Lots of old-timers say Door County winters aren’t nearly as severe as they used to be, few can say that with more authority than Rich Weisgerber.
He left home the morning in of Jan. 25, 1978, with his lunch – two sandwiches, an apple and an orange – in a paper bag. Except for two quick stops at home for a shower and clean clothes, he was gone for the next 41 days. During one of the county’s worst ever blizzards, 60 mph winds (sometimes referred to as the White Tornado) blew drifts up to 14 feet. Rich’s road crew worked almost non-stop, sleeping in the north garage and eating when they could at the home of supervisor, Ernie Franke.
“There were hardly any restaurants open up here in the winter in those days,” Rich said.
Safe to say, no one would envy that job. But almost every other little boy growing up in northern Door County in the 1970s and 1980s must have envied Rich’s connection with the Packers. His dad, Dick, had played blocking back for the team from 1938 to 1942, and when he bought the C&C Club in Fish Creek the day Rich was born in 1951, it quickly became a hangout for the Packers.
Rich remembers playing tag football with Paul Hornung, Ray Nitschke, Bart Starr and Jim Taylor. He regularly mowed the grass at Curly Lambeau’s house on Cottage Row in Fish Creek and received a nice black-and-white picture of a player in payment each time.
“I accumulated a nice collection of them and would have had more if the house hadn’t burned down,” he said.
Among all the fans who now claim to have been at the Ice Bowl, Rich is one who really was there when the Pack beat Dallas in the NFL Championship Game at Lambeau on New Year’s Eve 1967. The temperature was -15, with a wind chill of -48, but Rich, age 16, was better off than most attendees. His dad got him into the west-side press box.
“In those days, people dressed up to go to Packer games like they were going to church,” Rich said. “No snowmobile suits.”
Rich’s work ethic developed at age 12, when he began washing dishes at the club. His dad sold the business when he was 18. After high school he worked for several construction companies, including one owned by Joe Parent. His last job in that field was with a Green Bay company that was caught bid rigging, so at 25 he came back to Door County. At the time his dad was the highway commissioner and offered Rich a “temporary” job until he could get back into construction. He planned to stay for five years. When he retired April 30, 2017, that temporary job had lasted 40 years.
He was hired as a grader operator, but climbed on the back of a paver, loved it and spent a lot of time in that job. In the winter, of course, everybody plowed.
“I liked to plow, until about the end of February,” he said. “By then I was so sick of it.”
For a long time, he was responsible for the state roads, 42 and 57, and plowed over and over from Fish Creek to Baileys Harbor to Gills Rock.
Rich said that equipment was a lot different in the early days. During the 41-day siege of snow in 1978, for example, he used a single-axle plow with a nine-foot blade. It took two or three trips to clear a road that can be done in half the time now with a 14- or 15-foot blade. Another reason the job is easier today is that much of the farmland in the county has been allowed to grow back in timber. Flat fields let the snow whip across and drift. Trees break up the accumulation.
“We don’t put up half as much snow fencing as we did 25 years ago,” Rich said. A good example of the change is Lettie’s Hill on ZZ on the way to Rowleys Bay. A job that used to take two hours is finished in a few minutes.
“All the equipment is computerized now,” Rich said. “The old Pioneer paver I started on ran on a track like a tank, and it was operated with two little levers. We used to have to keep our hands on the joysticks and steer with our knees. The new graders don’t even have steering wheels.”
Communication has also changed a lot in four decades. Rich was the first in the county to have a “bag phone” in his truck – only because he won it in a Bucks Unlimited event in Algoma.
“And it wouldn’t work in half the areas in the county,” he said.
Now all the equipment has GPS. Personal communication within the highway department and between the department and the police is also excellent.
“They are our eyes in the night,” Rich said. “When they see a potential problem, they call us.”
Rich said he’s had wonderful co-workers throughout his long career and that the late Ernie Franke was the best boss in the world.
Rich and Sandy Reimer, a Baileys Harbor girl, married in 1975.
“He often came home totally exhausted,” she said. “I don’t think I understood for a long time just how exhausted he really was. He got called out so many nights in terrible weather. Sometimes his job was to sand the hills so the salt trucks could get up and down.”
“I could never count on being home for New Year’s,” Rich added. “And in the first 15 years I was with the department, I got to be home on Christmas morning just once to see the kids open their presents.”
Rich has been a department supervisor for the last 15 years. He’s also served as union shop steward, perhaps because of the 40-years-ago experience of leaving a $9.84-an-hour construction job with great benefits in Green Bay to make $4 an hour with the highway department.
Sandy and Rich met at Paul’s Glass Bar in Baileys Harbor, then owned by Paul Herbst. They bought it in 1986, renamed it Cornerstone and operated it for 26 years.
After acquiring the restaurant they’d talk occasionally about Rich’s retiring, but because of the loss of insurance or some other reason, it never happened. More time for family was a big factor this year.
The Weisgerbers’ son, Ryan, is maintenance supervisor for Baileys Harbor. He and his wife, Amanda, are the parents of Griffin, 4, and Aubrey, 18 months. Their daughter, Kari Weisgerber Baumann, has managed Baileys 57 since 2015. She and her husband, Chris, have two sons, Grady, nearly 8, and Brody, 4. Sandy works with Kari at the station, and both she and Rich spend a lot of time with their grandchildren. Sandy notes that both of their children inherited their dad’s work ethic – to keep going when things get tough – and are so proud of him. Their third child, Kendall Marie, died in a tragic accident in 1991, just after her sixth birthday. The park behind the Baileys Harbor Town Hall is dedicated to her memory.
What other plans does Rich have for retirement?
“Golf,” he’s quick to say. He’s played in a Sunday foursome for 25 years – sometimes 36 holes a day. He, Bob Boettcher, Jim Tishler and Dale Williams played all over the country, from Arizona to North Carolina. Jim passed away, and Dale doesn’t play much anymore, but Rich and Bob still play every Sunday at Idlewild. Rich said he’s also interested in fishing, woodworking and getting his yard looking the way he wants it to. It would appear that golf has the upper hand, as UPS delivered a new driver while Rich was being interviewed at the station.
Looking back over the years, Rich and Sandy realize that he came naturally by his decision to work for the highway department. Sandy’s dad, Donald, worked there for 17 years, before retiring to raise cherries and run for highway commissioner. His opponent in that election? Rich’s dad, Dick, who won and served for nine years.
A funny incident during that campaign: Sandy told her dad she had a date with a guy named Weisgerber. Not knowing Rich, he assumed she meant Dick and observed, “Isn’t he a little old for you?” “Obviously, the highway department has been our dinner-table conversation for years,” Sandy laughs.