With organization that would rival a military campaign, Will Hollrith has run the megafish fry at Grafton’s St. Joseph Parish for 20 years, raising more than $350,000
When Will Hollrith developed the idea of a fish fry fundraiser for St. Joseph Parish in Grafton 20 years ago, he didn’t imagine serving 1,000 people per night.
But Hollrith only knows how to do things one way.
“Guys like me, I’m very busy at what I do,” he said. “I have a passion for this, and I care.”
Humble beginnings of hiring an outside vendor to fry the fish and serve a few hundred people have grown to organizing the entire fry himself and serving 5,000 per year.
A real estate agent by day, Hollrith said the fish fry has become a second job during Lent.
“I have treated this as a business within the church. It has become a budget item for them,” Hollrith said.
He got the idea for the fish fry at a trade show in the late 1990s when he served as activities director for the parish’s annual festival, for which he hired a musical group and an animal group to entertain.
“I figured it would be a way to start making some money for the church,” Hollrith said.
In 20 years, the fry’s proceeds have exceeded $350,000. Money goes to help pay down the annual shortfall at St. Joseph Parish School.
But the fry does plenty more than raise money.
“It may have started out as a fundraiser, but over time it has grown to be an extension of who we are as a parish,” parish director Brenda Cline said.
“Not only has it built community within our own walls, but I think it has built community in our community.”
Hollrith said through the fish fry he has made many friends over the years.
“It brings people together at Lent for a meal. It’s a community builder,” he said.
Construction took time and involvement from both the parish and school communities.
“We need each volunteer from the school family to the church family to get involved,” Cline said.
Hollrith starts preparation for the fry each fall, working with food suppliers, obtaining items for the drawing and developing the fry’s theme.
He holds an annual meeting — following parliamentary procedure — each February with the fish fry committee, which includes 26 people this year.
In addition to an overview of the fry, the committee votes on which other charities will receive donations. Hollrith said years ago a policy of tithing was established.
This year, $2,000 is being donated to a handful of charities such as Children’s Hospital.
“We’re quite proud of what we do from that standpoint,” Hollrith said.
The committee includes captains responsible for leading and getting volunteers for their own areas, such as frying, cleanup and desserts.
Hollrith cleans out the three 50-gallon oil drums each Tuesday and on Friday and arrives at church around noon to begin preparations.
“If you don’t have the right oil and it’s not clean, you’re not having a fish fry. It’s the nucleus,” he said.
Once the fry starts, 70-plus volunteers go to work each week.
“I’ve watched young kids for the first time learn how to work as the parents come in with their son and daughter,” Hollrith said.
Hollrith serves as greeter and troubleshooter, from making sure the elevator is working to answering questions about ingredients from guests to sending a runner to the store for more hot dog buns for children’s meals.
“I make sure the system is working,” he said.
Before he leaves, usually after 11 p.m., Hollrith has one step to complete.
“After each fish fry, I email the committee. They won’t go to bed until I tell them how many meals I serve that night.”
Last week, it was 1,068, up from 992 the Friday before.
Detail oriented and organized, Hollrith runs a tight and clean ship. Hand washing and hairnets are required, and extra money is spent to keep desserts in plastic clam shells.
“That’s a step you never see at any church fish fry,” he said.
Hollrith hires an entertainer to sing and serve as a deejay, and each fry includes a drawing. Among the 10 prizes this year are a TV, laptop, snow blower and grill.
Early on, Hollrith decided to drop vendors from frying and to have volunteers take on the task. The church bought nearly $20,000 of fryers and freezers.
Since then, Hollrith has convinced the church on several occasions to spend thousands of dollars more to upgrade its facilities for the fry, including sound equipment, fryers and hoods.
Cole slaw, tartar sauce and shrimp sauce are homemade each week. Fish comes from Sysco at a price Hollrith locks in months before. More than 40 loaves of rye bread comes from Nino’s Bakery in Menomonee Falls each Friday.
Hollrith handles the menu and a couple of years ago suggested an addition the committee didn’t think would work. Making potato pancakes had the church buy another $5,000 fryer. Hollrith’s goal was to sell 350 to 400 pancakes. Last year, more than 1,300 sold.
Each of the five Fridays during Lent, the St. Joseph Parish basement turns over twice, and carryout meals range from 400 to 600.
Cline said she is amazed at Hollrith’s effort.
“It’s incredible when parishioners who share their gifts with our church and with each other, great things happen,” she said.
Hollrith said his commitment is just part of his personality.
“It’s an enormous commitment, but I wouldn’t do it any other way, because I don’t know how to do it any other way,” he said.
“In our church everyone has talents, and the Lord gave me a talent to run things. I can’t help the church enough.”
Image Information: Will Hollrith (front), Paul Schofield and 70 volunteers served more than 1,000 people at the St. Joseph Parish fish fry in Grafton last Friday. Hollrith said he runs the fry like a business and serves as many as 5,000 people each year during Lent. Photo by Sam Arendt