Gary Ahrens was sure his memories and impressions of Tim Mickelson would differ in certain ways from the men Mickelson rowed with at the 1972 Olympics and 1974 world championships.
Ahrens - a self-described "ham and egger club rower" - was certain that someone who won an Olympic silver medal and a world championship gold in the U.S. men's eight would have a side to him only other elite athletes would know.
He was apparently wrong.
Tim Mickelson the Olympian was the same man as the guy that answered Ahrens' call when he needed help reviving the Milwaukee Rowing Club - the man who was raised in a small Wisconsin town and worked in the family grocery store, played football and then rowed at the University of Wisconsin, excelled academically and in business, married his college sweetheart, and raised a family.
The man Ahrens described as possessing an unstoppable work ethic and a "kind and gentle soul" was the same man to everyone, friends and family members recalled this week following Mickelson's passing at home from ALS (more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease) early Wednesday morning. He was 68.
"I met him as a friend and knew that the essential nature of Tim was goodness," Ahrens said. "I know that sounds old fashioned, or an odd word, but he had this single goodness. Tim was kind, and gentle and generous."
The US 2017 Men's Eight rowing the Tim Mickelson (w/fellow Wisco grad and bowseat Tim Aghai in Wisco uni)
Born in Madison, Wisconsin, and raised in nearby Deerfield as part of close knit family that worked together on a family farm and in a family-owned and operated small town store, Mickelson's personality was developed through example and with personal values that hinged on hard work and personal integrity.
He attended the University of Wisconsin, where he earned an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering. Following Wisconsin, Mickelson earned a graduate degree in biomedical engineering at Dartmouth College, and completed his formal education earning a Ph.D in Physiology (Exercise) and Anatomy at Ohio University.
Mickelson begin his collegiate athletic career in football his freshman year, but left the team when it became clear that the time commitment would interfere with his studies. As soon as he left the team, then rowing coach Randall T. "Jabo" Jablonic scooped him up.
Mickelson rowed for Wisconsin and on U.S. national teams while still an undergraduate, and following his collegiate career, Mickelson was invited to the 1972 men's camp in Hanover, NH. He was selected to row at the 1972 Olympics where he won a silver medal, becoming the second Olympic oarsman from Wisconsin and its first Olympic medalist. Two years later, Mickelson rowed on the men's eight that won the world championship in Lucerne, Switzerland.
"I don't profess to have known him well but the few times I did meet him, I came away thinking about his intensity," said current Wisconsin head coach, Chris Clark. "While there are a lot of successful personalities that make it to the top in rowing, guys that give off the unspoken vibe of competitive menace are underrepresented. I think Tim fit that mold perfectly.
"As far as Olympians go, yes, he is in the Wisco Pantheon; a walk-on Badger who went all the way. Even in the modern collegiate landscape which is utterly different from the 60's, fellows that fit Tim's mold are as rare as they are coveted. Strokes and racing experience are nice, but born-to-win is better, and that is who Tim was," Clark said.
Medals won by Tim Mickelson
Rowing became a passion for Mickelson and he continued in the sport where he could, helping to coach his son Todd's high school team; later, when asked by Ahrens, he helped energize and put together and train a group at the Milwaukee Rowing Club for the 1985 world masters championship in Toronto, Canada.
As Ahrens recalls, he got Mickelson's name from a 1974 U.S. teammate, made a call, left a message and heard back from Mickelson, "I think in about twenty-seconds." Mickelson, Ahrens said, showed up and just started teaching and putting things together.
"So, Tim came down and I gathered up a crew of people and he went out with us in the eight," Ahrens said. "As I told other people, it was not a great act of Christian charity to go out with us the first day - but to come back the second day, that was the first step on the road to Sainthood."
But, said Mickelson's wife Beth, that was just who her husband was. Who he always was.
"Tim was a very humble man," she said. "People who knew him, friends and business associates who never knew him as an athlete were shocked when they learned about his athletic accomplishments. He never blew his own horn. He told me once, 'that's what I did in the past.' He was always moving forward."
They Met on a Dock
Beth and Tim Mickelson have different versions of the same story about the day they met. Beth's version is that she was a new student at Wisconsin living in a dorm on the lake next to a "square, concrete building" that she thought was the maintenance facility.
"My story, and it's true, is I was a transfer student and classes had just begun, and I was in a dorm next to this beautiful lake. I went onto one of the many docks that were sitting there to study and the boathouse - at the time it was a very utilitarian, square, concrete building, and I thought it was a maintenance building - and suddenly this big door opened and these guys walked out.
"They started telling me all about the sport and showed me the boats, and Tim was one of them. Tim's 'haha' version of the story was that I was out there to meet the guys. He always kidded me about that. But he knew it wasn't true."
Beth said Tim loved rowing and it was something he "he carried forth in life."
But she said, it was not what formed his personality. His Midwestern, small town upbringing did that.
"He was a very humble human being," she said. "He didn’t exactly put his emotions right on his sleeve, but he was very deep and a very sincere human being and he had a great work ethic that was formed working in his dad's and his dad's cousin's small grocery store in their small town of about 800 people.
"It was called the M&A Grocery Store and Market, and it was right there on Main Street in Deerfield. It was kind of an all-purpose store. They had dry goods, food, and furniture down in the basement. All the family worked in the store from way back and they were taught a good work ethic, and to be very respectable to people. They were very compassionate people.
"Some of the customers had large families and were just subsiding and they would offer them credit, or just let some things go. They were a very, very wonderful family. They would take other things for payment. One time it was a dog," she said.
"He learned a lot working in that store that he carried with him in life."
And Right Into a Boat
As an oarsman, Mickelson brought his Midwestern values and work ethic with him. When he was invited to the 1972 camp run by the late legendary rowing coach Harry Parker, Mickelson was "the only guy that wasn't Ivy League," said Mike Livingston, who rowed in the silver medal eight.
Livingston knew Mickelson from when they rowed together on a 1969 US team, but his memories of those days are not as clear as they are of the '72 camp and Olympic eight.
"I didn't really get to know him in '69," Livingston said. "It was really the 1972 camp that is solidified in my mind. It was week after week of daily, intense competition for your seat. I think every one of us felt like it was a life and death struggle every day.
"That's where our relationship really started, in that type of environment, and then after the eight was selected," Livingston said. "We had a lengthy period of training in Hanover and then we went to Europe, raced through Europe, and then had a high-altitude training camp in St. Moritz.
"We lived and trained together as a crew, and I don't remember a lot of the individual events or have a lot of anecdotes, I just remember that in the eight that was selected Tim, he was the only one that wasn't from the Ivy League and he brought a real, unique perspective and presence to the group.
"He clearly proved himself on the water and it was his general character, his sense of humor, his Midwestern values, his leadership by example, his tremendous work ethic that I remember," said Livingston.
"He was always eager to do the work assigned, and sometimes pushed to do more. You just had this sense went you went to the line with him, he was one person you could count on for every stroke down the course."
Livingston said the crew bonded in way that only a group of people immersed in something that intense can. It can bring out the best, and sometimes the not best, traits in people, and through it all Mickelson was a binding force, he recalled.
"The things that come to mind are a lack of pretension, a salt of the Earth kind of guy that never had an unkind word about anyone, ever, that I can remember. And the leading by example, to me is one of the most powerful qualities that I recall about Tim. Whatever was going on, you could count on him to be an example of how it should be done, and he always made you aspire to do better and do more."
Passing that Example Along
Following his career as a rower, Mickelson was a leader and executive in the medical engineering, diagnostics and patient care fields. He headed up several companies, advancing from product manager and general manager to eventually become president and chief operating officer at Marquette Electronics, Inc. in Milwaukee.
In 1998 he moved to Bothell, WA, to become a CEO at Philips Medical Systems.
In the days since he was diagnosed with ALS in January and was later moved to hospice, the people who have worked for, or rowed with, Mickelson have written, called and emailed the family to share their memories of him.
The stories of his work ethic and basic family beliefs were not new to his three sons, Dayne, Todd and Bryan. He instilled the lessons he learned in Deerfield in all of them, pushing them with a firm, but compassionate, hand to excel in the things they pursued in school and out. They were familiar with their Dad's personal motto "Higher and Harder."
Said son Bryan: "For me Higher and Harder applies to most everything in some fashion - school, work, sports. It was the motto I think everyone related to him. One of the boats he donated to Lehigh University where my brother Todd rowed was named the Higher and Harder," Bryan said.
"He had a special way to help guide you to achieve your full potential," agreed Todd, who was coached by their father.
"Whether it was in school, athletics, or life in general. On the water, his presence was all you needed to want to push yourself higher and harder on the next piece. As a kid, I was always timid to try new things and push myself, but his compassionate guidance and contagious drive helped me, my brothers, and even our friends achieve goals we didn't know were possible," he said.
"While I always saw him as a loving father, others sometimes initially pictured him as intimidating due to his successes. It wasn't until they had a chance to be in his presence that they saw him the same way our family did."
What has surprised Mickelson's family is the "consistency" of the things people have told them during the difficult time of hospice and his passing.
"It's interesting hearing the things people told us about him, or wrote to us about him," Todd said. "The consistencies in the stories that go way back to just recently. People have been commenting on things the same way, on how they saw him, how he approached things, how he mentored them.
"As a CEO, he ate lunch in the employee lunch room and parked in the employee parking lot," Todd said. "And he was the person who was willing to mentor people and push them to reach their full potential, regardless of who they were or if they were connected to him athletically, or in the office or the academic world. He was able to find ways to push people to their potential with compassion, not overdo it, but try to bring out the best in them."
Remembered on the Water and Off
The 1974 World Championship Eight
Next month, in honor of all he brought to the rowing community – and the connection he and his teammates have maintained and kept alive rowing at the Head of The Charles every year for more than 20 - the members of the USA 1974 World Championship eight has sponsored the boat the 2017 U.S. men's eight will row in Sarasota, FL, at the World Championships.
As part of the event's ceremonies, the crew will hold a tribute row in the eight and have asked Todd to represent his father in the bow.
Mickelson served in the United States Army between 1971 and 1973. He served as a member of the Cardiac Science Corporation Board of Directors, and as Board Chairman of the Candela Corporation. He was a member of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, Review Board for New Technology.
In addition to his wife, Beth Ann Breed Mickelson, and three sons, Mickelson is survived by one sister; Peggy, two grandchildren, and was preceded in death by his father Jerome and mother Elaine.
Funeral services are scheduled to be held Saturday September 16 at 4 PM at Holy Spirit Lutheran Church in Kirkland, WA. Interment is planned for Spring 2018 in Mickelson's hometown of Deerfield, Wisconsin.
A Celebration of Life memorial is tentatively planned for early November in Seattle, Wash. at the University of Washington. Details are forthcoming.
The US 2017 Men's Eight rowing the Tim Mickelson in training