Saturday, March 2, 2013

Frigo Cheese Corp. - The Story of the Great Man who Ran It
With all the mob related posts I've written lately concerning the Italian American community, I thought it was about time for a story of a great Italian American businessman and leader.
In 1981, I obtained a job as a truck driver at the Frigo Cheese Company in Lena, Wi and it enabled me to make the move from Milwaukee to Crivitz. The President of the company was Leo Frigo and, unfortunately, I never got the chance to meet him. I was only there for a short time before he retired in 1983. I never heard one person bad mouth him while he was there and didn't find out what a great guy he was until after he left. Below is a biography of him by Paul’s Pantry, a non-profit he started in Green Bay after he retired. Today, it is one the largest food pantry programs [Paul's Pantry] in the nation for feeding the hungry!

Leo Frigo was born into a large Italian-American family who at the time were living in Pound Wisconsin. He was the thirteenth of sixteen children, nine sons and seven daughters of Pasquale and Camilla Frigo.
Pasquale Frigo, his father, was born in Italy and came to the United States with $50 in his pocket and the dream of opening a cheese factory. His mother assisted him in this dream and he opened the Frigo Cheese Factory in Wisconsin. Both of his parents possessed a strong faith, which they passed along to their children. In her oral history, S. Pasqualine noted that her mother always taught her children to trust in divine providence.
When he was five years old he enrolled in Guardian Angels Boarding School in Oneida. Several of his older brothers and sisters were also students there. He loved the woods in Oneida and sometimes played cowboys and Indians with the Oneida children, ending up tied to a tree when the Indians won!
His four years of high school were spent in De Pere at another boarding school, St. Norbert High School. There Leo made many lifelong friends and seriously considered a religious vocation. In fact, his sister,sister marie pasqualine frigo spent her life as a Catholic nun, working with children.
After graduating as Salutatorian of his class, he entered the Franciscan order in New York and after a few months entered the Trappist Order in Dubuque Iowa. After less than a year he decided a meatless diet was not for him, so he returned home and worked in the family business. When Uncle Sam came calling Leo entered the U.S. Army and served in the Searchlight Division in Korea.
Using the G.I. Bill, he became a student in the Dairy Science Department at Iowa State University, Ames where he met and married fellow student Fran Chapman. After graduation from ISU it was back to Frigo Cheese where his first managerial position was as plant manager at Carney Milk Products, Carney Michigan. After six years as a "UPer" he and Fran took their growing family of four daughters to Lena WI where he became the Corporate Production Manager and Treasurer. He and his brothers expanded the business into South Dakota and he traveled to the Dakotas by car every other week for two years, many times picking up hitchhikers of dubious character. Like his father before him, he was never afraid to give a helping hand to those in need.
Leo retired as President of Frigo Cheese Corporation in 1983 at the age of 52. He wished to devote the remainder of his life to apostolic work and had been preparing for that mission before retirement by joining the St. Vincent de Paul Society. His first few months of retirement were spent assisting parolees, taking them on job interviews and assisting in their rehabilitation. The director of a local halfway house, Arlene Conant, suggested to Leo that the biggest problems ex-convicts faced was finding a job and supporting themselves. They sometimes resorted to stealing to have enough food. Arlene took Leo to St. Joseph Food Pantry in Appleton and it is here that Leo conceived the idea of beginning a food pantry in Green Bay.

Leo Frigo at Paul's Pantry

Obtaining space in a corner of the former St. Vincent de Paul store on Webster Court, now renamed Leo Frigo Way, Leo organized meetings of volunteers through the churches of all denominations. He visited all the local grocery stores begging for their surplus unsaleable food, even going as far as jumping into the dumpsters to retrieve food when it was denied. Leo used to say,
"Its better that I go into the dumpster rather than making the poor go there, at the end of the day my dignity will be intact and so will theirs."
Leo passed away on February 13, 2001 from injuries sustained in a car accident. He was delivering food to a shut in.
Pictured below is the Leo Frigo Memorial Bridge. After Leo's death, the Tower Drive Bridge in Green Bay was renamed in his honor. Leo spent his life building a bridge between the "have's" and "have not's."
Leo Frigo Memorial Bridge, Green Bay , WI
Future of the Cheese Plant

I moved to Salt Lake City in 1993 and in January, 1996, a major fire broke out in the plant and destroyed it. At the time, it was owned by Stella Foods. Because of a major commitment by the community and state of Wisconsin, the plant was rebuilt and today is owned by Saputo Cheese, a Canadian based company. Following from the Chicago Tribune.
LENA, WISCONSIN — A fire at a cheese factory that forms the financial backbone of the community forced hundreds of residents to evacuate their homes Saturday--and fear for their livelihoods. The fire, detected just before midnight, raged for hours, spewing thick black smoke and noxious fumes across this community of 600 in Wisconsin's far northeast corner, witnesses said. The Stella Foods Inc. plant, known locally by its former name, Frigo Cheese Co., was destroyed, Mayor Ed Patenaude said. No one was injured in the blaze or during the evacuation in near-zero temperatures. The noxious fumes were created by an ammonia leak at the plant, said Pat LeBreck, the county's emergency government director. The cause of the fire hasn't been determined, but Stella Foods already has made provisions for rerouting its milk deliveries to six other cheese-producing facilities and other producers in Wisconsin, a spokesman said. Stella Foods Inc., based in Green Bay, is the fourth-largest U.S. cheese producer. It bought the Frigo plant in 1992 from Frigo Foods Inc. of Green Bay. The company sells ricotta, Parmesan and Romano cheeses under the Stella, Frigo and other labels. Stella Foods is a unit of Specialty Foods Corp. in Lincolnshire, Ill.
Chicago Tribune Article

Other Posts:
Benjamin "Lefty Guns" Ruggerio-The real story of the "wise guy"
The Beef That Didn't Moo - Wisconsin Ties to the Mob
Tales of the Milwaukee Mob and Two Cigarette Men!
Married to the Daughter of a Milwaukee Mob Boss-Our Pediatrician!
The Milwaukee Queen Bee of Organized Crime
Tale of a Failed Milwaukee Mob Hit!
Lieutenant Uhura (of the Starship "Enterprise") - close encounters with the Chicago and Milwaukee Mob!
Part Two: The Milwaukee Mob and Lieutenant Uhura (Star Trek)
The New York Mob and Iowa Beef - Part 1
The New York Mob and Iowa Beef Processors - Part II