Gift of Giving - A Tribute to Laura Ferris

Gift of Giving - A Tribute to Laura Ferris

Scholarship honors generosity of woman who helped so many

Arlis Greiling

Arlis Greiling

Memories. Everyone has them - fond recollections of a special person, a favorite place or a moment in time. Arlis (Van Laanen) Greiling, a 1963 alumna, has fond memories of her college days at Wisconsin State College-Whitewater that take her back to 611 W. Main St.

Greiling wasn't planning to go to college. She couldn't afford it- the room and board, tuition and books, and all the rest of it - until her sister told her about Laura Ferris.

Ferris, knownat the time as Mrs. George Ferris, was a tall, slender, delicate and well-educated woman. She was born in 1877 and lived in Whitewater with her husband, George, a prominent attorney. George died in 1956, leaving Laura alone in a large home on Main Street. After his death, she graciously invited female students with a financial need to live in her house, room and board free. These students were called "Laura's girls."

For four years, Greiling was one of Laura's girls.

"It's not just why I attended Whitewater, it was why I was able to go to college at all," Greiling said. "This woman was phenomenal. She did exceptional things and not just for me, but for other girls as long as I knew her. I think that is quite a gesture."

Only one or two girls at a time were fortunate enough to stay at Mrs. Ferris' home, a gesture that included three non-negotiable house rules:

  1. Dinner must be eaten together
  2. No "gentlemen" guests in the house without permission
  3. All girls are required to take part in the cultural activities she provides for:
    • Weekly piano lessons
    • Tickets to the Milwaukee ballet

Though Greiling, a double major in education and speech, remembers several teachers on campus very fondly - Edna Sorber in communications, Catherine Crossman in art, and Jack Vrieze in speech/drama - back on West Main Street, Ferris was teaching her female houseguests how to become proper young ladies.

"It was like living in any family, you were the child and she was the parent. She wanted to share her ideas of how a young lady should be," Greiling said. "At least once a week a man would come to the house from Madison to teach me to play piano. This was the kind of thing she did and that is why I feel so blessed."

After graduation, Greiling taught school in the Green Bay area until she met her husband, Gene. They married in 1965 and had three children. For more than 30 years, they worked together as owner/operators of a successful company that produced plugs and seedlings for the bedding plant industry. Greiling Farms Inc. was ranked the No. 1 plug producer in the United States and the No. 2 bedding plant company in the 1990s.

"It was huge. We started in Florida, and then moved into Georgia, Iowa and Indiana. There was growth both in staff development, structural development and transportation development. It was very intense," Greiling said.

"I think back to UW-Whitewater. Somehow, they made me totally unafraid to try new things and to conquer them. I think that has been a real asset," she added.

The lessons Greiling learned at WSC-Whitewater and at Mrs. Ferris' home were life lessons: conquering new challenges and giving back to the community.

Greiling has given back by endowing the Laura A. Ferris Scholarship fund, which was established in 1983 by another of Ferris' houseguests, Isabel (Stidham) Erickson '63 and her husband, John Erickson '60, '72. Greiling hopes the fund will someday be substantial enough to pay for the room and board of each recipient, much like Ferris did for her.

In honor of Ferris and her altruistic nature, Greiling encourages other alumni to give to the Laura A. Ferris Scholarship fund.

"There once was a woman who gave so much of herself to absolute strangers. Isn't that a wonderful thing, in this day and age, to try to emulate her, to continue her philosophy of giving to others by growing the Ferris Scholarship into something worthy," Greiling said.

Arlis and Gene retired in 1998 from Greiling Farms and now split their time between Florida, where they enjoy deepsea fishing and gardening, and Wisconsin, where Arlis is a perennial student at Peninsula Art School in Door County.

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