The Gentleman from Fond du Lac

Wisconsin Republicans gather to honor long time Congressman Tom Petri

By Rohn W. Bishop

petrimcOn a Wednesday evening in early April, a couple hundred activist Republicans from all across Wisconsin’s Sixth Congressional District gathered at the Thelma Sadoff Center for the Arts in downtown Fond du Lac for an event honoring Former Congressman Tom Petri.

With Former Governor Scott McCallum serving as Master of Ceremonies the crowd of “who’s who” in local Republican politics were treated to a keynote address from Governor Scott Walker, who thanked Petri for being his “first congressional endorsement in 2010.” The governor went on to tell a humorous story of a campaign stop, when the door on the campaign bus had broken, and he and a then 69 year old Tom Petri had to climb out the window before giving their speeches.

There was a video tribute that included House Speaker John Boehner, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, and Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch.

Tom Petri was introduced with a touching speech from Congressman Reid Ribble, who employed the word “gentleman,” as he discussed the kindness Tom Petri showed his colleagues, constituents, and supporters.

The evening concluded with Tom Petri giving a Tom Petri type speech, short and to the point. He thanked everyone, joked with new Congressman Glenn Grothman, reminisced about the time he defeated Tommy Thompson in a primary, and spoke about how much he truly enjoyed representing Wisconsin in the House of Representatives.

A little history
Tom Petri was adopted, his father having been killed during World War II, Petri was moved to Fond du Lac, where he graduated high school, before graduating from Harvard and joining the Peace Corps.

Petri was elected to the Wisconsin State Senate in 1972, and would attempt a run at the U.S. Senate in 1974. During the campaign of 1974 Tom Petri walked the entire length of the State of Wisconsin, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the anti-Republican fallout from Watergate, and Mr. Petri was soundly defeated by Senator Gaylord Nelson.
Shortly after being re-elected in 1978, Congressman William Steiger passed away from a heart attack, thereby causing the need for a special election to fill the vacancy. Tom Petri won a crowded GOP primary that included Tommy Thompson. Petri would go on to squeak out a win in the general election, defeating Gary Goyke by only 1,223 votes.

Congressional Career
Tom Petri served Wisconsin’s Sixth Congressional District for 36 years. Petri was more of a low key member of congress, not seeking the spotlight or looking for the cameras. Petri avoided talk radio, preferring to do interviews with local media outlets.

Petri also avoided the “hot button issues” of the day, instead focusing on constituent services and improving the transportation infrastructure of East-Central Wisconsin. From improvements to federal highways like 151 and 41, to saving the S.S. Badger car ferry, or steering military contracts to Oshkosh Truck, Tom Petri was known for looking out for his district.

A deserving evening
Petri strongly believed in building the grass roots of the Republican Party and many from the grass roots, lead by District Chairman Dan Feyen, were on hand to thank him.
“Congressman Petri represented the district well and was always very kind and helpful to me as chairman. He strongly believed in growing the grassroots of our party, and building the party from the ground up. Having worked on behalf of Republican causes since Eisenhower defeated Stevenson he’s definitely deserving of this night honoring his career,” Feyen said.

Working with six presidents, including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and seven House Speakers, including Tip O’Neil and Newt Gingrich, Tom Petri saw a lot in his 36 years in congress.

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