Little Van

A lot of miles were put on Volkswagons in our family—from Bugs to Carmen Ghias to Westfalia Vans—Dad loved them. My parents made many trips to Tucson in their white Westfalila to visit my sister and her family. Dad, the Eagle Scout, liked to camp, Mom liked hotels. Dad liked to sail, Mom preferred B & B’s. He usually won because, well, because he was Bill. Once he had an idea, he was set on it. Mom was a trooper.

Dad loved road trips and could drive straight through from Milwaukee to Tucson with just a few hours’ rest while Mom took the wheel. He had a CB radio and worked his way into the truckers’ VIP circle with a little van as only Dad could. He would talk through the night to the truckers while Mom tried to sleep—like pilot to pilot, or sailor to sailor, only this was trucker to the guy in the VW van. He told me he’d have great conversations and would sometimes get help with directions. Halfway across the country one night, on wide open interstate, Dad heard, “Little Van, Little Van! Your turnoff is just ahead!”

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After that van was sold, Dad regretted it, and before long was on a search for a new one. When he found a used one in California, he talked Mom into flying out with him to pick it up. With a couple boxes of camping equipment in tow so they could take their time and enjoy the drive home together, they were off to California. They landed in pouring rain, loaded their equipment into a taxi and went in search of the van owner’s address. It was still pouring when the cab driver dropped them off with all their equipment, and it was still pouring when they discovered the van was filled with mildew. Mom said, “You can buy it if you want but I am not riding in that vehicle with you.” She called a Honda dealership and bought a little bronze CRV  which she loved and they had a great trip home staying in B & B’s and hotels.

It’s the same little Honda that arrived to pick me up every Sunday morning for church with Dad these past five years. It’s the same little Honda that would pull up our driveway to pick up Sam and me for trips with Dad to the Island. It’s the same little Honda that Todd and I drove  out to 80th and Capital this afternoon to have shipped to Tucson for my sister’s daughter, Kira.

And now it’s the little Honda named Billie Dee. I know Mom and Dad are smiling.

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Picking Up the Pieces

A great windstorm arose…and beat against the house, causing one of the old crank open attic windows to break off and crash on the cement driveway below.

 

Then He arose and rebuked the wind and said, “Peace, be still.” And the wind ceased and there was great calm over the house.


Todd was busy fixing the screen on the back door–such it is with a 125 year old house. Charlie and Lauren were already there with a big brown paper bag picking up the glass when I got there. “Be careful, don’t cut yourself,” I said putting on my big rubber gardening gloves that hindered more than helped.

 

“It’s thick,” Charlie said. And together we picked up the pieces as we have so many times in life.

 

Within an hour the sun is back out, reflecting its transparent beauty through the deep green of the old oak’s leaves.

 

You may be passing through a storm but He is with you and says, Peace, be still, to quiet both the wind and your soul.

 

Mark 4:37-39

Sunday with Dad

I was following behind Dad as he took charge of the walker that has lived for two years in the basement storeroom. Anytime we made the slightest suggestion to get it out for him, the answer was, “No”.

He’s good at getting around with it now though and with the wheels, I call him Billy Speedster. As he makes his way around the tight corner between the bed and the dresser I hear him muttering, “It says in the Bible, when you get old, you’ll need help.” These days are blending together and like Dad, I lose track which day is which. But there is some freedom in that, even joy.

I want to have the scriptures Dad treasures engraved in my heart and I spent yesterday morning reading through his favorites–the Book of John, Chapters 14-17. It begins with Jesus comforting his disciples and I love how, all these years later, the words sound as though they could be spoken directly to us. The first verse is one of Mom’s favorites, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me.” Jesus says he is going to prepare a place for them and will come back for them. When Thomas says that he doesn’t know the way, Jesus tells him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

These are the words Dad has lived his life by. Ask a cashier at his grocery store, a neighbor, my son or my husband, or even one of my best friends who might just happen to run into him at CVS, Dad will want to know how your faith is and isn’t afraid to ask if you know Jesus. Dad’s touched hearts and ticked others off.

“Love each other as I have loved you,” Jesus says in Chapter 15:12. I counted seven times that he says, “Remain in Me.” And three more times, “Remain in my love.”

I have the privilege of spending these holy days with Dad and I can’t help but want to share them. Dad is sleeping now so I can’t ask him but I would guess that if he wanted to share anything from his heart to yours today, it would be just that–remain in God’s Love.

“Debbie?” I hear Dad’s voice calling from his bedroom.

“I’m here, Dad,” I yell back as I run down the hall. He’s sitting up and turns his head. Out of the corner of his eye I catch the twinkle.

“I thought this was a Bed and Breakfast ”

“You ready for breakfast, Dad?”

“Yes!”

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Handy Handkerchiefs and a Goodnight Kiss


Is it just me or is there something about the way some people say your name that makes your heart hum?

“Debbie,” he said.

I looked up from my meatloaf and mashed potatoes to meet his eyes and smiled. I love hearing Dad say my name.

“I lay on my back when I take a nap. That’s how I sleep.” Where’s he going with this I wonder and nod.

“I realized the seam of my jeans and my belt really bother the bone in my back.”

Dad’s losing quite a bit of weight these days. He can’t seem to keep it on.

“But I figured out that I can put a handkerchief in each pocket and then I’m fine!”

Red or blue I wonder but don’t ask.

“It lifts you up,” my husband says. “That would never work for me.” We laugh.

Don’t ask me how we can make a conversation about a sore back bone funny but we do.

Hellos from neighbors who love Dad make a perfect ending to supper and then we drive back to Dad’s condo together–Sam and me with Dad in his Honda and Todd following in the little convertible  Dad takes it slow getting out of the car and holds my hand as we walk down the carpeted corridor leading to his door.

Once inside, I fill his water glasses, lay out his PJs–just because I want to not because he wants me to–and put a piece of cheesecake by his chair, as he dresses for bed.

It was hard to say goodbye but I noticed Todd and Sam from the kitchen window sitting on the curb in the parking lot so gave Dad a hug and a kiss goodbye  “Do you have something warm to wear In the car?” He asked.

“I’ll be fine,” I said as I thought how much I loved him still worrying about me catching cold in a convertible. “I can wear Todd’s jacket if I need something,” and I leaned in to give him one more kiss.

As I slid into the car, Sam climbed onto my lap and Todd put the jacket he had brought along for me over my shoulders  “Dad was worried if I’d be warm enough,” I said looking across the parking lot into the condo window he and mom used to stand at together, waving goodbye.  I wanted to see him there now. I knew it would take too long for him to walk from his bedroom to the kitchen. Todd revved the engine then and as he backed up I saw Dad’s figure appear. He was waving.

I held up my jacket so he could see it and blew him a goodnight kiss.

It’s the little things I treasure now–my dad’s bandana handkerchiefs, shared smiles and nods, the outline of a hand waving to me from a window across a parking lot, a jacket thrown over my shoulders unexpectedly and especially the sound of my name spoken with sweet familiarity and with love.

 

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A Cat and a Career

Tomorrow morning I’ll sit in the chair looking out over the trees on the street below my bedroom window and think how I used to balance my books on its arms as I read and wrote because our cat would lay in my lap—stretched out, paws crossed, eyes closed and purring to the quiet sound of my prayers.

Rose is a stinker, feisty and free, able to outsmart the den of foxes that used to live next door. Undaunted by them, she’d lie sleekly across the sidewalk, flaunting her bravery. Bunnies, birds and mice her prey, without front claws she’d scale a tree if necessary.

But she didn’t come home this week. She may have been outsmarted.  I’m sure she put up a fight and if she went down it was on her own terms—free to roam, to explore, experience life’s beauty. It’s interesting that she chose this week to depart—the same time of year as my mom and brother. I’m conscious of my heart, its size, its weight. Our pets come in and go out like our accomplishments—a gift so present one day and suddenly gone the next.

Love your pets. Enjoy your accomplishments when they’re there. I’m working hard to replace the hole in my heart.  We’ll be looking at a couple cats this week that need a home.

I know this doesn’t sound related but stay with me. I’ve spent a couple years trying to preserve and document Dad’s life and accomplishments as a way to hold on to him if the time came when he, like Rose, would not be knocking, (or mewing) at the back door. And just when I thought we’d finished those stories, we were outsmarted, so to speak.

We were on Washington Island together recently when he told me this:

“Well, after fifty-five years as an architect, I’ve done some reflection.  When I graduated from college I thought I would design worship spaces that would help bring people to Jesus.  St. Edmund’s congregation has moved on and the building is for sale.  The Chrystal Cathedral in California, perhaps the grandest scale of church architecture stands empty and is also for sale.  Whereas, there are church ministries worshiping in remodeled warehouses all over, and are very effective. The conclusion I’ve reached therefore is, it’s not about architecture.  So what does that mean?  My life as a church architect was a waste?

“My journey as an architect taught me a lot and gave me many opportunities to witness for the Lord.  But did the spaces I create accomplish this?  No.  I believe the answer is no because that which I pursued could never be attained.  And yet perhaps, there were aspects of that journey that were beneficial to the purpose I pursued.  In the end, I realized that it can never be architecture that draws people to Jesus, it’s only the Word.”

I was moved.  I thought that was the end of the story. Then I got a call from Scott Sprout. He oversees missions at Crimson Way which is the new church, he said, inside the old St. Edmond’s which was just recently sold.  Scott didn’t know the architect was still living but found out he was when he came across Sundays with Dad. It looks like St. Edmond’s will once again be filled with music, and children and worship and, most importantly, the Word. You can imagine Dad’s joy when he heard.

They invited Dad to come and share the story of his design at the service tomorrow.  If you’re free, stop by at 10:30, 14625 Watertown Plank Road, Elm Grove. We’d love to see you.

So, just when I thought it was the end, I discovered it was only another new beginning.

God bless you Rosie.

A New Era: Architect’s Memoir

“HELLO, Wenzler ARCHitects!” Leslie Schott answered the phone at my dad’s office the same way for over thirty years. She was a great office manager and kept everyone and everything in order. The conversation that followed was always the same too…

“Hey, Leslie! How you doin’?”

“OH, Hi!! “I’m FINE, how are YOU?” She had a way of really punching her syllables.

“I’m good. Is Dad there?”

“Oh, sure! He’s here. Just a minute, I’ll get him for you.”

Dad always took our calls. He never let on that he was busy—you’d think it would have occurred to me to ask, but it didn’t. There was something about Dad’s office that made me want to work in an office. It was friendly and exciting. I’m sure it had something to do with his secretaries because I started playing office in our attic on the farm before I turned ten.

Wenzler Architects moved from Wilson Drive to Brookfield in the early 1960s when Dad’s secretary, Doris Flugstaf, saw a For Rent sign above a law office on Brookfield Drive on her way home from work one day. Dad had been making the commute from the farm to Milwaukee for years and she was looking out for him. Doris’s husband had died, leaving her with two daughters to raise when Dad hired her part-time. She had a big impact on the office.

While Dad was on his fellowship in Europe, Doris and John Wallerius, a friend from school, kept his office running. Doris also fell in love during that time with an F.W. Dodge Corp. representative named Sam Severson. Sam would stop by the office to get the latest news on Dad’s work. Learning that he would be best man for Doris and Sam’s wedding didn’t make Dad feel any better when he found out that Doris would be leaving the firm not long after they moved into the building she had found for him.

Next came Betty, with the red hair and painted eyebrows. She wasn’t too thrilled that there wasn’t any hot water in the sink under the steps, near the bathroom, next to the law office on the first floor. “Bill, can’t you talk to the landlord about turning on the hot water? I have to go downstairs, out the door of the lawyers’ office, wash my hands in the sink under the steps in cold water and they are so cold I can’t type!”

Dad talked to the landlord, who turned on the hot water and raised his rent. After a while, he moved again to the lower unit of a two family complex several blocks away. It was owned by the same landlord, Fred Gerlach, who was the husband of our third grade teacher at Brookfield Elementary.

The office moved one more time.

“The firm continued to grow,” Dad said. “We were hired by the Kohl family, represented by Bill Orenstein, to design the Northridge Lakes housing on 76th and Brown Deer. One Sunday morning after church, Dolores and I were shopping around for an office space downtown and came across the unfinished second floor in the Steinmeyer building on 3rd and Highland, above Usinger’s. I talked to the Landlord and struck a deal. Early on in the Northridge Lakes planning, Bill Orenstein took me to San Francisco to meet with the landscape architect. I was very impressed with the exposed architecture which the architect had sandblasted and cleaned up and made into a striking office. After we returned, that thought stayed in my head and the Steinmeyer building was a perfect opportunity to create a loft space in Milwaukee. I struck a deal of $1.00 a square foot a year with the landlord.

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“Our office staff and friends came and tore out the two spaces and stripped them down to their structure. I remember Gerry McKinney helped. We had a huge pile of lumber right at the window overlooking Highland Avenue, ready to load into a dumpster. I vividly remember Gerry, who you may remember played fullback for the University of Wisconsin, tackling the pile of lumber. He grabbed a long 4 x 4 out of the pile to throw into the dumpster but didn’t know that the window was closed. It flew right through that window and we were off and running with the renovations.

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“Ed, who was in his early teens, and I did all the sandblasting. It took us a few months and we moved in in the early 60s. When the family moved back to the city in 1970, we finally ended the long commute from home, to our church on 4th and Meineke, and our office.

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“Dolores liked the loft concept and wanted it for our home. After we had bought Shepard we were all down after church looking it over, trying to figure out what to do with it. It was Dolores’ idea to tear down the walls and ceilings and make it into a loft space like the office. We bought it on January 1, 1970 and moved in on April 1, which was important because after that we would have had to pay tuition to the Milwaukee schools. We got the occupancy permit even though the building inspector didn’t think it was finished because everything was exposed.

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Dad ordered pizza from Lisa’s on Oakland this night and we celebrated the new fireplace.

“The outside of the house was four inch cedar siding that had been painted green. Everything was loose so we scraped it off and stained it. All of the original homes of this period, 1890s, were built out of four inch lapped cedar siding. My standard approach to design was to make the exterior and interior out of the same materials. We pulled off the interior plaster, put in new wiring, insulated the stud space and put on 1 x 4 inch lapped siding. The significance of this to me was that, as with an individual, what’s on the outside should reflect what is on the inside.

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“On the third floor we put insulation and drywall over the attic space. We had to do that because if we exposed the structure, there wouldn’t have been any insulation!”

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*****

When Wenzler Architects and Associates closed in 2011, an era ended for our family. But the smell of the inks and paper, cedar walls and exposed wood, the track lights and Leslie’s voice will stay forever with me. The architects at their drafting boards, busy designing and creating beautiful spaces for the rest of us to enjoy was the excitement in the air—to name a few: Mike Johnson, Dave Brandt and Jim McClintock. Then later, Neil Kruger, Brian Spencer, Keith Anderson…and eventually, three generations of Wenzler architects working alongside each other—Dad, my brother Ed and my nephew Chris.

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I guess it’s no wonder that when Mom and Dad decided to downsize and leave the house on Shepard I cried for three days. I had never owned a house. It hadn’t been important to me but when Todd looked into my heartbroken eyes and told me we could buy it, I knew that had changed. A new era had begun.

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