By Marilynn Nash
Richard Freitag Profile
At VFW Post 305, Commander Richard Freitag shakes hands, making direct eye contact with each person he greets. At the lunch counter, he listens intently, giving his full attention to the vet driving the conversation.
When the phone rings, he’s the first up to answer it. When the dirty dishes pile up on the counter, he’s there to clean them up.
“My work ethic comes from helping my father run a family business,” Freitag said.
Freitag takes care of people. His deeply-held values of service and duty to others are evident through a life of service in the military, Boy Scouts, civic organizations, and other volunteer efforts.
When a 92-year-old veteran and his wife sought help from the VFW, Freitag took care of them himself, driving them to do grocery shopping and to medical appointments, said Dave Lamb, a 37-year VFW member.
When Freitag took command of the post he took immediate action to launch the long overdue remodeling of VFW Post 305’s building, said Merlin Kosmosky, Wisconsin VFW 9th District Commander.
The vaulted addition to the building, overlooking Dells Pond, provides more space and light for members. Glass-enclosed museum cases containing war artifacts line the walls from eye level and above. Tables and chairs are positioned for spacious seating.
“He’s just got a fantastic personality … he spearheaded the remodeling … he’s taking care of an elderly couple … he’s a real mentor to a lot of young men … he constantly writes letters to ‘Voice of the People’ … he’s involved in local politics … he’s honest,” Lamb said.
Freitag laughed and brushed aside praise for his efforts to help people.
“I do what anyone would do!” he said.
Freitag began his life of service at his father’s side. He grew up in Eau Claire, spending much of his time in the family business: golf course construction, grading, and landscape contracting.
“My dad taught me the value of hard work at a young age,” Freitag said. “He taught me to drive a farm tractor at the age of 8 and a crawler tractor at the age of 9. By the time I was 14 I was loading trucks.”
Freitag said that they didn’t let his mom, a registered nurse, know that he was operating heavy machinery.
In addition to working hard with his father, Freitag’s involvement in Boy Scouts prepared him for leadership. He was a Boy Scout from the ages of 8 to 18, achieving the status of Eagle Scout with the help of his Scout leaders.
When he joined the Navy in 1968 at 18, he was skilled in areas such as outdoor survival and knot-tying.
“I was light-years ahead of my peers in boot camp, because of my great Scout troop,” Freitag said.
Freitag entered the military with the rank of E-4 instead of E-1 due to his experience in the construction industry.
He was a bulldozer operator and drove semitrailers as a Navy Seabee in Vietnam. This was a dangerous job because as he carried out construction jobs to support other personnel, he was an easy target for rocket attacks.
Freitag spent his nights studying, instead of partying and drinking, so he could earn the test scores needed for promotion. As a result, Freitag earned the rank of E-5 before he was 20, making him the youngest E-5 in naval service at the time.
“It was the biggest break of my life,” said Freitag of military service. “It was a wonderful thing. I advise young people to join the military because it molds and shapes you and gives you a healthy perspective.”
After leaving the military, Freitag earned a bachelor’s degree in Business Management in 1974 from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. After graduating he worked in the golf course construction industry, serving as president of Kenneth R. Freitag, Inc., and as president and CEO of DIX Corporation, a golf course contracting company.
As early as his college years, he began serving others, volunteering as an assistant Scoutmaster for two Boy Scout troops. He served as Scoutmaster for almost 20 years, and earned numerous awards. In 1993 he was honored as one of the top 64 Scoutmasters in the United States, out of 43, 600 Scoutmasters.
“Being in Scouts as a youngster pretty much prepared him for the military,” Kathryn Freitag, Richard’s wife of 33 years said. “And being in the military helped him grow up in a hurry. Dick is very proud of his service experience, and that shows in how he serves in the community.”
Sara Stinski, public affairs officer for the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs said, “Veterans represent the very best in our American life and frequently take a role in their communities. They’re generally very civic-minded people and generously give of their time.”
The Boy Scouts of America is another major outlet for Freitag’s service to others.
“He’s a real mentor to a lot of young men, to get them on the right path in life,” Lamb said. “Some have gone on to become officers. Sometimes he’s like a drill sergeant, but not mean, demanding all they can give.”
One of Freitag’s Scouts was working on his Eagle Scout project while her mom was visiting, Kathryn Freitag said.
Freitag told him, “I’m going to call you every half hour to see how you’re doing on your project!”
Kathryn’s mom wondered whether Freitag was being too hard on the Scout. But the Scout completed his project that night.
One of Freitag’s Eagle Scouts, Tim Gonzalez, 28, said that he keeps in touch with Freitag, looking to him as a role model and seeking advice for life decisions. When Gonzalez’ dad died, Freitag was the first person outside of family members Gonzalez called.
“I call Freitag every year on the anniversary of my dad’s death to talk about him,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez recalls Freitag’s emphasis on responsibility, leadership skills, and life lessons. He considered the number of merit badges earned or the number of attendees at camp of secondary importance. He strongly encouraged Scouts to assume leadership positions. But when the time came to focus on earning Eagle Scout Awards, Freitag instructed Scouts to let younger Scouts have the opportunity to experience leadership.
“I never would have attended leadership training classes if Freitag hadn’t browbeat me into it,” Gonzalez said. “He wouldn’t take no for an answer unless you had a very good reason. He would just keep after you…He expected everyone to earn the Eagle Scout Award.”
More than 60 Scouts earned their Eagle Scout awards during Freitag’s 20 years as Scoutmaster.
“Freitag seems gruff when you first meet him,” Gonzalez said, “but you soon learn to appreciate him. When no one else will tell you you’re wrong, he will. You might not like it at the time, but later you’ll be glad he did.”
Gonzalez remembers Freitag’s focus on the kind of person you would be after completing Scouts. His message included, ‘If you say you’re going to do something, do it. If you come up short, keep trying.’
“Don’t give me any of this maybe, kinda, sorta crap. You’re either going to do it or you’re not!”
Gonzalez said he cringed if he heard another Scout say something that would earn a rebuke. But, he said, Freitag’s words challenged Scouts to do their best at whatever they chose to do.
“Dick Freitag was that troop,” Gonzalez said. “He never had kids of his own, so he poured his whole heart and soul into that troop … Even though he’s hard on you, you know where he stands. He doesn’t hold a grudge. He’s 100 percent genuine. What you see is what you get.”
Freitag said that he strives to follow in the footsteps of his parents, Scout leaders and military leaders in giving of himself to others in the community.
“I owe a debt I can never repay,” he said.
Freitag continues to “keep after his kids” as they become adults, touching base to see whether they’re following through with attending school or to see how their lives are going, Gonzalez said.
“He asks ‘What are you doing now?’ or ‘Are you going to school?’ He persists, even through many years,” Gonzalez said. “He will never fail you.”