pools, green parks, and big trees to climb into. Veterans need roofs and windows and tables and kitchens where they can find food and sanctuary with their families. The young need education, self respect, fair wages and fulfillment in their work. Citizens need to sit on their porches or walk their neighborhoods in safety. Poets, prophets, and visual artists need the spirit of free expression and revelation. The earth needs nurture, care and respect. These were built into his policies and priorities.

His power was not his to hold. His power was to be proliferated so that the citizens could take power over their own lives. He invited people to the table to collaborate on how to make a life together and incorporate modernity into benefits for the common good. He walked the same sidewalks, rode the same buses, and frequented the same libraries. He steeped his curious, inventive mind with thoughts of futurists, poets, prophets, politicians, urban planners, scientists, theologians, historians, sociologists, educators, industrialists, economists, journalists, librarians and physicists. While their insights and opinions enlightened his own perspectives, they never muddied the tapestry and language of the people on the street or what his keen firsthand observations showed him to be true. He had a superior skill in sorting it out, bringing clarity to confusion, pinpointing the issues, and implementing realistic solutions for practical changes. Without becoming rigid or dogmatic he followed his beliefs as comfortably as he moved about inside his own skin. He was a Christian. He was a Socialist. He advocated for the United Nations and world peace. He treasured his wife Agnes, his beloved children and grandchildren and all those whom he called his brothers, sisters, and children throughout Gods good earth. These were what formed him; these were at the core of his being.

For a moment I lamented that we were witnessing the end of an age and that we will never know a man like Frank Zeidler again. Well, that didnt last long. I knew Frank could not be dismissed so quickly. To assume that his death finished my accountability was to miss the point of his lifes work. Of my own lifes work. I couldnt bury the movement underground with his body and find rest through his accomplishments. He didnt take it with him, he left it as his inheritance.

As St. Paul said to the Romans:
Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

Date: 7/14/06
From: Tom Schmitt, Whitefish Bay

I met Mayor Zeidler twice in my life. In 1958 at the age of five, I was poster boy for the March of Dimes fundraising campaign to deal with the effects of polio. I don’t remember that meeting but I have newspaper clippings showing me standing on his desk. I met Mayor Zeidler again in 2003 at a meeting of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance. He gave a wonderful presentation concerning the history of Milwaukee and efforts to preserve its historical legacy. While autographing a book of his poems for me, I showed him photos of that earlier meeting. He got a sparkle in his eye that said he remembered that meeting 45 years earlier. He had the gift of making everyone feel important. He was a truly great man who will be sorely missed.

Date: 7/15/06
From: Kathryn Luttkus, Milwaukee

Ive enjoyed reading these anecdotes about Frank Zeidler. I had the pleasure of meeting Zeidler on several occasions and once asked him to give a lecture about the Socialist influence on the development of the Milwaukee County park system. He replied with a crisp, typewritten letter that expressed enthusiasm about the lecture but shared one concern: I do not know where the community room is presently, but think I will be able to find it.

Zeidler believed such a lecture would attract only about a handful of people, but agreed to give it nonetheless. People packed the room to meet and hear him on a Monday night. Of course, he was engaging and able to recount minute details and conversations from decades earlier though he was pushing the age of 90 at the time. He seemed unaware he was a local heroan idealist who never sold out on his principles. We could use more like him.

Date: 7/20/06
From: James J. Godsil, Milwaukee

Frank Zeidler advanced the cause of “mutual aid” and human evolution with great mind, spirit, and grace. His was a great life well lived. His theory and his practice were a great gift for the Milwaukee of his time. His legacy is a gift for the wider world it is our honor to present.

Date: 7/25/06

I’m pleased to have met him more than once and was always surprised that
he seemed to remember me.

Once I asked him how he was able to “get away” with being a Socialist
mayor in Sen. McCarthy’s “backyard” during that anticommunist hysteria.

I *think* he said McCarthy was actually more an unashamed opportunist than an anticommunist. That’s the best I recall.

Mark M Giese
Racine, WI

I had the privilege of knowing Frank Zeidler the last 12 years of his life. We talked about many things over that time, from
Milwaukee’s social problems to crime, to transportation and research, and over that time, he always listened and made thoughtful contributions. He was also a participant in the half dozen “freeway retrospectives” that were done in the late 1990s.
Frank was eagerly awaiting release of my book, “Mayor Frank P. Zeidler: Transportation Development of Post War
Milwaukee,” published in September 2006 by the American Public Works Association. Here is the link to the APWA Bookstore:

Frank saw two galley proofs of the book and provided commentary to ensure factual accuracy. He was quite pleased with the result.

Frank was passionate about transportation, whether it was mass transit or freeways. Of course, people commonly think that Frank
was pro-mass transit and anti-freeway. This is an incorrect statement of history, and until the end Frank was dismayed
with the revision of freeway history by the local media, organizations and individuals. In particular, he took issue with the current characterization that the North-South Freeway was run through Bronzeville in order to punish the African-American Community. He statedwith force and vigor that the freeway was routed there in order to remove the worst homes in the Milwaukee. Some of those homes were nearly a hundred years old by 1960 and many of them lacked concrete basements (some had dirt basements). Frank was concerned to the end that history be told accurately, not adjusted to further current political agendas.

Frank worked to construct the first freeway segment in 1952 and transferred that program to Milwaukee County in 1954. It is interesting to note that when the City handled the freeways the people of Milwaukee passed two bond issues for expressways (1948 and 1953). While Frank vetoed the Clybourn Avenue Expressway in the late 1950s (which the Common Council overrode), he came to recognize the propriety and importance of the Lake Freeway over the harbor. He also recently lamented the failure
to complete the Northwest Freeway (saying that it has significantly hurt the city). In the 1990s he wrote to me that the Downtown Loop and Stadium-South Freeways should have been completed. His thoughts on these freeways put him at odds with other urbanists as well as the two mayors that succeeded him. Frank loved the city yet he supported a complete freeway system thatserved the people and the local economy.

In the area of mass transit, he was dismayed by the loss of the Milwaukee interurban lines in Bankruptcy Court.

Frank was a remarkable man who lived a remarkable life. Let’s honor him by correctly stating history and building for Milwaukee’s future.”

Jim Casey
Attorney, Research Administrator, and Transportation Historian
Shorewood, WI

I knew Frank from 1966 to ‘06.He did me so many favors, I lost count. I threw him a 92nd birthday party. He was a gentleman and a scholar.

Alan Eisenberg

Last edited by Tyler Schuster. Based on work by Olde, Peter Holzberger, bs, Godsil, TeganDowling and Olde Godsile.  Page last modified on November 04, 2007

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