Remembering Tom Fitzgerald

Thomas Hubert Fitzgerald died on February 19, 2016. And with his passing, the world lost a member of that rare and vanishing human species: the Renaissance Man.

Unlikely as it seems, Tom Fitzgerald’s first career was that of a General Motors executive. But even in that corporate, button-down world, Tom was a maverick and an out-of-the-box thinker—albeit a very productive one.

His first assignment was in Flint, where he helped to open several new plants and develop a sales forecasting system. Within a few years, he was transferred to the company’s headquarters in Detroit and, later, to the GM Tech Center where he handled special projects.

During the ‘70s, Tom was part of a forward-looking group that introduced the emerging concept of organizational development to GM and implemented Quality Circles at company worksites nationwide. In the ‘80s, he was chief OD consultant to the management team responsible for launching Saturn, “a different kind of car company.”

As executive-on-loan to the City of Detroit during a fiscal crisis, he worked to cultivate managerial talent and streamline departments. He also served as consultant-on-loan to the Southeast Michigan Health Care Coalition.

Tom was always a scholar at heart, always eager to share what he knew. During those hectic years, he found time to publish articles on leadership development, career education, teaching machines, and the promise and pitfalls of motivation theory.

We had been married only a few years when Tom accepted an offer of early retirement from GM. At first, he was elated. After more than three decades of what he referred to as “my extended indenture with a major American manufacturer,” he had won his freedom. But as he would often ask in the months that followed: freedom to do what exactly?

For Tom, life was always about pursuing purpose, engaging with people and ideas, ferreting out deception and flawed thinking, righting wrongs, and speaking truth to power. So it was hardly surprising that, after a few months of travel and art classes and DIY projects, of gardening and watching films and cooking and reading books and attending concerts and catching up with friends and family, he began the task of giving shape and meaning to this next phase of his life.

Being Tom, he wrote an essay about his struggle to recreate and re-purpose himself. Under the title “Loss of Work: Notes from Retirement,” it was published by Harvard Business Review and became the first of many articles that would follow on topics ranging from the ethical undercurrents of genomic research to the perils of political polling, from linguistics to anthropology, and from organizational dynamics to theology.

I watched in awe and admiration as he set out fearlessly to tackle a multitude of topics. And then managed to write about them so convincingly, so brilliantly and expertly, that he gained entry into some of the most esteemed academic publications of the day.

During our 38 years together, Tom and I kept many promises to each other. But in the weeks prior to his death, I recalled one promise not kept. For years, I had intended to create a website of his work, a cyber collection of his best articles, essays and stories. But somehow life kept getting in the way, other projects took priority, and the site was never launched.

Time was short. But with the help of two friends—artist and graphic designer Jill Stefani Wagner and web developer Beth Stefani—I did keep the promise. came together in two days. And it shows. The design is less than perfect. The downloads are fuzzy and amateurish, the fault of an out-of-date home office scanner. The articles currently online comprise only a portion of Tom’s intellectual legacy.

But in true Tom fashion, he chose not to notice the imperfections. He was grateful. He was lavish in his praise. Despite its obvious flaws, was up and running. That was all that mattered. Now, possibly, the conversation would continue—could continue—without him.

By then, of course, he was losing ground in his valiant four-month battle with a series of health issues, becoming more debilitated every day. But he was still Tom. Still witty and insightful. Still unfailingly courteous. Perhaps most wondrous, he was still weaving words and thoughts together in ways that charmed and often astonished his listeners. He was still curious about life. Still quoting poetry. Still citing philosophers. Still charming visitors.

Tom died as he had lived—with remarkable grace and courage. For me and others who loved him, the sense of loss is enormous, at times to the point of being unbearable. But there is at least small comfort in knowing that his ideas—some of them—will live on in his work. In anthologies. In the research citations of scholars. And on this website.

Thank you for visiting.

–Linda Wirtanen Fitzgerald
Ann Arbor, Michigan
March 11, 2016

Read Thomas Fitzgerald’s obituary.