Fritz Hetzel came to the U.S. in 1958. He led the first German-American festival.
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Fritz Hetzel's friends all were buying motorcycles, and although he had saved enough money by cutting hair at the U.S. 7th Army headquarters in Heidelberg, Germany, he decided not to go rollin' and chillin' with his buddies but bought a ship ticket to North America.
He arrived on the continent in 1958 to pursue the American Dream, and in 1965 made a suggestion that led to the start of the Toledo-area's now-famous annual German-American Festival. He modeled the festival, which will mark its 45th year when it opens on Friday, after the famous Oktoberfest in Munich, Bavaria, a 16-day festival held annually from late September to early October.
Seeking to avoid confusion over several German-American groups holding events at about the same time, Mr. Hetzel suggested that the groups join together and organize one major event.
"We, several representatives of the area German-American societies, were talking about how the societies weren't doing so good and then I came up with an idea that instead of several picnics by individual groups we have one single festival where we would all work together to promote and perpetuate our German heritage," Mr. Hetzel, 79, said in a phone interview with The Blade from his home in Delray Beach, Fla.
He and his wife of 49 years, Ann, formerly of Temperance, Mich., have lived there since 2005.
Mr. Hetzel, 79, served as chairman and president of the first German-American festival in 1966. The event was at Raceway Park on Telegraph Road in Toledo; it moved to the former Lucas County Recreation Center in Maumee in 1975, and finally to the Oak Shade Grove in Oregon in 1985.
Oregon Mayor Mike Seferian said the festival has been good for Oregon.
"For years we had a problem with identity of Oregon with people thinking of it as a suburb of Toledo," Mr. Seferian said.
"The German-American festival has given us the opportunity to feature our city as the host community, a place where people can celebrate their heritage," Mr. Seferian said.
This year, the mayor noted, Oregon held its Fourth of July celebration at Oak Shade Grove where the German-American Festival has been so successfully held for the last 25 years. "And that's where the city will be holding the Fourth of July celebrations annually," Mr. Sefarian said.
Mr. Hetzel, a native of the Heidelberg suburb of Bammental, came from a musical family and also was the founder, leader, and a singer of the Tyroliers, a band that performed for 43 years at German festivals in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan.
For years he also arranged area concerts by musical groups visiting from Germany.
In the early 1970s, he also arranged a U.S. tour for a champion youth soccer team from West Germany.
In 1977, Mr. Hetzel, by then a naturalized U.S. citizen of 14 years, received West Germany's highest civilian award for citizens of other countries, the Bundesverdienstkreuz, the Federal Cross of Merit.
The only son of a self-employed seamstress and a wallpaper-factory worker, he at times owned a barber shop and a bar, and co-owned a restaurant in Toledo.
Most recently, Mr. Hetzel had co-owned Fritz & Alfredo's on North Summit Street in North Toledo for about 12 years before he sold his share in the restaurant in 2002.
Mr. Hetzel also worked at Ottawa Hills Memorial Park, where he rose from a salesman to vice president, a position from which he retired in the late 1980s.
Mr. Hetzel, who lost his father at age 12 and whose mother Anna and sister Hannah stayed behind in Germany, said he never regretted coming to the United States "to have a better future."
"I am tremendously proud of my role in starting the festival because we have kept our German heritage for 45 years [since its idea was conceived]," he said.
The 45th Annual German-American Festival will be Friday from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Saturday from 2 p.m. to 1 a.m., and Sunday from noon to 11 at Oak Shade Grove, 3624 Seaman Rd., Oregon. Information: gafsociety.org/fest.htm.
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