Helen Wittenberg has been on board since the beginning. She even remembers that our first classes were free, as a sweetener to join. One of our many volunteers, her long time support of L1R earned her the 2005 Volunteer of the Year Award, as those who were at our annual meeting last June remember. In the early days she helped in the mailings and phoning details of a fledgling organization and has referred many people to Becky individuals who subsequently joined L1R. She has stuck more than her share of address labels on brochures, and distributed them. As a member of our Membership and Promotion Committee she has represented, with others, our organization at the Joy Conference. To boot, it is rumored that she is always pleasant!
Helen sets goals for herself, extends a hand to others, keeps active and alert, and is happy where she is. Growing up near Lincoln Park on the north side of Chicago, she pulled high enough grades at Waller High School to be accepted at Jones Commercial, a two year high school business college that trained women "for the office." As Helen remembers, "In those days we wore a hat, white gloves, tailored office clothes, were coached in grooming, office etiquette and essentially prepared for the corporate world. Needless to say we graduated proficient not only in the use of the Dictaphone and mimeograph, but knew all about bookkeeping and accounting, and of course stenography and all the other secretarial skills." Helen admits that one of her favorite classes was law. She remembers having to defend one side of a case set up by her professor, and her team won. She says,"I liked debate, open thinking, and I still like talking about matters today."
But it wasn't all business training for Helen back then in the mid-40s. She danced almost every weekend at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom to the music of Eddie Howard, Dick Jurgens and other big bands. "It was thrilling," she says, "Servicemen were coming home from the war... a time when you had five fellows at a time asking you to dance. It was wonderful." One of those boys asking Helen to dance was 25-year-old Ed Wittenberg. "It was Valentine's Day 1948. I was 18 that June. We married in October! Yes, a short eight month's engagement. We were so very sure ... and I had him for 49 years. We had our first child on Valentine's Day 1953." Helen's husband retired after 22 years as a mechanical maintenance employee at UW Oshkosh. Helen says, "I lost him eight years ago. I often feel like an odd-person-out. It's just a different world from when you're a couple than when you're single. But I am very active, and do enjoy my good friends in LIR"
Helen's first job was with a Chicago insurance broker, then for the American Corn Miller's Association. When they moved from Chicago to Washington D.C. Helen went down there to set up the office. Her business training did not go unnoticed. She held a secretarial position for a time at the Chicago Board of Education. She and Ed moved to Oshkosh in 1960, partly on the desire to bring up their two children in this quieter, safer environment -- but there was also the lure of Lake Winnebago and its excellent fishing grounds. When she was a youngster, Helen's parents drove up with her on fishing trips to Lake Winnebago. "When my husband heard these fishing stories it was a move we had to make!"
Her husband worked for Sears, and Helen took a job with Robert W. Baird, reading the ticker tape from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. "It was a perfect job for me. I could take my children to school before work and then pick them up after." Her boss, Bud Wiley remembers her with much respect. He recalls, "Helen was very dependable. Very pleasant. We were on the mezzanine floor of the then First Wisconsin National Bank, and were not fully automated at that time. Helen watched the tape and recorded prices of the stocks and other securities we were interested in. For certain a boring job ... but Mrs. Wittenberg was anything but." When Helen was replaced with a machine in the 70s, she started over again on a 16-year secretarial stint with Hoffmaster.
Helen knows that Providence worked in strange ways to bring her unplanned-for enjoyment. In one case it was a chance introduction to square dancing. She remembers, "We were having company over one evening and the fresh ham I was about to prepare had turned moldy. Ed had the car at Sears, so I had to call the butcher and have a good ham delivered ... and soon. I got to chatting with the delivery man and he told me about a square dancing club in town. He said we'd never regret learning, and going to the dances. Ed and I did just that, and enjoyed this kind of dancing for almost 30years. To think - it all hinged on a moldy ham one April afternoon ... and some higher intervention!"
Helen Wittenberg made a landmark splash in her family history by being the first to earn a university degree, right here at UW Oshkosh. With her family grown and some time on her hands, and with that never ending itch to excel, she again set her sights on the classroom and graduated at age 58 (a near 3-pt GPA) with a BA in Speech Communication from UW Oshkosh in 1988. She did not let age stand in her way. She says, "I took phy. ed., tennis, golf, badminton, swimming, water aerobics." For someone who had been away from the cIassroom for 30 years, Helen proved to be a model comeback kid.
Helen has two grown children, Robert, a Lt. Col. career officer in the U.S. Marines for 30 years and now in the avionics field, and a daughter, B.J. Nerenhausen who owns the Dog House and Pet Center in Oshkosh where Helen still works part time when needed.
What Helen enjoys most about our LIR classes is the variety. She says, “Stepping into a class that I am not in the least knowledgeable about is enriching for me. I learn something new. I am active in my own personal life aside from LIR, but it is a tonic for me to be introduced to something I would not have thought of were it not for what I find on the menu."
Her tip for anyone on the verge of retiring is to simply join Learning in Retirement and benefit from to the diversity it offers. "Too many people," she thinks, "are put off by the word 'university,' an unfortunate intimidation that keeps them from joining." Aside from academics, she also advises them to think hard about what would make them happy, like fishing or golf --- something they did not have time for before, or weren't able to do.
She may have been unceremoniously replaced by a machine long ago, but today Helen Wittenberg, one of our most valuable ambassadors, is irreplaceable. Isn't there a song somewhere? - "Call her ... Irreplaceable ... "