Peter Frechette’s story was impressive: Army officer, highly successful business executive, University of Wisconsin and Northwestern University graduate, community-minded philanthropist.

But it was his deep bond with Patricia O’Brien Frechette, his high school sweetheart in Janesville and wife of 55 years, that touched hearts and minds, not least at Marquette University, where their generosity has boosted journalism education.

He died suddenly Wednesday at age 79, just five months after her death of complications of a stroke at 78.

Pete and Pat set out to honor her parents, both Marquette graduates, by giving $8.3 million to the school’s Diederich College of Communication.

But the gift’s deeper significance, they liked to say, was to create a better future for in-depth news reporting in America.

“We think that investigative journalism could use a boost,” Pete Frechette said in explaining the couple’s donation.

Their philanthropy birthed the Perry and Alicia O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism, which since 2012 has supported 14 U.S. journalists, including five Milwaukee Journal Sentinel staffers, in deeply reporting public-service stories with help from Marquette students. Fellows spend nine months on campus. Nearly 50 graduate and undergraduate students have spent at least one semester helping O’Brien Fellows.

The Journal Sentinel helped launch the fellowship and supports its work.

Perry O’Brien was a longtime reporter with the Janesville Gazette and WCLO-AM radio in the 1940s and ’50s.

“The Frechettes were inspired by the fellows and students, who in turn were inspired by them,” said former Diederich College Dean Lori Bergen, who worked with them, Journal Sentinel Editor George Stanley and others to create the fellowship. “It was a perfect collaboration.”

Pat attended Marquette for a year, then transferred to be near Pete at UW-Madison, where she earned an education degree. She taught elementary school for a time and advocated hands-on learning that, in the O’Brien fellowship, enables students “to walk right on out and be able to find a job anywhere,” she told a Marquette interviewer.

The fellowship promotes core Jesuit values by teaching students about responsible action and solution-oriented journalism that addresses important moral and ethical issues, said Kimo Ah Yun, the dean of the Diederich College.

In 1962, in the Army Military Police, Pete Frechette helped contain race riots and protect James Meredith, the first African-American admitted to the University of Mississippi.

Business success

Later, in business, he was tapped in 1982 to lead Patterson Dental, a dental supply company that started as a single Milwaukee drugstore in 1877 and later moved to St. Paul, Minn.

He helped take the company independent, as part of a Patterson management team that bought it from owner Beatrice Cos. Frechette led the firm, later known as Patterson Cos., to $1 billion in sales serving the dental, veterinary and rehabilitation supply markets. He retired in 2013.

The Frechettes raised twin daughters, Kathy and Kristy, in Glencoe, Ill., before relocating to the Minneapolis area.

The Frechette’s philanthropy and activism extended to the University of Wisconsin and education, arts, health and environmental causes in Minnesota and in the Vail Valley in Colorado, where in recent years they spent more time.

The daughters said Saturday that they learned the importance of grateful, strategic giving from their humble-minded parents, as well as family togetherness.

“They taught us to look past ourselves,” Kathy said. “They had a lot but did not take it for granted.”

Pete served on the University of Wisconsin Business School advisory board and the University of Wisconsin Foundation board. He was a naming partner for the business school, and he and Pat donated to the UW School of Education.

“He was a great Badger: another understated overachiever who made life better for those around him,” Michael Knetter, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association, told board members after Pete’s death.

Pete also served on the board of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, where he earned an MBA.

The gifts and volunteer work made a mark, but friends and colleagues said the couple’s warmth, joyfulness and grace inspired them.

“They were a daily example of what a powerful force for good in the world a loving, married couple can be,” Stanley said. “They did it all in such a peaceful, humble, joyful way.”

Bergen, now dean of the College of Media, Communication and Information at the University of Colorado, recalled Pat as “this spunky, adorable, twinkle-in-her-eye kind of woman who made you feel like you were the most special person on earth.”

“Pete was patient, strong and formidable,” Bergen said, “and when you were with them both, you could see this bond that sustained and held them together.”

Funeral services are Thursday in Minneapolis at the Basilica of St. Mary, where they were members.

Journal Sentinel reporter Dave Umhoefer was a 2015-’16 O’Brien fellow.