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IBM CEO chose to build in Rochester as 'tribute' to his friend

A handwritten note from Audrey Fiegel Higgins Garbisch answered the lingering question of why IBM CEO Tom Watson chose to build in Rochester.

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A handwritten note from Audrey Fiegel Higgins Garbisch answered the lingering question of why IBM CEO Tom Watson chose to build in Rochester.
Answer Man / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — Here’s a little known fact: Sometimes I don’t have all the answers.

It’s a very rare occurrence, but it does happen. Luckily, this city's pool of knowledge is very deep, particularly when it comes to Rochester history that they lived through.

The question was recently raised about the oft-repeated story that IBM chose to build in Rochester in 1956 based on a wartime friendship between IBM CEO Tom Watson Jr. and Leland (Lee) Fiegel of Rochester.

The Answer Man dug through old newspaper clippings with the help of Rochester Public Library reference librarian Susan Hansen, one of her last projects before retiring. IBM archivists checked the records and public statements of Watson.

The story of the friendship between Watson and the heroic Rochester pilot Fiegel is easily documented. On an almost three-month secret mission in 1942, they flew together from Washington, D.C. to Siberia via South America, Africa and China with Fiegel as pilot and Watson as co-pilot.

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Fiegel was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross medal for the flight.

"With no thought of personal hardship consequent to flying on the flight and repeated flights made within the Soviet Union under conditions made hazardous by extremely adverse weather conditions, the proximity of enemy aircraft ... inaccurate maps, inadequate communications ... and dangerous overload conditions, he displayed conspicuous skill, courage, initiative, and good judgment in the performance of his duties ...," according to Fiegel's Flying Cross citation.

Watson maintained the friendship with the Fiegel family even after his friend died in a stateside plane crash after the end of the war. The IBM CEO was one of Fiegel’s pallbearers at the 1948 funeral.

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This undated photo show the inside of the IBM facility in Rochester.
Answerman / Post Bulletin

Unfortunately, my research team could not find any direct Watson comments in newspaper accounts or other documents citing his friendship with Fiegel as driving the 1956 decision to build in Rochester. That left the final answer on the IBM story as inconclusive.

And then a hand-written card from Audrey Fiegel Higgins Garbisch, Lee Fiegel’s sister, arrived at the Post Bulletin’s headquarters with the definitive answer plus some Post Bulletin clippings tucked in the envelope that even my team had not been able to find in our archives.

“As the last living Fiegel sibling, I feel obligated to resurface a few facts from the past history.

As you will note, Tom Watson, IBM’s CEO, would not have been aware of our Rochester had it not been for that 'historical' flight in 1942 which introduced him when the crew landed here on their return to D.C. My Dad staged a reception at the Kahler and it made headlines!,” she wrote.

One PB article quoted Watson as saying, “I admired him (Fiegel) as much as any man I ever knew.”

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While interesting, none of that locked down specifically why Watson chose Rochester, which had a population of about 30,000 people, to build an $8 million campus in 1956.

Toward the end of her note, Audrey dropped the final word on the issue.

“We have a tape in which Tom (Watson) announced that Rochester was chosen as a ‘tribute to his friendship with Leland and the Fiegel family,’” she wrote.

So there is proof that friendship did bring a Fortune 500 company with a massive facility and thousands of jobs to Rochester in the 1950s. The move boosted Rochester from a minor city to a major player. Mayo Clinic later leapfrogged IBM in 1966 to become the top employer, but Big Blue remained a driving force for decades.

I must humbly thank Audrey for assisting in answering this question.

Send questions to Answer Man at answerman@postbulletin.com .

Related Topics: ANSWER MANIBMROCHESTER
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