Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Walter P. Rynkiewicz, 1930-2011

Walter P. Rynkiewicz, of Elm Grove, Wis., a respected corporate lawyer in Milwaukee for more than four decades, died peacefully June 7 at Aurora VNA Zilber Family Hospice, Wauwatosa. He was 80.

"He was an attorney and a man of the highest integrity," said James W. Mohr of Hartford, Wis, at one time a fellow lawyer with Mr. Rynkiewicz at Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek. Mr. Rynkiewicz worked at the Milwaukee law firm from 1957 to 2005. "In a profession where integrity was not a long suit for a lot of people, everything he did he did honestly and forthrightly," Mr. Mohr said. "He was one of those people you could trust with anything.

"He was also very compassionate," Mr. Mohr said. "He took people's legal problems and handled them as is they were those of his closest friend or family member. He was always very empathetic about every problem. And of course he was very skillful. He knew estate planning, he knew business law and had enormous respect among people who worked with him. I referred friends to him, I sent clients to him, and knew they would be represented fairly, well, compassionately and honestly."

Mr. Rynkiewicz specialized in mergers and acquisitions during a time that greatly expanded options for small business owners. He was involved in many of the acquisitions of Universal Foods (now Sensient Technologies Corp.), whose chairman John L. Murray died April 18. Mergers included the sale of Thorp Finance Corp. to ITT Financial in 1965 and Pfister & Vogel Tanning Co. to Beatrice Foods in 1971.

"Walter and I were very close friends for nearly 60 years," said Robert Gorske, retired Vice president, General Counsel, and Board Member of Wisconsin Electric Power Company (WeEnergies). "We were law School classmates, associates with the same law firm, and near neighbors in Elm Grove and in Arizona. I was always in awe of Walter's ability to take very complex legal problems and to make them look easy. He will be missed by many."

Mr. Rynkiewicz chaired the State Bar of Wisconsin business law section from 1985 to 1987, and from 1986 through 1990 a state bar subcommittee to revise merger laws.

"Walter was a terrific lawyer and cut across many fields," said Robert LeMense, another Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek colleague. "He wasn't a tax specialist but sure knew a lot of tax stuff. He knew a lot about business, not only the law but a lot of the internal operations. If you said, 'Can you help me with this?' he would, and he would think of things you wouldn't think of. It just came across that he was one smart guy."

Mr. Rynkiewicz also was a director of several local companies he represented, including Price Erecting Co. in Wauwatosa, and Merit Gear Corp. in Antigo. Other clients he served were Cleaver-Brooks in Milwaukee, Heritage Mutual Insurance in Sheboygan, Stoelting in Kiel and Applied Power Inc. in Butler.

"Walter served on the board of directors of companies a lot more important than our little company," said James Ziperski, an attorney for Schwerman Trucking Co. in Milwaukee and a client of Mr. Rynkiewicz. "He was 200 percent in representing us all the time. He was everything we could ask for. When I had a question on corporate law I would turn to Walter and he always came up with the answer. If he didn't have the answer he got the answer, and it was always right. He was as good as they come."

For almost two decades Mr. Rynkiewicz was a director and officer of the Layton Art Collection and Layton School of Art trusts, which fund scholarships and lectures at Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD), Milwaukee Art Museum, Marquette University, Lawrence University, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Mount Mary College, Cardinal Stritch University and Alverno College. MIAD awarded him an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in 1987.

Since 1965 Mr. Rynkiewicz has lived in Elm Grove, where he served on the Police and Fire Commission and the Building Board. At St. Mary's Visitation Parish he was a lector and cantor active in the Holy Name Society and Potawatomi Area Troop 32 of the Boy Scouts of America. He also was a director of the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, Sullivan Chamber Ensemble and Marquette University Alumni Association.

Mr. Rynkiewicz was born in Milwaukee July 4, 1930, and graduated from West Allis Central High School in 1948. The debate team sparked his interest in the law and music teacher Damon H. Shook cultivated an interest in the arts. A member of American Federation of Musicians Local 8, Mr. Rynkiewicz played trombone and was the longtime announcer at West Allis Concert Band summer performances.

"He won a major science award in high school and I would not have been surprised if he went in a science and mathematics direction," said classmate Claude Kordus, a business consultant in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. "He's very precise and meticulous," Mr. Kordus said. "When he talks he's very measured, and that has value in the law too."

Mr. Rynkiewicz passed up scholarships at the University of Wisconsin and Carroll College to enter Marquette University, studying English and mathematics. There he met Catherine Van Hercke in an American Literature class in 1951. It was love at first sight: He said he immediately moved two rows closer. The two were married in 1954, with Mr. Kordus as best man and Prof. Joseph Schwartz, the American Lit instructor, in the wedding party.

At Marquette Mr. Rynkiewicz earned a Bachelor of Science degree cum laude in 1952 and a law degree in 1955. He was admitted to the Alpha Sigma Nu national Jesuit honor society, as well as Delta Sigma Rho, Sigma Tau Delta and Pi Mu Epsilon. The late Kenosha County Circuit Judge William Zievers was a fellow debate partner.

"Walter worked harder than I did and had a knack for mathematics," Mr. Kordus said. "At one point the question was, was he going to law school or was he going to be an actuary."

Before joining Whyte Hirschboeck & Dudek, Mr. Rynkiewicz was a litigator at Quarles, Spence & Quarles in Milwaukee and Puhr, Peters, Holden & Schlosser in Sheboygan, Wis. "Whenever I heard him speak, he was extremely good," said Alfred A. Heon of Fredonia, a fellow Marquette undergrad who joined him at Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek.

In retirement he and Catherine spent winters in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Other survivors include sons Stephen (Brenda Russell) of Chicago, Robert (Heidi Boehlke) of Minneapolis and Paul (Karen Lindholm-Rynkiewicz) of Wauwatosa, daughter Lynn (Mark) Rakestraw of Rochester, N.Y., and grandchildren Evelyn (Brian Page), Jacob, Emma and Matthew.

The family appreciates the conscientious care of Dr. Paul Ritch and the Hematology/Oncology Clinic staff at Froedtert & The Medical College of Wisconsin.

Visitation is Wednesday, June 15 at St. Mary’s Visitation Church, 1260 Church St. Elm Grove, from 9:30 a.m. until the Mass of Christian Burial at 11 a.m. The family requests memorials to Marquette University Law School, Friends of the Elm Grove Library or St. Mary Visitation Parish.

Rynkiewicz, Walter P.

Of Elm Grove, WI and Scottsdale, AZ, died peacefully June 7 at age 80. Beloved husband of Catherine (nee Van Hercke). Loving father of Stephen (Brenda Russell), Robert (Heidi Boehlke), Paul (Karen Lindholm-Rynkiewicz) and Lynn (Mark) Rakestraw. Proud grandfather of Evelyn (Brian Page), Jacob, Emma and Matthew. Walter was an attorney for 44 years at Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek in Milwaukee, long active in church and civic activities. Visitation Wednesday, June 15, 2011 at St. Mary’s Visitation Church (1260 Church St. Elm Grove) from 9:30AM until the Mass of Christian Burial at 11:00AM. Memorials to Marquette University Law School, Friends of the Elm Grove Library, St. Mary’s Visitation Parish. The family appreciates the conscientious care of Dr. Paul Ritch and the Hematology/Oncology Clinic staff at Froedtert & The Medical College of Wisconsin.

Becker Ritter Funeral Home
14075 West North Ave.
Brookfield, WI 53005
(262) 782- 5330

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Father's days: In praise of Walter Rynkiewicz

Walter & Catie Rynkiewicz, 2010

My father Walter died this morning.

I've been spending a lot more time with Dad. The whole family has been hanging out, and we're seeing a few people we haven't seen in years. Dad had a chance to recall past exploits, and indulge in frozen custard, marching-band music and other guilty pleasures. It's a shame this all came to pass because he's been dying.

He entered hospice May 5 and I visited again just yesterday. It looks a bit like a country club: Rooms trimmed in dark wood overlooking a forest preserve. Patio doors lead out to a garden where yellow finches gather around a bird feeder. A beautiful place, but all the residents would rather be someplace else, maybe Dad especially. He kept nursing home visits brief, was uncomfortable at wakes, and resisted hospital trips — even the one that landed him in intensive care. But fate has a way of making us face our fears. He had time to come to grips with his death, and for us to come to grips with his life.

Walter was named for his dad, who owned a tailor shop and helped start a savings-and-loan. Walter Sr. worked long hours and died when his son was 28. Dad found him a bit of a mystery. I was 3 when he died, and Walter's path was potentially even more time-consuming than his father's: He was a young lawyer in hard-driving surroundings. I think he found family life just as important as career, and resolved to make sure I would find him less of a mystery in 25 years.

So I remember doing a lot of things with him. He took his children to his law office to watch the Milwaukee circus parade from the 21st floor, and we went behind the scenes at the park bandshell where he moonlighted as announcer for West Allis summer concerts. (Probably this scene comes to mind because he would be smoking Parliaments and talking about quitting.)

When we joined the Boy Scouts, Dad was one of the fathers who camped with us. We did woodworking projects together using his father's tools; he also passed on his father's Polish curses. Even in my mid-20s, he and Mom were driving to Chicago to see me in church musicals. My girlfriend Brenda was not sure what to make of it at intermission when Mom and Dad were necking.

Perhaps Dad could make time for us because he wasn't as career-driven as his peers. His clients were mostly small businesses, although some like Red Star Yeast grew into big businesses (Universal Foods, then Sensient Technologies). I've been calling his clients and peers because Dad gave me an hospital-room assignment, as the reporter in the family, to prepare his obituary. Peers and clients said he was a smart guy, but also curious about everything and everyone. In the days before consulting was a big business, his clients were picking his brain for ideas on not just their legal strategy but their entire business.

And he empathized with everyone he met. Dad could talk with anyone: Eric Schumann, owner of Merit Gear Corp., recalls a business meeting where in the course of a few minutes Walter engaged in two genial conversations, strikingly similar in tone, with a shabbily dressed woman in the hotel and with Sen. Herb Kohl. Even as a young lawyer working on car insurance claims in central Wisconsin, Walter would quiz farmers about machinery and the price of milk before getting around to taking their deposition. Throughout his career he cared about his clients, and this brought a lot of steady business without a lot of political gamesmanship.

He was good at corporate law, and led the state bar's panel on corporate practice. A large law firm was the place for him, even if he lacked the sharp elbows that seem to go with the territory. Without prompting, fellow lawyers told me about his ethics, as if ethics were unusual among attorneys.

He also took on his share of nonprofit work, notably setting up the Layton art-school scholarships and lectures. And he was able to mix business with pleasure — I recall sailing in central Wisconsin with a client's family. An even keel was Dad's career course, and he could picture himself happily working as a corporate lawyer in a small town. Fortunately I think, Mom couldn't.

No environment could have been stress-free for Dad. He could obsess over not only his work, but also the crowds on the beach, or our safety running the lawnmower. In the past few years when he spent winters in Arizona, I would take him out to the ballgame, but he never really would take to the crowd. Mom told friends about an excursion to Sedona when their tour bus had a flat tire, and he spent the rest of the trip curled in his seat, concerned that the spare might not get him home.

He'd relax talking about his high school and college days, and wrote about them before his cancer was spotted four years ago: Dad presented me and my brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews with three-ring binders. They held an 88 page autobiography, and an assignment: "READ THIS." I used to ask Dad questions about his father that he could never quite answer, and didn't want us in the same position. Not to worry: The stories were already familiar, particularly all the jobs he worked through high school and college.

Who could keep them straight if they weren't written down? Paper boy, messenger, window washer. Clearing catch basins for the City of West Allis, with a municipal snow shovel in my brother Paul's garage as proof. Coaching baseball two summers at Jefferson School, not bad for someone who cooled his heels in right field. Manning the counter at Mechenich's pharmacy, which on occasion filled a doctor's prescription for the drug placebo. Playing trombone in 3rd Ward Milwaukee street parades, scenes out of "Godfather III" with fireworks and dollar bills pinned to a Virgin Mary statue. Tutoring geometry, checking mortgage paperwork. Selling women's shoes and men's ties. Shooting Polaroids at the Auto Show. Cleaning up at the florist before Valentine's Day. Laborer on construction sites, for the mason who poured the patio on his dream house. A third-shift foundry job, oiling cranes and hoists, followed by a class in Elizabethan Literature alongside early rising nuns. With no time to shower.

Dad has been retelling a lot of the stories, especially how he met my mother: in American Literature class at Marquette. Dad says it was love at first sight, and he had to move up four rows for her to take notice. However, the details vary in the telling. The saying in Chicago newsrooms is, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." She did, and she does, but I'm still trying to nail down their courtship story. One version is that a few months earlier in 1951 Walter was producing a TV show for Channel 4. (I like it that my father worked in new media.) He was recruiting panelists for a game show, and someone pointed out Katie in a crowd. Dad did not follow up on that lead. Maybe it was love at second sight. In the Rynkiewicz line, good ideas take awhile to percolate. As Dad tells it, being rejected would have broken his heart, and I would have felt the same way if Brenda had spurned my advances.

It was strange to write an obit and run the results past the subject. (I should have run the obit past a spell checker first: Dad's a precise editor.) But it pleased me to learn that his good clients were still good friends in retirement. And I enjoyed how he chatted with everyone at the hospital, even knowing the banter was tiring him. A volunteer who distributed communion at the hospital told Mom he was a better person for having talked to him.

When father's days were numbered, he faced them bravely. He wasn't quite quoting Ecclesiastes, but he'd say this is just another phase of his life. Knowing it was the final phase brought the family closer. That's an outcome he wanted, in the same way he would plan for and relish family gatherings on the Fourth of July, his birthday.

I've been reading scripture to plan a memorial service, and although the family bible has no bookmarks in the Book of Wisdom I think he aspired to be a just soul. He taught his sons and daughters that service and work well done were their own reward. St. Paul says each of us shall give an account of himself. Dad left very comfortable with how his story turned out.