ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Is a Rochester legend about a wartime friendship and IBM accurate?

The Answer Man digs deep to find answers about the origins of IBM in Rochester and how a wartime friendship fits into the story.

ibm rochester
The IBM campus in Northwest Rochester.
Post Bulletin file photo
We are part of The Trust Project.

Dear Brainiac,

I have a question about why IBM chose to build an $8 million campus in 1956 in Rochester, which had a population of about 30,000 people. The late state lawmaker David Bishop wrote an article in 2011 that said it was the wartime friendship between the IBM CEO and a Rochester pilot that spurred Big Blue to choose the Med City over Madison, Wisconsin.

That sounds like a local legend. Is there proof that a friendship brought a major Fortune 500 company and thousands of jobs to Rochester?

Looking for Big Blue’s clues

Dear clueless,

ADVERTISEMENT

I have heard many versions of the tale of why IBM chose Rochester. Personally, I think the version that Dave Bishop wrote is my favorite. It is a fantastic story of friendship transforming a community.

Unfortunately, it might not be completely accurate.

Here's the basic background. Thomas Watson, Jr., the son of IBM founder and future CEO, was a pilot in World War II. He flew missions with Leland (Lee) Fiegel of Rochester who was also a pilot. In 1942, they flew to Moscow for a secret mission, which later resulted in Fiegel being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross medal for "meritorious achievement.”

IBM 1958 pb.jpg
The former IBM campus in Rochester, seen here in an aerial view in 1958, was designed by famed architect Eero Saarinen. (Contributed photo from the History Center of Olmsted County)
Post Bulletin file photo

I reached out to IBM to see if there was ever a recorded instance of Watson saying his connection to Fiegel drove the decision to build in Rochester.

“We have not been able to confirm this story. Yes, Thomas Watson, Jr. and Leland (Lee) Fiegel did fly on bomber missions during the war. And yes, Watson maintained a relationship with the Fiegel family following Lee’s death. However, we have not uncovered any corroboration to support the family’s assertion that Watson chose Rochester as an homage to his war buddy,” according to a response by IBM’s Lorie Luedke.

IBM historians went on to flesh out what is documented about the decision to build in Rochester.

“At the time of the announcement in 1956, the health and vibrancy of the city’s civic institutions were cited by IBM as the official reason. Decades later, in a 1989 speech at the Mayo Clinic, Watson, Jr. singled out the hospital as the chief reason,” wrote IBM’s archivist.

In that 1989 speech, Watson is quoted as saying, “When it became time to build an IBM plant out in that general area of the country, and nobody around the table had any particular idea where to go in that circle that included Lone Rock and some of your other interesting towns, I spoke up for the Mayo Clinic which accounts for the IBM plant being in that area today.”

ADVERTISEMENT

A 1958 Post Bulletin article mentioned another reason: “Reporters were interested in why a Midwest site was chosen for this plant and how Rochester was picked. Watson explained that the company realized that it was awkward and dangerous for the customers of IBM to have its production concentrated in the East, so the executive plotted on a map the center of 12 Midwest states and swung a pencil in a radius 200 miles, which included Rochester, and then had an independent survey firm investigate about 80 cities for a possible site,” reads a Sept. 30, 1958 Post Bulletin article.

23cf851f573f1e1037639923b3c463e1.jpg
Interior. IBM Manufacturing and Administrative Center in Rochester. 1956-58.
Contributed

Later in the article, Watson explained, “We thought Rochester wanted an industry and it seemed the sort of place where our people could find more than the average intellectual challenge. We thought it was a very logical place to build a plant.”

Bishop’s account states that Fiegel, who was based in Washington, D.C., as a U.S. Army flight trainer, flew to New York in 1948 to meet with Watson. The return to Washington proved to be the last flight for Fiegel, who survived so many battles in World War II.

Fiegel’s plane crashed in Maryland killing him and two others. Newspaper articles in 1948 quote witnesses as saying an engine fell off the plane and it “disintegrated.”

The tragic death of his friend did come up when IBM announced the plans to build in Rochester. “Watson said that he was delighted his firm had decided on the site here (Rochester) because of his association with the Fiegel family,” reported a Sept. 27, 1958, Post Bulletin article.

The bottom line is that neither the archivists at IBM and Mayo Clinic nor the Rochester Public Library’s amazing reference librarian Susan Hansen or even the Answer Man's crack investigative team could find definitive proof that the Watson/Fiegel friendship brought IBM to Rochester.

It's still a good story.

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

Related Topics: ANSWER MANROCHESTERIBM
What To Read Next
Wondering what the commotion was in your neighborhood? Here's a collection of daily incident reports from the week.
The Workforce Development, Inc., Southeast Minnesota Workforce Development Board and the Winona Workforce Development Board request people register on the Eventbrite website.
Subscribe and listen to the Post Bulletin Minute at postbulletin.com, Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.
The Blue Collar Cafe in Eyota is just like any small town cafe but has its own flavor of consistency with new ownership that took over in fall 2021.