November 16, 2017

Chris Fette was born in Virginia and spent most of his life in Pennsylvania, but it was one year in Detroit as a child and unquestioned kindness by the Religious Sisters of Mercy that changed his life and inspired a major gift to the College of Health Professions.

Fette, who built and still runs TESCO, a Pennsylvania-based maker of locomotive parts and tools, was raised by hard-working, religious parents who he says struggled much of his youth to pay the bills.

The family came to Michigan in 1946, when his mother Helen’s mother died. They moved into a house close enough for Helen to walk to Mercy College of Detroit, where she got a job as a secretary. His father, Chris, landed a job at the Packard Plant and Fette, who was five at the time, enrolled at St. Scholastica. The job with Packard was eliminated after six weeks and Fette’s father headed back to Pennsylvania for work, leaving his wife and children in Detroit. He came back regularly, traveling by bus, but Helen was his rock and support.

One winter afternoon, they returned to their house on Fenmore and it was cold. Helen examined the furnace but didn’t know what to do; her husband was back in Pennsylvania.

Helen asked advice of her co-workers and superiors, who told her that her furnace had run out of oil. She had no money to purchase any.  

“My mom was always so strong, nothing ever bothered her, but I remember this because I saw how stressed she was by this,” Fette said. “That was traumatic for me. I realized then that I didn’t know what I was going to do when I grew up, but I knew one thing: I wasn’t going to be poor.”

But help was on the way: The Sisters of Mercy, hearing of Helen’s plight, collected funds from among their fellow religious and presented Helen with enough money to heat her house. It was a kindness that she never forgot, and one that Fette repaid many decades later.

Life became more stable for the Fette family, and they were reunited in Pennsylvania, where Fette grew up. When it came time for college, he knew he couldn’t afford it, but applied at University of Detroit because it had a co-op program. He thought he could pay for his education by working through college.

But it wasn’t that easy: An admissions counselor found Fette ill-prepared for the degree in mechanical engineering he hoped to pursue and suggested trade school was a more realistic route. Fette still has that letter because it energized him to prove that he could do the work.

And he did: “I was not prepared, but I worked hard and ended up being a pretty good student.” He graduated in 1964 to a good job at GE, working on trains.

At the time, GE locomotives took much longer to repair than those built by other companies because of the way they were built. He was charged with finding a way to shorten the time the engines were out of service. His ideas were well received, but GE thought the investment in new tools and processes would be too costly, a decision that was both frustrating and inspiring.

Chris '64 and Mary Fette.
Chris ’64 and Mary Fette.

“I realized I was not doing what I wanted to do with my life, so I left GE in 1978, took our life savings of $55,000 and started working in my basement,” he said. That was the birth of Transportation Equipment Supply Company or TESCO, which he runs today with his wife Mary and their two sons. It has grown over the years and is a major manufacturer and employer in Erie, Penn. Its tools are used around the world, and one of its biggest clients is GE.

In 1985, Helen died, and Fette, a dutiful son, began regular visits her grave.  During those visits, he often hears his mother talking to him.

“She tells me to go up the hill to visit her brother, who was a priest, because she says he led a lonely life. So I do,” Fette said.

She also talked about their time in Detroit.

“I heard her say ‘Why don’t you offer something to the nuns who helped us out,’ ” he said. “And I thought, sure, I’m in a position to do that now, but wasn’t sure how.” His mother’s “recurring nudging” got to him, and he contacted the University to see how he could honor the sisters’ unquestioned generosity that had meant so much so many years ago.

He thought a gift to the College of Health Professions, with its ties to the Mercy sisters’ founder Catherine McAuley, would be just what his mother ordered. A recent expansion of the academic and lab space left the College in need of new simulation equipment. His gift of $100,000 provided the latest equipment for student learning.

“All of us in the College of Health Professions and the McAuley School of Nursing — who are dedicated to the education and development of future nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, nurse anesthetists, etc. — are so grateful for this investment by Mr. Fette in recognition of his mother and the Sisters of Mercy,” said retiring CHP Dean Christine Pacini ’70, ‘74. “This equipment is critical for the development of healthcare providers who have the required skills to bring excellent healthcare to all people.”

The Campaign for University of Detroit Mercy is raising funds to ensure students benefit from Detroit Mercy’s commitment to updated and expanded programming. Please consider making a gift toward the $100-million goal online or by calling 313-993-1250. Gifts of any size can make a major difference.