Why Move?

Our stories have aligned—my parents’ and mine. I look at my work today and can see how the connecting line is drawn back to our Church on Fourth and Meineke.

4th Street

4th Street

Walk with me up the steps of the red parish house next door. Come in and meet Dad’s Senior High class—the Glisper sisters, the Ingram brothers, James Allen and his brother Gregory, the trouble maker. Smell the donuts Mom and Dad would pick up at the bakery down the street. See the big metal coffee pot to heat up water for Swiss Miss Cacao mix. Hear the voices and the laughter. The students in Dad’s class didn’t always show up though…they almost stopped coming at one point. Then Mom and Dad came up with a new approach to teaching Sunday school.

Ask Dad about our move back to Milwaukee and you’ll get a chronology of his church experiences. I kept trying to get him to talk about how he wanted to see Milwaukee schools integrated and stabilized but he kept talking about the churches we attended.  Then I realized the stories were one and the same.

It begins at Grace Reformed Church on Ninth and Chambers then continues to Faith United Church of Christ. Faith Church was one church at two different locations—Seventy-Eighth Street, in a white neighborhood and Fourth Street, in the inner city. We started at one and ended up at the other.

Dad will tell you he could write a book on his church experiences alone. That might upset some—he was always taking on the rabble-rousers. Everybody has their own version of the stories and we all usually think we were in the right which doesn’t create the harmony a church is called to. Nevertheless, if there was a constant throughout our family history, it was the church.

“After graduating from the University of Illinois and moving to Milwaukee, Dolores and I attended Grace Reformed Church on Ninth Street. We were very involved—I was superintendent of the Sunday school, President of the Council and Dolores was in the Music Ministry and played the piano. After we returned from Europe we found out that the council had reached a conclusion it was God’s will that they sell the Ninth Street church to an African American congregation and build on a new piece of ground on Seventy-Eighth and Hope, just north of Capital.

Grace Reformed was the first German reformed church in the city of Milwaukee. The first German evangelical church was located on Fourth and Meineke. After much debate, the two congregations agreed to merge into one and sell the Ninth street location to an African American Methodist church. So the process moved forward— selling the Ninth Street church, constructing a new church on Seventy-Eighth Street, and continuing ministry at the church located on Fourth and Meineke. This is how it happened that there became one congregation with two locations. Personally, Dolores and I did not feel that it was right to leave Ninth Street and spoke out to that affect. We didn’t get any support. We never fully agreed with or understood the decision that was made.

We became very active at Seventy-Eighth Street, singing in the choir and teaching Sunday school but we also felt drawn to the Fourth Street location. This was more than just a passing feeling and we soon became aware of the fact that God was calling us to minister at Fourth Street so we started to get involved there. Before long, we made the change and settled in. Dolores picked up the musical responsibilities—playing piano and the beautiful pipe organ and I taught the Senior High Sunday School class.

It’s strange when I reflect on it, how great everything worked out, originally moving from the city into the edge of the suburbs, having the barn and eventually a bunch of animals. The truth is, I genuinely loved the farm as all the family did. But we spent a lot of time going back and forth from Brookfield to Milwaukee.

On a Sunday in January 1965, I found myself with no Sunday school students showing up for my class. “What have I done wrong?’ I asked the pastor Reverend Gordon Sperry.

“Probably nothing,” he told me. “Maybe the youngsters have some ideas.”

So I called some of the kids together on a weekday and learned they had no objection to me or my teaching. But they needed more activity. I asked them where their hangout was and they said, “What hangout?”

I knew they were telling the truth—they didn’t have one. Some of the kids came from homes with no fathers and had many problems in their lives. They needed a place to talk with people who cared and I knew they had little use for the traditional church activity.

Dolores had been to a coffee shop on Prospect Avenue on Milwaukee’s east side and thought the kids might enjoy something like that. So we took a group of my senior high students to it and they did seem to genuinely enjoy it. We thought the idea of a church coffee house might be the way to go. The basement church school room seemed like an ideal space for us. So my students helped us get it all cleaned up. We painted the walls white and threw out a lot of junk. It got the name the Ash Can because the kids filled eleven ash cans with trash. They also fished out much of the furnishings for it from other ash cans…there’s something about using material thought to be useless. Anyway, we thought it was a good name.

Mike Johnson from my office designed round tables for us. Mark Frank, who did carpentry work for me, built them and Dolores made burlap tablecloths for each table. We used candles and she ended up having to work like crazy to get that wax out of those tablecloths every week.

We got a record player and I bought a bunch of 45s. We thought it would be a nice place for the kids to have conversation. The first Saturday night the kids flocked in. They ignored the records we had and brought their own music. The kids didn’t want to talk, they wanted to dance!  Soda pop replaced coffee and tea on the menu. You found little theological discussion but lots of dancing from a record player that seemed to be bursting its lungs. So after that first session, our plans changed.

Journal Sentinel 1965

The Ash Can with Dad and kids from his class. Journal article ’65

There were a lot of kids showing up and we started to have discipline problems. We got friends and peers to help out as chaperones. I discovered quickly that the only way I could communicate with the kids was to know their families. I had everyone sign up, so I could get their addresses then I went around to all the homes and visited with the families. The trouble makers changed their attitudes once I knew their families. Lester Ingram, one of my senior highs, was a great help—he was a natural leader and had a big influence on the kids who came. We had seven hundred names on our sign-up sheet.

All we were interested in was applying the Christian Gospel as we understood it.

The city was getting rough with rioting at the time and before long the church council voted to close Fourth Street—they wanted to tear down the building. I met with them and told them they couldn’t do that. I asked what the expense was to keep it open and they told me $1000 a year. I found $1000 and got them to keep it open for a year.  I took Ed, Deb, John, Joan and their friends down to clean the building on Saturdays and get it fixed up.

Around this time, our family was returning from a summer camping trip and when we got to the city line, the National Guard wouldn’t let us go in. Our country was in a racial uproar. This was the point we felt it was time we move back. We believed we had a very clear calling from the Lord to put our kids in public schools and we responded.

Faith Church did close down the Fourth Street location and sold it. When we finally moved into our house on Shepard Avenue, we began attending Plymouth United Church of Christ several blocks from our house.”

As I finish typing this story, I am quieted by my unexpected tears. So many memories…I can see Mom and Dad’s faces, hear their voices, remember the burlap and 45s. I think of visiting some of the families with Dad. I remember joining in to play double Dutch jump rope with the girls in front of the houses. I remember the smell of the church, the winding basement hallways, the big kitchen in the fellowship hall where we’d eat plates of scrambled eggs after the Easter Sunrise service. I remember Dad putting a raw colored egg in with the hard boiled ones and pulling a prank on someone. I remember vacuuming the stairs that led up to the balcony and sneaking up into the bell tower to ring the church bell.

I think of that enormous bell now and realize that was exactly what the city needed—the joyous sound of the bell ringing. Ringing so loudly that it quieted the sounds of fighting and gun shots. ‘Let the children dance,’ Mom and Dad said.

Yes, let the children dance.

A Needle in the Camp Randall Haystack

Okay—stop everything. There were six members in the Wenzler family. We’ve only talked about five. When did number six come long?

In front of the milk-house

In front of the milk house

Well, not too long after we moved in at the farm. Here are the details as I recall them:

Mom was pregnant with baby number four and went to the hospital. Dad made us a lot of scrambled egg sandwiches with ketchup while she was gone. They were best washed down with Ovaltine.

While Mom was at the hospital, I thought I could get away with wearing my black patent leather Sunday shoes to school.  My everyday saddle shoes looked enormous on my feet—I thought. But my plan for shoe independence was thwarted by a woman named Fern. She lived in the Kiekaver’s carriage house and took care of the castle. Mom had arranged for her to come over and stay with us while she was at the hospital and Dad was at work. My memory as a six year old was that Fern didn’t have too many teeth and smiled a lot. Anyway, she noticed my shiny shoes when I came home from school and told Dad. So it was back to my clod hoppers.

Joan Elizabeth was born on April 23, 1961.

Sisters

Sisters

She grew to have beautiful blonde curls, unlike the rest of us. Joanie and I shared a bedroom across the hall from Ed and John with Mom and Dad in between, making a triangle on the second floor of our farm house. Each of the kid’s rooms had trundle beds which pretty much went wall to wall when the lower beds were pulled out. Dad had built plywood desks with shelves above along one wall in both of our rooms so we would each have a place to study. I never used mine for homework. I kept my fish in a glass bowl on it along with a record player and a case of 45s which I played often and sang along with loudly.

The Big Bad Sister

The big bad sister

I remember I told Joanie once that she was adopted and made her cry–she remembers this too. I also blamed her for things I did and didn’t let her play with my friends and me. I don’t remember feeling anything but love for her so I don’t know what the story was there. Maybe I was jealous of her blonde curls.

The sweet little sister

The sweet little sister

By the time I was in high school we were great friends. We both got into trouble equally. She was a better student.

I went to college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as an art major. She was in town visiting a friend during a Badger game weekend that fall. She and her friend snuck into the stadium and were wandering around the base of the seating looking up into the crowd. So there I was, 50 rows or so up and I hear “DEBBIEEEEEE!”  I look down by the cheerleaders and there’s my little sister with a friend, yelling up to me as loudly as she can in a stadium with 70,000 screaming fans, and waving here arms madly. Somehow they made it up to my seat which was in the student section in the end zone. For those of you, who are younger, at that time it was a beer throwing, body passing, den of rowdiness. So here’s my 12 year old sister sitting next to me, thoroughly enjoying the experience and we watched the rest of the game together. She’s a huge football fan. I don’t remember the game at all, or who won–I’m not even sure why I was there. But it was so fun that my little sister found me.

After the game, we joined the exodus of students heading back to their dorms. At some point the friend dropped out. Joanie was hungry—like a little sister visiting her big sister tends to be—so I treated her to a luxury dinner on my dorm food card. For those of you who missed this epicurean delight, the commons by Celery (where my brother Ed and husband Todd lived at the time) and Ogg dorms was a large cafeteria style hall with Formica tables evenly spaced. You got a lot of food for the money. Joanie ended up spending the night with me in my dorm. How in the world she found me that day I will never know but that’s the way it’s always been with us. Nothing can separate us for long.

Now, back to the story….Joanie was in high school at Riverside and taking dance classes at the University. I had been accepted into the School of Music as a voice major my second semester at Madison and transferred to UW-Milwaukee School of Music my sophomore year but I was spending a lot of time in the dance department along with Joanie because I loved it. She was training to become a ballet dancer. We took classes together from a great dance faulty including Jury and Judy Goltshalks, Gloria Gustafson, Myron Nadel and many wonderful guest artists (Michael Maule, Jonathon Watts, Lisa Bradley, to name a few). We would share a bowl of popcorn and drink Tabs before the 1:30 Ballet class. We always waited until the last possible minute to leave the house—usually 1:20—to hop on my bike and race over. I would buck her with both of us carrying our large dance bags over our shoulders. One day, crossing Downer Avenue and Kenwood Boulevard, when we were especially late, I told her to hold on tight. I was going to take the curb—this was before handicap accessible sidewalks. She yelled for me to stop but instead, I sped up thinking I could pop a wheelie or something and make the curb. I didn’t. We hit it straight on and wiped out in front of the traffic when a bus was trying to make its turn onto Kenwood. She grabbed her bag and marched on ahead, gathering her dignity, while I wrestled with the bike and my bag, all the while laughing. She was not at all amused and I couldn’t convince her to get back on the bike. I walked it along beside her in silence. I think we were late for class that day.

Joanie was serious about dance like I was serious about becoming an actress, and/or a singer and/or a dancer—I was still deciding. Joanie loved the Joffery Ballet. This is what Dad remembers about her first big audition:

Joan before Joffery

Joan before Joffery

“Joffery Ballet had sent out a notice of their auditions for Joffery II in Chicago. I called and found out the details and Mom and I we went down with Joan. She did a great job and won a scholarship. That was Saturday. On Monday, I called the Joffery office and talked to the head administrator, Edith D’Darrio. I told her what had happened–that Joan had won a scholarship and that she was only 17 so I wanted to bring her to NY and find her a safe place to live where she would be protected. She told me they had a great place called the Katherine House on West 13th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues not far from the studios. I told her we were going to come the next day to check it out. She said, “Oh–don’t do that! We are just about to have a transportation strike and the whole city will be shut down. You won’t be able to get around.” I said, “Okay.”

Then I thought about it a minute. I called the airport and got two round trip tickets to NY, then I called Riverside High School and told them what was up and asked to have Joan out on the sidewalk in 15 minutes. I  picked her up, we went to the airport, got to NY, caught a shuttle, got to Joffery, walked into the office and I said, “Hi, I’m Bill Wenzler. I talked to you on the phone earlier today?” She looked at us with a rather stunned expression and said,  “Why you couldn’t have come from Manhattan that fast!” So she gave us a list of places to check out for Joan to live. We found Katherine house, liked it, got Joan signed up and flew back home that afternoon.”

That’s how Mom and Dad were. They let us dream our own dreams then did what they could to support us. I thought I was the one who would end up in NYC. Now that Joanie was there I was determined to join her. I just didn’t know what I was going to be doing exactly or how I would get there. I had thought about auditioning for Neighborhood Playhouse but I was performing at the Skylight at the time and was having a great time. One night after a run ended, we were having a cast party at our house on Shepard, where I was living at the time while attending UWM along with Ed, John and Mom. Colin Cabot was at the party and said he had to get going because he was driving to NY that night. I said, “Can I come along?

“Well, sure,” he said, “Hurry up.” So I quickly packed more than I needed as I usually do, filled up his Volkswagen Van and we took off for NYC that night. Joanie let Mrs. Marshall, who ran Katherine House, know I was on my way and had a room ready for me when we arrived the next evening.

I remember Dad telling Joanie when she left for NY, “Go and God bless you and your dancing, Joan.”  When I left, he looked at me—the Jack of all trades and master of none as our neighbor Mr. Abert had called me to my face—and no more certain than I was myself about what I would be doing, said, “ Debbie…well, go and God bless you.”