Allen Fehr loved his family, his community and the business he co-founded. The Freeport, Illinois, native died Sunday. He was 87.
He leaves behind a legacy in Freeport and at Fehr Graham Engineering & Environmental, a firm he founded with friend Joe Graham in his hometown in 1973. The firm, which started with five employees in one office, now employs nearly 200 people in 11 offices in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin. Many still remember Al as a colleague and leader. What almost always comes to mind is his infectious laugh, a smile that lit up every room and a heart of gold that crafted a business model the company still follows.
Fehr Graham Board Chairman Mick Gronewold said although Al has been away from the office for nearly three decades, he still plays an influential role in the day-to-day operations of the thriving firm.
"Al was instrumental in not only creating and growing the business but played a key role in what I feel is one of Fehr Graham's biggest differentiators," Gronewold said. "His vision has been key to our long-term success and is one reason we continue to grow after great owners like him retire."
He was kind to everyone
Gay Broocks, a Senior Engineering Technician who today is the firm's longest employee at 45 years, thinks of Al each morning as she walks by the company's Core Values sign. The last value – Have Fun – she feels came directly from Al.
"He's the one whose phrase was always, 'Have fun,'" Gay said. "Mr. Fehr was a man of great energy."
She said when they worked together, each day before lunch Al would stop by her desk to collaborate on projects and his energetic outlook on work – and life – was inspiring. He naturally related to people. That zesty perspective still carries on in many Fehr Graham employees today.
"He made all of the clients his friends in one way or another," Gay said. "He related to everyone. He was kind to everyone. He wanted to help advance Freeport. We're much better off than if he hadn't been here."
Al was a member of Faith United Methodist Church since 1955. He served on many boards, including Kiwanis Club, YMCA, FHN, Northwest Illinois Bancorp, Boys & Girls Club of Freeport and Furst McNess.
Todd Weegens spent nearly 30 years at Fehr Graham before retiring as one of the firm's owners in 2017. Todd worked with Al for about a year before he retired.
"In that one year I would say he's one of the top – if not the top – business mentors that I had," Todd said. "The love and respect that I have for Al is very big. He made such a great impression on me."
The businessman in Al intrigued Weegens. He said he did everything strategically and with an "ever-present smile" and laugh that became contagious throughout the office. Al and his wife, Marlene, were naturally positive people – and even had license plates that read "Happy2B" – a moniker that seemingly led them through life.
When Al retired in 1990, the couple lived in France for several months and later moved to downtown Chicago. Eventually, they settled back in Freeport, spending winters in Florida. Weegens said their travels were a testament to their adventurous spirit.
At the firm, Al was known as a true leader. Although his career was winding down by the time Todd started working at Fehr Graham, he said Al never let an opportunity to teach pass. He mostly remembers how Al approached the business and the gentle way he offered advice.
"He never got overly high on wins and never let the losses take a toll on him," Todd said. "He gave me lots of advice. 'No matter how busy you are you answer the phone, and you always get back to people.'"
Todd and Al remained friends long after Al's retirement and would talk shop as they socialized. Todd said Al enjoyed talking about Fehr Graham. Although he was proud of the business he founded, he was more interested to hear about the firm's achievements after he left.
"He was proud of the growth, the care and the shepherding of the ownership group that was still making things happen," Todd said. "He was overjoyed the firm continued to exist and grow the way it has."
Former Fehr Graham owner Quentin Davis was the eighth person hired at Fehr Graham in 1976. He spent his entire career at the firm.
"Al was a very good businessman and a very fun person," Quentin said. "He lived life with the idea that it's not all work – it's fun, too."
He said Al's personable demeanor made people gravitate to him. He became an important mentor to Quentin and dozens of others who worked for Fehr Graham.
"He pushed people to do their best and wanted people not to rely on others," Quentin said, noting that Al encouraged people to use their resources to accomplish things on their own.
He saw Al often in recent years, before COVID-19, during the Fehr Graham retiree luncheons. Quentin enjoyed those visits.
Fehr Graham's first office opened at 660 W. Stephenson Street in Freeport with five employees on Sept. 15, 1973. Al Fehr and Joe Graham were competing for work and decided instead to form a business together.
"We had complete trust in each other," Al said in 2017.
A visitation is scheduled for 4-7 p.m. Friday at Faith United Methodist Church, 1440 S. Walnut Ave., Freeport. The funeral is at 11 a.m. Saturday at Faith United Methodist Church. Read more about Al Fehr in his obituary.