BY MARGO DRUMMOND
For a boy who only spoke German for the first three years he attended school, E.H. Wadewitz went on to found Western Publishing, at one time the world’s largest lithographer and producer of children’s books and games with subsidiaries including Whitman Publishing Company, the Western Playing Card Company, the Artists and Writers Guild, the Guild Press and the Golden Press.
Through those associations Edward Henry Wadewitz would come to know Edgar Rice Burrows, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and Gene Autry among others. Ever modest regarding his accomplishments, E.H. would respond to praise of his company by saying, “The boys have done a pretty good job.”
At one time a prominent newspaper offered a $500 bonus to the reporter who could get the success story of E.H. and Western Publishing. Rumor had it that one overly-eager press member was nearly ejected from the plant premises in his quest to interview the ever self-effacing founder. However in later years, when the size of the operation deterred Wadewitz from knowing many of his workers, he did sanction a newsletter called “The Westerner” which was designed to inform employees that they and their families were valued by the company and to assure them that the door to his office was always open. And it was!
Personal humility and honest work were traits that E.H. valued above all others. From an early age he had earned his way sanding chairs, selling clothing and insurance, harvesting vineyard grapes, making trunks, repairing typewriters, and keeping books. Having put himself through YMCA night school, Wadewitz continued his education at Potts College in Pennsylvania where he played on the basketball team against Christy Mathewson who went on to pitch for the New York Giants.
Back in Racine he played baseball under an assumed name to keep his family from knowing that he was violating their religious beliefs by playing on Sundays. The semi-pro team that he played catcher for had Eddie Killian as one of its pitchers. Killian would go on to pitch for the Detroit Tigers leaving E.H. to feel that he had made a mistake by not trying out for the Tigers as well.
About that time Wadewitz began noticing a young woman who lived nearby. Her name was Nettie Joslyn. Despite having other suitors, Nettie accepted his invitation for a date which turned out to be attending a church service. Two years later, on April 25, 1906, they were married. E.H. worked two jobs to support his family, as an accountant for Langlois Company, a local shipyard purveyor during the day and at nights as a bookkeeper for a small printing operation.
Eventually the debt-ridden owner offered Wadewitz a chance to buy him out. With a loan from his brother, Al, the purchase took place. Younger brother, Bill, was already employed there as a delivery boy, pushing a two-wheeled cart to pick up orders. With E.H. riding a bicycle around town to solicit business the brothers were fond of saying that they ran “the company that got its start with a bike and a cart.”
Knowing virtually nothing about the printing business, E.H. persuaded his childhood friend, Roy Spencer, to join him as a printer. Each of them earned $11 a week. As time went by they did work for J.I. Case, Hamilton Beach, Mitchell Motors, and S.C. Johnson, H.F. Johnson having been one of their first customers. Meanwhile E.H. had graduated from his bicycle to an electric-operated, glass-enclosed car which travelled 15 miles per hour and was often chased by small children and dogs.
Both Wadewitz and his wife, Nettie, loved taking road trips across the country and especially to southern California. In 1932 Western Publishing had procured exclusive book rights to Walt Disney Productions and in 1954 E.H. was elected to their board of directors. Having helped to secure financing for Disney’s “Snow White,” the Wadewitzs, it was said, were offered a lot in Palm Springs next to Disney’s own.
In 1946, Edward Henry Wadewitz was honored as Racine’s “Man Of The Year” for his community service and business acumen which included offering every employee a profit-sharing plan. When Western Publishing was moving from their Shoop Building location on State Street to Mound Avenue, the barber who had numerous Western employees as customers on State Street, suggested to E.H. that he be moved to Mound Avenue as well in the interest of time-saving and efficiency. E.H. thought about it and agreed, throwing in profit- sharing for the barber too. Never one to bask in his success, Wadewitz was often quoted as saying, “The industry has been good to me and the least I can do is show my appreciation.”
And of the “little fellow” in business he liked to remind others that: “We were little fellows in the industry ourselves. The best way to help ourselves is to help the little fellow that is just starting out, by showing him how to operate his business properly and to get the right kind of trained help. That way we can have better competition that helps to improve the overall reputation of the industry and gets better acceptance for our products. That way, everybody benefits.”
And, thanks to the leadership and generosity of Edward Henry Wadewtiz, for many years those fortunate enough to share in his enterprises carried with them the benefits he had spoken of.
Margo Drummond’s interest in local history began when she became involved with preservation Racine. For 31 years, she taught high school courses on Racine History and Death and Dying, Issues of Living and Life. She wrote two books, “Blessings of Being Mortal: How a Mature Understanding of Death Can Free Us to Live Wisely and Well” and “Here’s to Your Health.”