A Quiet Crusader for Catholic Schools

By Bill HenkIn the midst of American Education Week , it seems only fitting to reaffirm my deep respect for our country’s public education system.

After all, I’m altogether a product of that system, having attended public institutions from kindergarten all the way through my doctoral studies.  I also taught exclusively in public schools, and  served as a professor and administrator in publicly-funded universities for over 20 years before coming to Marquette.  My gratitude for all of these educational opportunities is significant.

John StollenwerkBut another longtime national education treasure exists in America, namely Catholic schools, and in today’s post I also want to pay tribute to a colleague and friend who has worked tirelessly on their behalf.  His name is John Stollenwerk, and most people in Milwaukee know him as the highly successful former CEO, President, and Owner of the Allen-Edmonds Shoe Corporation.

In direct contrast to me, John is entirely a product of Catholic schooling, and the impression  his education made upon him is obviously indelible.  It’s what has driven him for decades, and now in retirement, to provide children with the same opportunity to grow intellectually, socially, emotionally, and spiritually as he enjoyed.   In concrete terms, his appreciation manifests not “only” in his family’s generous support of Catholic education at all levels, but also in the enormous amounts of time, energy and effort he personally devotes to helping enrich these schools.

It’s been my pleasure to work with John for roughly the past six years.  Our professional and personal relationship first took root with the Greater Milwaukee Catholic Education Consortium or GMCEC, a partnership of the five  Catholic institutions of higher education in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.  Collectively the group aims to help P-16 Catholic schools, and its impact since inception has been truly significant.  John was instrumental in the original formulation of the Consortium, and the philanthropy of the Stollenwerk Family Foundation has supported its operations in largest measure for the past half decade.

I’ve also worked with John on the Catholic Schools Commission, an education advisory board for the Archdiocese that he has chaired for several years, as well as on a search committee for a Superintendent of Schools, and on planning various special events. In all cases his passion and relentless work ethic are on abundant display.

Stollenwerk and the PopeIt should be noted as well that John has served with distinction on the Board of the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA), and over the years has received numerous  well-deserved honors for his advocacy of Catholic schools, including a recognition in Rome.

But for the record, an honor he received this past Tuesday, the Reverend Edward Frederick Sorin Award from Notre Dame University, inspired this post.  Truth be told, I’ve been meaning to write about John for quite a while now, and this most recent recognition served as the nudge I needed.  Not surprisingly, John accepted this prestigious award withcharacteristic humility.

So you know, John has supported many schools, parishes, and charitable Catholic causes.  Numbered among them are:  Messmer High School, Notre Dame Middle School, Nativity Middle School, Lumen Cristi, St. Jude’s, St. Lawrence Seminary, and Marquette. And these are just the ones I know about!Almost certainly there are more. Along with his wife, JoEllen, and his sons John Jr. and Phil ( both of whom work in Catholic schools), the Stollenwerk family has contributed mightily to the welfare of local Catholic schools.

For that matter. Dr. Kathleen Cepelka, Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese, told me she thought John himself had touched all 27 of our urban Catholic schools in one way or another.   In our conversation, she went on to say,

John and JoEllen Stollenwerk and their children are committed to providing affordable, accessible, and sustainable Catholic education for future generations of families, especially in urban Milwaukee.  Their own family’s participation in Catholic schools is a testimonial to their strong support for the values such education provides.”

On a personal note, John is a kind and earnest man, and our time together has produced many extremely fond memories.  I admire him far more than he could ever imagine for his unrelenting commitment to Catholic schools.  Anyone who responds to such a noble calling with such zeal and effectiveness is a hero in my book.

Please join me thanking John and his wonderful family for their extraordinary contributions to Catholic education.

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