Release Date: June 30, 2014
O.C. Boldt not the retiring type
APPLETON – The handprints pressed into the foundation of the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center appear to be the random act of a vandal, like a kid's impulsive stamp in a wet cement sidewalk.
In reality, they're a tribute, much like the movie star hand prints immortalized at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood.
Though here, there's no signature or nameplate.
"You're not supposed to know they're mine," said Oscar C. Boldt, the builder who got the PAC built on budget and on time — actually a week early — 12 years ago.
"If anyone asks if they're my hands, I'll say yes."
Many people in the Fox Cities have heard the Boldt name, or have seen it in bold burgundy letters on construction trucks from Appleton West High School to St. Elizabeth Hospital.
The name is emblazoned on construction sites around the country as well, including 18 hospitals and numerous power plants and schools right now. A recent NBC Nightly News segment on rebuilding a year after the Moore, Okla., tornado featured a reporter and school principal in Boldt hardhats. But ask people about Oscar C. Boldt, chairman of The Boldt Company who turned 90 years old on Easter, and the answers thin out from there. That's the way he likes it.
Boldt — simply known as O.C. to friends — was at the helm of his family's Appleton-based construction company for four decades, ending in 1990, and since then has never retired. He has been at the company for 66 years, more than half of its 125-year history.
He calls himself a "24-hour-a-day thinker" and now acts as an adviser at the company, doing some marketing work and meeting with those who now run the show: his son Tom Boldt, CEO, and Bob DeKoch, president.
The handprints story
The story about the handprints on the College Avenue side of the PAC illustrates how obsessed Boldt was about getting the building right.
"When we were building the PAC, I was there two, three times a day. This particular day I couldn't get there. I took (his wife) Pat home and I said, 'I need to go to the PAC.' By the time I got there, it was 1 or 2 in the morning. We had a guard who let me in.
"I went up on the first balcony level and I looked out across the room and for the first time I sensed what it was going to be like. With no thought, I backed up against the wall. I put my two hands on the wall and when I brought the two hands forward I had two hands full of wet plaster."
The PAC staff got wind of the story and they asked to make a cast of his hands in the same position to immortalize in the foundation wall.
He smiles when people ask about the handprints. But he's even happier that people are paying good money to buy tickets and watch shows at the entertainment venue he built.
His favorite construction project is the PAC, which he says 12 years later, is still the right design.
"There is very little, if anything, that I would change. It functions beautifully," he said. "I'm sure in the next 90 years, I'm not going to have a chance to do a project like that again."
Avoiding the spotlight
Boldt's longevity and stature are not accompanied by an outsized ego. He doesn't crave attention or talk about himself.
"My favorite thing is creating something that wasn't there before, and to do it as well as I can," he said. "It's to bring honor to Martin (his grandfather) and O.J. (his father). Neither had the opportunities I had." Others who know him fill in the blanks.
"O.C. is the patriarch of the Fox Cities as I see it," said John Bergstrom, chairman and CEO of Bergstrom Automotive, who has been a friend of Boldt for nearly four decades. They've collaborated for numerous personal and public projects, including the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center. Meeting with him is always a shot in the arm.
"He is a leader in making this a special place to live and work and raise a family. This community is a much better place because of him," Bergstrom said. "He has built and rebuilt every hospital in the Valley. He is changing the face of the downtowns. He's done every building on Lawrence's campus in the last 30 years."
"He's not looking for the glory. He just wants to make a difference," said Kathi Seifert, a former Kimberly-Clark executive who worked closely with Boldt on the PAC. "He's very proud of this community and wants to leave it a better place," she said. "He loves Appleton and loves the community."
Work has always been a passion, says Pat Boldt, his wife of nearly 65 years, since July 9, 1949. "He puts his feet on the floor in the morning and can hardly wait to get to work."
Pat Boldt says her husband wears his honesty and faith proudly.
"He was very honest even when it was tough," she said. "He's authentic. He is thoughtful. He makes good decisions. He cares about people. He's strong-minded, but in a positive way. He's certainly is not for himself."
She said they're grounded in their Christian faith, and dinner table conversations are about what's going on in Appleton and the world. He's a voracious reader and they subscribe to four newspapers. They raised three children, and even with his brutal work schedule, she said he made time for the kids. He never worked on Sundays.
At one time, they were both on numerous nonprofit boards, often chairing them. They still donate buckets of money — half of his income every year — to their church, charities, colleges and local arts organizations. They regularly attend performances at the PAC and Lawrence University.
Oscar Boldt has a wry wit, gentle demeanor and work ethic that could shame anyone a third of his age. His memory is clear. People are attracted to him like a magnet.
When he was inducted into the Chamber of Commerce's business hall of fame in October, he spent time mingling in the lobby of the PAC rather than writing his speech.
"I guarantee my speech will be short," he said.
Boldt's stories about buildings are, interestingly, often not even about buildings.
"Say it's a hospital," he said. "You're in the lobby where people are coming in that are having a heart attack. A woman is having a baby. There are all kinds of variety of need. At the same time, you'll see people coming out of the hospital who have had their heart attack, who've had their baby.
"You suddenly realize that building the building was just the start of its life. You had something to do with that." One story he loves from building the PAC has nothing to do with the glittering opening or admiring crowds.
It was about one unnamed worker.
"I was up on the second level they were forming the area near the skylight," he said. "There was a 6-foot-something Oneida Indian who was a rod- buster. He saw me talking to someone. He straightened up and came over. He pulled off his gloves and said, 'Are you the boss man here?' He had a big smile on his face. He thrust his hand, which was twice my size, into mine and said, 'I'd work for you guys anywhere, anytime.'"
Buildings, in Boldt's estimation, must firstly be functional. They should be tightly planned, designed and executed so there's no money wasted. But they must also be fun to build.
"There's an attitude we try to create in our projects. If you're not having fun, you shouldn't be on this job. At the PAC, people voluntarily worked 10 hours a day for a year and a half. Of course they made good money," he said. "Having fun is part of living a whole life."
Boldt grew up during the Great Depression, hardly a time of great fun, in a family that barely scraped by. His family's business had little work, and ended up making artillery boxes in WWII to pay off debts.
He served as a B-24 navigator in the Air Force during WWII, then finished his degree at University of Wisconsin in Madison.
Boldt came back to Appleton to work at the family firm in 1948 when annual sales were less than $100,000. He remembers his weekly take-home pay was $55.
When his father, Oscar J. Boldt, left the company due to illness, Boldt found himself in charge of a firm verging on bankruptcy. He forged ahead, taking chances in bigger projects like churches, schools and hospitals. For 15 years, he was the company's only estimator.
He built the company's reputation on honesty, hard work, high quality and delivering buildings on budget and on time. "I tried to model myself after my grandfather and be stubborn on the right things."
Last year, the company generated revenues of $712 million.
Boldt always knew he wanted to be a builder like his father and grandfather.
"From the time I was 4 years old, all I ever wanted to do was to be involved in construction," he said.
"I used to lie in the shop, where the office was on Badger Avenue and Eighth Street. I grew up spending more time alone than I did with other kids. I was a Lutheran growing up in a Catholic neighborhood.
"I'd lay on the lumber there and I'd smell the freshness of new lumber. I'd dream about someday what I'm going to do." Boldt is still a dreamer and thinker. He's not ready to step away from his chosen profession all these years later.
One word that doesn't seem to appear in his vocabulary is retire. "I should," he said. "But I don't know if I ever would."