He’s a neighborhood activist leading the Southside Organizing Committee, but that doesn’t mean he’s a liberal.
As the eighth of an even-dozen children (seven boys and five girls) born within fourteen years, Stephen Francis Fendt came into this world on 7-7-62. (His older brother, Eugene, we can’t resist mentioning, was born in 5-5-55.) Anyway, the family Fendt resided in Fond du Lac, where his father taught high school English, and his mother worked as a Registered Nurse in the summer while Dad stayed home to watch the kids. When you have so many children, working outside the home is perhaps a treat.
It was a Polish/German family where Steve (as he prefers to be called) was sandwiched between a lot of siblings, and his great uncle Ted Fendt, and another great uncle, Fritz, owned and operated Fendt Brothers meat market, still standing in Watertown, Wisconsin, and still being operated by, you guessed it, a Fendt.
Fendt Brothers made summer sausage, hot dogs, baloney and more. As a kid, Steve, when offered a hot dog other than a Fendt dog, would turn down the offer. “We were a community unto ourselves,” Fendt says. “But if that wasn’t enough, we took in exchange students and friends were always over.” Typically they all gathered around the kitchen table or the piano. As a middle kid, Steve wore nothing but hand-me-downs. He had only one pair of shoes, but he had those Fendt hot dogs, a piano and lots of possibilities.
Steve was an observer rather than a talker. He brings forth a copy of the “Prison Press,” dated January 1976, a couple years after Steve and his 6th grade classmate buddy started it. He recalls it as being hard hitting and edgy, a counter-cultural antidote to the school sponsored “Bicentennial Blab.” In this issue (a paper done on mimeographed paper) is a feature on the Beatles, a list of the top eight songs at the time, and a notice that Eb Schuessler of Sheboygan St., has a yellow rubber ducky. We think perhaps Eb was fictional.
Twelve miles east of Fondy, in Mt. Calvary, is a boarding school run by the Capuchins, and Steve spent his high school years there. St. Lawrence Seminary was where all the Fendt brothers were enrolled, but some dropped out or were kicked out. Steve stuck with it and felt his perspectives broaden when he met kids from Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit and Gary, as well as kids from small towns throughout the upper Midwest.
He graduated in 1980 and headed for Marquette University, aiming for a career in journalism, because after all, he had experience in publishing the “Prison Press.” One of his initial assignments was to write about Ronald Reagan being shot. He kept in touch with his church-side by attending St. Francis, the Capuchin-run parish on 4th and Brown. He played piano for the gospel mass, though in no way did he resemble Elton John, his favorite star.
That’s when he received a life-changing phone call from a Capuchin priest who wanted him to go to Montana and hang out with kids and “talk about God.” And so it was that Culbertson, Montana held him for three years, where he worked for the Capuchins, recruiting teachers for five parishes in the town (population: 700) and running the high school Youth Ministry Program. His horizon expanded when he developed a friendship with a rancher who had left Tulane University just shy of his Doctorate in English and was involved in community organizing, helping small fry ranchers resist being being swallowed by corporate farms and oil companies.
“I remember getting a buzz through my whole body and I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” he says. It was the first time he realized he could actually get a paying job doing what he felt was important, community organizing. He went back to college, to the University of Montana in Missoula, and received his Liberal Arts degree in 1987.
His degree got him a position in Chicago with The Northwest Neighborhood Federation that represented working class white neighborhoods undergoing changes. This was democracy with a small “d” and he liked it, as he considers himself neither Democrat nor Republican. At times, representing this neighborhood put him at odds with Chicago’s lakeshore liberals, as Fendt recalls it.
In 1991, he became executive director and lead community organizer for Milwaukee’s Southside Organizing Committee (SOC), a position he’s now held for more than two decades. Here, too, his neighborhood activism has put him at odds with liberals. In the early 1990s, he recalls, he was leading the charge for more police on the near South Side and was called “a puppet” of the police union by ACLU leader Chris Ahmuty. In fact, Fendt says, he relied on information from police union members to make his case.
“Our interests matched 25 years ago, and the near South Side has gotten more police attention, and I think, better police attention.” But he adds, “our interests do not match anymore.”
In fact, Fendt urged Gov. Scott Walker to include police and firefighters in the law that required all government workers to contribute more to their benefits, writing to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that “Now is not the time to create a privileged class, especially of the ones we entrust to ensure public safety.” And Fendt and SOC oppose the measure that would end the city’s residency requirement and allow police and fire workers to live outside the city. The police union, Fendt says, has now become one of his group’s “biggest opponents.”
The older (typically white) residents SOC serves are more concerned about issues like crime and government corruption (notably the county pension scandal), Fendt says, while the younger (typically Hispanic) residents are more concerned about “housing maintenance, parking and landlord training issues,” he notes.
Fendt doesn’t live on the South Side, but in a home on Weil St. in Riverwest. with a spouse and two sons.
And his 11 siblings? What are they up to? Their numbers include a professor of philosophy, the owner of a B&B in Grinnell, Iowa, a teacher at various MPS schools, a physical therapist, a teacher in Appleton and a real estate business person who buys properties, repairs and then rents them.
And then there’s Steve, who’s clearly happy with the vocation his journey led him to embrace. He still espouses making the high things low and the low things high. The middle kid knows where the middle ground is.