John E. Fetzer
Broadcasting, Baseball, Mystical Science: 1901-1991
When John E. Fetzer died on 20 February 1991, he left a life replete with the legacy of a broadcasting empire, a World Series winning baseball club, philanthropy, and exploration of the mystical fringes of science.
Born in 1901 in Decatur, Indiana, Fetzer moved with his mother to Lafayette, Indiana, after his father died when Fetzer was 2 years old. There his brother-in-law, a telegraph operator for the Wabash Railroad, introduced young John to the wonders of early electronics and the Detroit Tigers, which he would later own, via telegraph reports.
Early Interest in Radio
Radio was still in its infancy, but Fetzer took it seriously and built his first transmitter-receiver in 1917 and began communicating from his home in Indiana with a man in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. People began buying crystal sets – tiny, primitive radios that required no electrical power – to listen in.
In 1923 he came to Michigan, to build a radio station for Emmanuel College, now known as Andrews University, in Berrien Springs. He built and operated the station, and also met Rhea Yeager. They married, and for sixty-five years the couple were partners in life and business, Rhea supporting him in all his endeavors by working side-by-side with him.
Fetzer toured Europe in the late 1920s, studying radio operations, and recalled being repulsed by government monopolies on radio there. He returned to the United States at the beginnings of the Great Depression and would remain a staunch advocate of a “hands off” policy by the government in the communications industry. Emmanuel College was running out of money to operate its radio station and offered to sell it to Fetzer. He bought it and, in 1930, moved the station to Kalamazoo because of his wife’s area ties and the fact that Kalamazoo was the last major city in Michigan without its own radio station. He named the station WKZO and started broadcasting in 1931. The station was located in the Burdick Hotel, now the site of the Radisson, and its transmitter was on Nichols Road northwest of Kalamazoo.
The Fetzers worked side by side, she serving as program director and secretary, and Fetzer selling ads and putting them on the air. He said of these early beginnings, “It was a mixture of pride, stubbornness and stupidity that kept me in the business. If I knew then what I know now about economics, I would have shut down.”
His innovations in radio led to the development of a directional antenna for broadcasting at night. This, in turn, led to a lawsuit by a station in Omaha, Nebraska, that said it would interfere with their signal if allowed. The case went through the Supreme Court twice and was finally settled in Fetzer’s favor on the floor of the United States Senate. This led to some 3,000 stations getting their licenses granted by the FCC and put Fetzer in the position of pioneer and confidante of many in Washington.
World War II
During World War II, he was appointed the national radio censor for the U.S. Office of Censorship and created voluntary censorship of more than 900 radio stations so that they would not broadcast information that would be beneficial to the enemy. When the war started to wind down, Fetzer began asking for smaller and smaller budgets to run the office and began firing the 15,000 people employed by the office. When the war ended, he closed up shop and stored all the information in the basement of the National Archives. He said, “I’m convinced if we hadn’t, the Office of Censorship would still be with us today, and I shudder to think how powerful it might be.”
Fetzer’s own broadcasting empire grew during the war and spread from Kalamazoo to Grand Rapids, Nebraska and Peoria. He formed the Fetzer Music Corporation and acquired the Muzak franchise for out-state Michigan in 1958. Inevitably, he would get into the new medium, television, and established Fetzer Cablevision, eventually, in Kalamazoo. That has since become Charter Communications that serves the cable needs of the Kalamazoo area.
In 1956, the troubled Briggs family trust put the Detroit Tigers baseball team on the auction block. Fetzer became part of the syndicate that bought the club so they wouldn’t lose the lucrative baseball rights. He bought controlling interest in the club in 1960 and bought out his last partner in 1961. Soon, under his leadership, the Tigers were contenders and missed the pennant by a single game in 1967, then winning the World Series in 1968.
Fetzer began divesting his financial holdings in 1983. Philanthropically, he gave some of the money to Western Michigan University for a new business development center and some to Kalamazoo College for a new media center.
But most of the money went to the John E. Fetzer Foundation, which he established in 1962. Called the Fetzer Institute today, it sponsors research into what Fetzer called the connections between body, mind and spirit – another interest of his from his youth. In August of 1987, Fetzer moved his foundation and its staff of nearly 30 to new headquarters overlooking Dustin Lake on West KL Avenue in Oshtemo Township. The structure is an equilateral triangle shape representing the three connections he believed in. His interest in parapsychology and spirituality began at an early age, and he claimed to have had several spiritual experiences that influenced his later life. While spending a year bedridden with complications of influenza, he made this commitment, “If I am permitted to live, I will devote my life to the spiritual work of the Creator.” For the next 73 years he did.
Fetzer also had a keen interest in family history. He wrote two books, One Man’s Family: A History and Genealogy of the Fetzer Family (1964) and The Men from Wengen and America’s Agony (1971).
John E. Fetzer died at the age of 89 while vacationing in Hawaii. He and his wife are buried in Mountain Home Cemetery in Kalamazoo under an interesting stone that includes his family history. For his accomplishments, he was named a “Person of the Century” in the Kalamazoo Gazette’s century review of the city’s history.
Written by Fred Peppel, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, January 2006. Last updated May 2006.
John Fetzer, on a Handshake: the Times and Triumphs of a Tiger Owner
Champaign, IL: Sagamore Publishing, 1997
H 921 F421e
The Men from Wengen and America’s Agony: the Wenger-Winger-Wanger History, including Christian Wenger, 1718
Fetzer, John E.
Kalamazoo: John E. Fetzer Foundation, 1971
H 929.2 W474f
One Man’s Family: a History and Genealogy of the Fetzer Family
Fetzer, John E.
Ann Arbor, MI: Ann Arbor Press, 1964
H 929.2 F421
“John Fetzer: A Man of the Past, Present & Future”
Encore, November, 1980, pages 4-17, etc.
“Person of the Century”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 27 December 1999, page A1
“Varied Interests Filled Fetzer’s Life”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 21 February 1991, page B1
Local History Room Files
Name File: Fetzer, John E.
Subject File: Fetzer Broadcasting
Subject File: Fetzer Foundation
Subject File: Fetzer Institute