A Life Remembered: Roger H. Leithold loved arts, downtown

The following appeared in the La Crosse Tribune on Saturday, July 8, 2017.

As a child, Roger H. Leithold dabbled in piano but never quite committed. It was something he regretted, and after joining the family business, Leithold Music, he made a commitment to providing others with the motivation and the means to put music in their lives.

 

“You never heard anyone say, ‘I’m so mad at my parents for giving me lessons,’” said Paul Leithold, Roger’s son.

“He wanted to make sure people had that opportunity. He really was passionate about it.”

 

Roger began working at Leithold’s — founded in 1888 by his grandfather, Fred — as a high school student, sweeping floors and stocking merchandise before taking on sales and marketing. Eventually he took over the business from his father, Harry, and Roger made a name for himself as “the piano expert of La Crosse,” famous for his spot-on appraisals, generous discounts and payment plans, and enthusiasm for all things music.

 

Leithold died Sunday of congestive heart failure at the age of 89, leaving behind four children, his beloved wife, Teresa, and his legacy as a passionate advocate of both the arts and downtown La Crosse.

 

“Leithold’s is one of those icons in downtown La Crosse,” said Vicki Markussen, executive director of the La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a testament to his customer service and knowledge. Obviously Roger was very innovative — he saw where the market was and he responded accordingly.”

 

Leithold was born Feb. 1, 1928, in La Crosse and graduated from Central High School in December 1945. He served with the Naval Reserves and the U.S. Navy. He attended both La Crosse State Teacher’s College and Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., before returning to Leithold’s full time, putting in over 65 years at the business, now run by Paul and daughter Abbie Leithold-Gerzema, who recall being stopped in the street over the years by former customers.

“He helped out the new bands in (the 1960s and ’70s), giving them the benefit of the doubt and extending them credit,” Paul said. “People come up to me now and say, ‘He took a chance on me.’ Dad always took the high road.”

Roger served as chairman of the board of the Greater La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce during the 1970s, building friendly relationships with his fellow shop owners and competitors, and advocating extended hours for downtown businesses. Roger was known to stay open late for customers driving in from out of town, no matter how small the purchase, and for his generous deals on organs for churches or flutes for school programs. His personable, fair approach kept business booming even as other stores suffered during a downturn in the downtown economy in the 1980s.

“Roger was a very honest person,” said Bob Mayer, who worked at Leithold from 1953 to 1997. “One thing he stressed was if a customer wishes to return something, we should honor him and do it gracefully. That was sort of his creed. He loved to wait on the customer (even though) he was the boss … he even cleaned the bathroom himself.”

 

Roger’s work ethic extended beyond business. He was instrumental in the foundation and operation of the La Crosse Youth Symphony Orchestra, and he served on the Blue Stars original steering committee. He helped Frank Italiano with the development of the Da Capo Concert Band. In 1998, he became the second recipient of the Yamaha Corp.’s Touchstone Founders Award, given to longtime dealers who both sell Yamaha pianos and have a succession plan in place to sell them in the future.

 

Roger was dedicated to his own longevity as well, starting an intensive exercise regimen after open heart surgery in 2004. Joining Gundersen Health System’s Moving and Improving, he took his dogs on 4-mile hikes and logged countless hours at the gym, where he told anyone who would listen about the value of music lessons, often directing them to his wife, Teresa, who taught piano at Leithold after hours.

 

“He made friends with everyone he spoke to,” Leithold-Gerzema said of her father, who remained at Leithold as a night clerk and greeter until just two years ago. “He continued to be an advocate for all things musical. I think he was proud of the support of music here, from the community and the school system, but he was humble. He never took any credit for it.”

Obituary

HOLMEN — Roger H. Leithold, 89, of Holmen, is “incredible” in heaven as of Sunday, July 2, 2017.

Roger was born Feb. 1, 1928, in La Crosse, to Harry and Ida (Hefti) Leithold. He grew up in La Crosse and graduated from Central High School in December of 1945. He served with the Naval Reserves and the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. He met Teresa Ann Gritzner at First Presbyterian Church, and they were married Aug. 9, 1958.

Roger attended La Crosse State Teacher’s College (UW-L) and was attending Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., until he was called back to La Crosse, to take over the family business, started by his grandfather in 1888, Leithold Music, because his father was having health problems. Roger was active in the family business for over 65 years and received national awards for his contributions to the music industry. He was a passionate advocate for music his whole life. He was a strong supporter of Downtown La Crosse and had served as president of the organization that would become the Chamber of Commerce. He was an active member of First Presbyterian Church for 76 years, having been baptized there. He was head usher when he met Teresa and served as a Deacon and Elder.

Roger and Teresa purchased their farm outside of Holmen, in Casberg Coulee in 1967. He loved working on his farm, in addition to overseeing the daily operation of the music store. He enjoyed tending to his flowers and vegetable garden, and hiking and snowshoeing the coulees around his farm with his dog. He was also very proud to have reforested the farm, planting over 100,000 trees. After open heart surgery in 2004, he logged over 1,000 hours of exercise through the “Moving and Improving” cardiac rehab program at Gundersen. He maintained a very active, healthy lifestyle by working out at Be Fit gym and taking three to four mile hikes. Roger was a familiar sight to his wonderful, caring neighbors in the coulee, as Dolly and he hiked with his walking sticks and fluorescent jacket. He loved having his family gather at the farm, especially at holidays. Family was always first with Roger. They made many memories of family vacations to Spooner, Hayward, Gulf Shores, and Destin.

Roger is survived by his loving wife, Teresa; his children, Susan (Ted) Bowcock of Owatonna, Minn., Paul (Mary) Leithold of Onalaska, Ellen Leithold of Kalamazoo, Mich., and Abbie (Dave) Gerzema of La Crosse; his grandchildren, Steven Leithold, Tessa Leithold, Taylor Hoeft, Madison Hoeft, Chloe Leithold, Faith Leithold, Mike Weekley, Camille Gerzema and Audrey Gerzema; and his beloved collie, Dolly. He was preceded in death by a granddaughter, Lauren Leithold; and his brother, John Leithold.

 

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