Milwaukee, Wisconsin , United States
|| November 01, 1922
|Died||March 13, 2005
Feb 20, 2021 07:53am
Caucasian - Conservative - Married - U.S. Marine Corps -
|Info||Like the proverbial bull in the china shop, the political George Watts was not averse to challenging the conventional order of things. |
As much as he disagreed with some people, he treated everyone with dignity.
- Dismas Becker,
In his own china shop, of course, businessman Watts kept things elegantly genteel, except when he made headlines for chasing down the errant shoplifter.
Watts died of natural causes late Sunday at his home in the Town of Grafton. He was 82.
A writer once said it was an exaggeration that George Watts would rather argue than eat, adding that he appreciated good food, too.
He was Milwaukee's own Don Quixote, riding off on sometimes solitary crusades. He philosophically played David rather than Goliath.
Watts was a liberal-turned-conservative, but always a man who brought passion to his politics. And while some came to regard him as uniformly conservative, his early core beliefs never changed, said his wife, Martha Watts, better known as Martie.
He vehemently opposed racial discrimination as a young businessman in the 1940s, and lost business to those who took offense at his public statements against Sen. Joseph McCarthy. He remained a supporter of women's rights, including the right to have an abortion, she said.
"There couldn't be two people who agree less," then-state Sen. Mordecai Lee, a Democrat, said of himself and Watts in 1984. "He's truly baffled by people who disagree with him, but he can put it aside afterward."
Said Watts: "I have a lot of kinship with people who feel things passionately."
Family members agreed.
"He was the most passionate man, from business to politics to family," said J.D. Watts, one of his sons. "Passion and integrity - that's my father."
Over the years, Watts ran for elected office, but the only time he was successful was in the 1950s. He was elected to the School Board for a one-room school in Ozaukee County, where two of his children were students. The vote was 7-6.
"And I voted for myself, of course," he later quipped.
Watts ran for governor in 1986, losing in the primary to fellow Republican and future Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, but winning more votes than Thompson in Milwaukee.
"I will not run for office again," he said in 1989.
He later changed his mind. In 2000, he made a surprisingly strong run against Milwaukee Mayor John O. Norquist, taking 44% of the vote.
"He was complicated," said Dismas Becker, a former legislator. "But the only reason he was complicated was that he was forthright and honest about everything. As much as he disagreed with some people, he treated everyone with dignity.
"I supported him when he ran for mayor," Becker said, admitting that his decision came as a surprise to his fellow Democrats. "When I was in the Legislature, we were always on opposing sides when it came to freeway issues, but I couldn't have had more respect for an opponent."
Family business and politics
Watts was born in Milwaukee. He was the namesake of grandfather George Watts, an English immigrant who began working at the old Massey & Co. shop in 1870. The 19th-century Watts eventually bought the business, which specialized in china, silver and glassware, and gave it the family name.
His son, Howard Watts, joined the firm in 1911. The modern-day George Watts joined in 1946, after military service.
"I was raised in a very politically conscious family," he said in one interview. "We were Democrats interested in human rights and equal opportunity, and we talked about it at the dinner table. My mother (Lorraine) was sort of a Teddy Roosevelt socialist. That's the best way of saying it.
"My father was very outspoken. He always encouraged me to write letters, to speak out. Most retailers are taught to be very conservative in what they say because otherwise you might offend a customer. But I have never been that way, and I've always felt sorry for my friends from the big stores in town that have to watch what they say."
Watts spent a couple of years at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., before joining the U.S. Marines in 1942. In Hawaii as the war ended, he did not see combat.
He met his future wife, the former Martha Cherry, on a train bound for Washington, D.C.
"It was love at first sight," he recalled in 1984. "It's been that way ever since, except better."
Watts served for six months during the early occupation of Japan, then returned to marry Martie.
Once with the family business, Watts began hiring black employees, promoting one woman to floor manager.
"People came in and were critical of having people who were different," Martie said. "To us, that now seems absurd but, in 1948 and 1949, you didn't have a black salesman anywhere in the city.
"In 1952, he came out strongly against McCarthy," she said. "He supported Tom Fairchild for the Senate, and we lost over a hundred customers for that, but he said he had to stand by his principles."
In 1957, Watts sought permission to plant four ginkgo trees outside the business. The city forester rejected the request. Watts went to the Common Council.
As a result, he got an ordinance passed, allowing him to plant and care for the trees. The fan-shaped ginkgo leaf became the symbol for the Watts store.
He was less successful, but no less enthusiastic, in other political engagements.
As president of the old Downtown Association, he led the 1963 fight for a state bill that would have required most retail businesses to close on Sunday. It was defeated.
Watts came to believe he was wrong on that one, but he kept his store closed on Sundays.
He made headlines again in 1967, resigning as secretary of the Milwaukee World Festival. He blasted Mayor Henry Maier for "a lack of leadership . . . on the question of open housing and other civil right matters."
"You can't have a world festival because, basically, we don't have anything to be festive about," Watts then said. "The city is in turmoil and until we get some justice on civil rights, I think it's going to stay in turmoil."
McArthur "Mac" Weddle, now executive director at Northcott Neighborhood House, remembered how the white businessman called someone at First Wisconsin Bank to get him a summer job.
"He thought enough of me to think that I could do that, and that was in 1966," said Weddle, who is African-American, adding that it helped encourage him to go on in school.
Watts' political affiliations would change, but not his basic belief system. Human rights were conservative. Resource conservation was conservative.
"I guess what really got me to be conservative was to see the failure of so many liberal programs, government programs, that were enacted (during the 1960s) with such wonderful intentions and had such counterproductive results," Watts said.
He long fought for the completion of Milwaukee County's freeway system, saying it was necessary for the growth of Milwaukee's economy. In 2002, he filed a lawsuit to stop the planned demolition of the Park East Freeway spur. The federal court threw the case out.
Watts vehemently opposed the concept of light rail. He also unsuccessfully fought in court against the tax to pay for a new Milwaukee County stadium.
He was strong on national defense, earlier taking a hard line for nuclear installations in Western Europe.
"The worst pornography in the world would be to have the free world dominated by the Communist system," he said.
Watts offered advice to his own Republican Party, calling it "too damn exclusive" in 1984.
Party leaders have "got to make the case that anyone who works for a living belongs in the Republican Party," he declared.
"He can be a little stubborn," his wife once observed. "But he's never held a grudge against anyone."
The run for mayor
As he began plans to run for mayor in Milwaukee, longtime Town of Grafton resident Watts bought a condo on the city's south side. He also switched to the Democratic Party.
Watts expected to be criticized, but essentially regarded himself as a citizen of Milwaukee's downtown.
Watts spent $500,000 of his own money on the campaign, his wife said.
After defeat, he announced plans to sell the condo. His real home was still the little cabin he bought with his bride more than a half-century before. The Watts attached a conservation easement to most of their extensive riverfront property, to prevent future development.
He also switched back to the Republican Party, which he earlier served as Ozaukee County chairman.
"His heart and soul has been in Milwaukee," his wife said. "He saved a business in which, all over the country, stores have gone out of business. He grew the business enormously."
A country boy at heart
Watts also enjoyed life in the country, and first kept bees when he was only 10 years old, Martie said. He kept raising bees for different varieties of honey until a couple of years ago. He earlier liked raising some cattle and chickens, and tending his garden. He used to have pigs, but said he found them "too nice to eat."
Watts suffered a stroke in 2001, while taking his morning swim at the Jewish Community Center in Whitefish Bay. He initially ignored the symptoms, but an employee pushed for him to get medical help.
"She was afraid that Christian Scientists do not accept medical help. The answer is," Watts said, with a wry smile, "we do - if we are really pressed."
In 2003, he self-published a book - "Insurrection in Milwaukee: The Right to Rise" - available at the Watts store and some local bookstores.
And Watts himself once told of a conversation with Oscar Robertson, then a Milwaukee Bucks star, as they left a party.
"I want you to know that I have a championship quality, too," Watts said. "And he sort of bent down and said, 'What is that, George?'
"And I said, 'I have a championship desire,' " Watts said.
In addition to his wife of nearly 59 years, survivors include sister Lora Otjen; daughters Cherry Watts, Jennifer Block and Abigail Grissom; sons J.D. and Mark; grandchildren and a great-grandson.
Visitation will be held from 3 to 5:30 p.m. Monday at the Woman's Club of Wisconsin, 813 E. Kilbourn Ave. A memorial service is tentatively set for 4:30 p.m. that day.