Crazy Jim changed his name and lived pedal to the metal

By NICOLE SWEENEY
of the Journal Sentinel staff
Last Updated: March 17, 2002

He was known as a flamboyant used car dealer, demolition derby pioneer, gubernatorial candidate and a Las Vegas high roller who once played cards with Frank Sinatra.

10353C
Click for large photo

Photo/File
Jim Groh, before his legal name-change to Crazy Jim, posed with a car in 1973.
 

But he made his name by legally changing it - from James Groh to Crazy Jim.

It was July 11, 1974.

"Your first name is going to be Crazy and your last name is going to be Jim?" asked Circuit Judge Leander J. Foley.

"Correct," answered Crazy Jim.

"He started out with slogans that said 'Crazy Jim is a friend of the working man,' " said Jim's daughter Debbie Liebert. "That's what stuck and he was proud of it."

Jim died Saturday March 16, 2002 in his West Milwaukee home of a heart attack. He was 68.

Jim was a West Milwaukee native who won state boxing championships while at West Milwaukee High School. His love for the sport never waned, and he was responsible for bringing Muhammad Ali to Milwaukee for a visit in 1982, said Jim's stepdaughter, Denise Kilpatrick.

He started his first car dealership when he was in his 20s, as a Studebaker dealer.

"He was pretty independent," Liebert said. "He really started as a tool-and-die maker, and he did not like 9-to-5, so he went out on his own."

Crazy Jim Motors Inc. was a mainstay at 930 S. 16th St., and soon his one dealership grew to three, plus a dealership in Las Vegas.

He built his last Milwaukee dealership on S. 27th St., "knowing that 27th was going to grow and that they were going to build on it. So his sight for business was great," Kilpatrick said.

He was also a pioneer in demolition derbies before derbies got big, Liebert said. Cars too junky to sell often found a home in the Crazy Jim Demolition Derby at the Hales Corners Speedway.

Liebert says his marketing techniques were "ahead of his time."

"He had such creative ideas for marketing, and I'm just amazed that I'm still seeing some of those ideas today," she said.

Jim did what he could to sell his cars. Wholesalers dubbed him "Crazy Jim" after he sold a lot full of cars at below cost.

"What they didn't know was that I had a wife and four kids at home and no money to put food on the table," Jim told The Milwaukee Journal in 1978.

He used the moniker to his advantage. His favorite saying was "I may be Crazy but I'm not stupid," according to Kilpatrick.

But his family was not so keen on the legal name change.

"I know my grandmother was not happy," Liebert said with a laugh. "We opposed it, but my dad is a self-made man, that is for sure, and he forged ahead."

Despite his love of the limelight, Jim was "your average American dad," Kilpatrick said. But Kilpatrick admitted she was a little embarrassed when Jim picked her up from school, beeping the horn of his red 1976 Cadillac convertible that had "Crazy Jim" flags flying out the back and demolition derby promotional magnets plastered on the outside.

Gambling advocate

In 1974, Jim ran for governor as an independent. He was very serious about his platform, which was centered on legalizing gambling, Liebert said. Although Jim lost to incumbent Patrick J. Lucey, he was proud that he carried Waushara County.

An avid gambler himself, he frequently traveled to Las Vegas. Friends introduced him to Sinatra there, and Jim would later tell his grandkids about their all-night gambling and drinking sessions, Liebert said.

After drinking, Jim was known to tear up or burn $1,000 bills - just for fun.

In 1984, while recovering in Las Vegas from a heart attack, he was shot when he surprised an intruder in his home. He lost a kidney because of the injury. "His heart problems escalated from that time forward," Liebert said.

In 1995, he served five months in prison after pleading guilty to impeding federal tax investigations into businesses he owned in the Milwaukee area.

In retirement his lifestyle changed, Liebert said. He enjoyed simple pleasures, such as telling stories about his life to his nine grandkids and three great-grandchildren.

"He often told us everything in life he wanted to do he did, and he enjoyed himself," Liebert said.

"Milwaukee will never have another Crazy Jim."

The above article appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on March 18, 2002.


Crazy Jim email memories by your Host Retro-Dave & viewer, KK

KK: Milwaukee certainly lost a colorful character.

 I remember trying to buy the "Studebaker Batteries" clock out of his
 office on 16th. St.  This was a few years after his fizzled attempt to be
a prosperous Studebaker dealer, as a result of buying out
Hundt Motors on
 south KK.

He said: "No I can't sell that clock, even though I know you want it.
 Every time I look up there, it is a reminder to never do anything as
STUPID as that again".
 True story,  KK

RD: One foggy memory I have of
Crazy Jim's old lot (besides the clock) are some of the signs & slogans that
were painted on either neighboring building walls or fences? One slogan I
remember incomplete, it either started or ended with "Don't be a
Herman".............  don't remember the rest, any thoughts?  RD
 

KK: I remember something like that.  I remember when he priced cars for 19
bananas, 25 oranges etc.  Someone hauled him into court when Crazy insisted
upon $19, instead of the 19 bananas he just purchased next door for 10
cents/lb.  A judge insisted he give the man the car for the advertised
price.  More publicity for little cost.  I do remember he stopped pricing
his cars by pieces of fruit after that. KK

Send in your Crazy Jim story or memory and we will post it here!

Posted 6-18-02
 I am writing to you to tell stories about a man who was very close to me. Crazy Jim was my grandfather. "Grandpa Crazy" as we would call him would frequent our dinner table every Thanksgiving. He would tell us stories about the old days about how he would wrestle bears and tigers at state fairs and carnivals. He would always ask my brother and I how we were doing in school and he would always have the same slogan to tell us. "I was an honor student. Yes your Honor and no your Honor", which reflected back to his early days. He also told stories about 3 day long binges with the likes of Frank Sinatra. I have taken a new interest in Sinatra because he reminds me of my Grandpa Crazy. He was a caring man who was still wheeling and dealing until his final day on earth. Grandpa Crazy sold rock salt in the winter time. This past winter was a mild one and my mother advised him not to buy any more because he would be left with an excess. He agreed with her. This was the day before he passed. The day after he passed, my mother found out that he had bought at least 5 more pallets of rock salt to be delivered that very same day that he agreed not to buy any more. He was truly a legend for Milwaukee, and my family, as well as the city of Milwaukee will miss him.
 Michael Stephen Liebert


 

I lived off of 16th Street.  My brother and I did the occasional odd job there.  Crazy Jim admired our entrepreneurial spirit, and usually gave us each a couple bucks for whatever job he gave us.  This at a time when other vendors would give us a quarter or fifty cents (for the two of us) for shoveling, sweeping, trash duty or whatever.  Oh, he expected some real work out of us...but he paid us some real money, too.  He may have been crazy...but we appreciated it.  About the fence painting slogan.  Part of it had a guy on a mule.  It said, Get off your... And visit Crazy Jim!!
I Walker

 

I remember many-a-time at Staub's Hall, a block South of Crazy Jim's Lot on 16th, having lunch talking with Crazy Jim. When Polly, (Gortie Staubís mother) would bring out our lunches and Jim would be all excited. He could eat and he loved Polly's cooking. God those were good times. Joe "Tito" Posada

I have just seen this web-site for the first time and it does bring back memories. One of them is of Crazy Jim a guy you just do not forget once you knew him.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 My story goes back to around 1976 when I meet Crazy thru renting a old Standard Oil gas station he used to own on KK, Russel & Logan in BayView. I was in my mid 20's then and wanted to be self employed and that was something he understood, so after a meeting with him at his lot on 16th and National, (me standing and him in the famous barber chair) that took about 3 minutes for him to figure out if he liked me enough to rent the station to me he said okay!

 Well I rented it from him for over a year, then went to work for Crazy & His Wife Grace at their new Car lot on 27th Street and remember going to the car auctions with him, spending one day a week up on National to get all the cars running again, meeting some celebrities that he knew like Max Bare Jr (Beverly Hillbillies) and I think he knew every car dealer in the city at that time or at least they knew Him as he was always out buying more cars as he had three lots to stock up. But he never put his pair of Eldorodo Converts up for sale back then. He drove one and Grace drove the other. I learned about how to repo cars from him and that was a skill I have used in later years.

 I had not seen him for almost 20 years and one day I ran across him at a car auction, so we talked for a while and he was no longer a Car Dealer (retired) but still liked to go to the auctions once in a while as he just had being a dealer in his blood and he also enjoyed talking to old friends about the past too!

Paul "Repo" Asik

 

Crazy Jim Story email link

Back to Retro Milwaukee