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A Passion for Theatre Helps Pay It Forward

J. William Schmitz

J. William Schmitz

During his student days, J. William Schmitz '63 spent a lot of his time helping others shine.

He loved dance and theatre but was more comfortable working off the stage than on it. He put his show talents to use behind the scenes, building sets and running lights for the productions.

Today, more than 40 years later, Schmitz is still shining a spotlight on theatre and dance at UW-Whitewater. He died on Sept. 19, 2007, at age 70, but a gift from his estate will boost scholarships for new and continuing students in those arts for years to come.

"It is a wonderful thing," said Megan Matthews, director of advancement for the College of Arts and Communication. "This gentleman is changing lives through his gift."

Schmitz's donation increased the value of the existing Wynett Barnett scholarship by 10-fold and greatly expanded the college's ability to attract and retain talented students. The extra money will allow the award-winning Theatre/Dance Department to offer scholarships to freshmen for the first time this fall, as well as give more money to the five juniors who typically get awards each year.

"The gift was a complete surprise to us and we are very thankful for this generous support," department chairman Marshall Anderson said. "It with recruiting the best possible students for our program."

Schmitz, who had no siblings and no children of his own, grew up in West Allis and was a school librarian in Lake Geneva after graduating from UW-Whitewater in 1963 with a speech major. He earned his master's at the University of Oregon and was a middle school librarian in Tacoma, Wash., until 2002.

For Bill and Karen Gruetzman, who met Schmitz at UW-Whitewater and remained his lifelong friends, his donation wasn't so surprising. Though they didn't know about the gift until they saw it in his will as estate representatives, it wasn't hard for them to understand why he did it.

"I know he always treasured his time at UW-Whitewater with the theatre," said Karen Gruetzman, who also graduated from the university in 1963. "He talked about that often, and he just cared about people. He cared about kids and education."

Schmitz got to know the Gruetzmans after he asked if he could park his motorcycle in the family's garage near campus. Though Bill Gruetzman wasn't a student, he and Schmitz were about the same age and got along well, so much so that Schmitz brought Bill on campus with him to work on sets.

"They had a really good time doing that," Karen Gruetzman recalled.

Schmitz moved to a retirement community in Green Valley, Ariz.. in 2004, and over the years took many vacations with the Gruetzmans - including a memorable trip through the Grand Canyon by train, another of his abiding passions. Schmitz probably would have worked on the railroad but for a partial hearing disability, Karen Gruetzman said. Instead, he rode trains and assembled an extensive collection of model trains throughout his life.

Schmitz also was much loved by his neighbors in Green Valley, where he would watch houses when people were away and do other favors.

"They just trusted him," Karen Gruetzman said. "He was always out and about, helping someone."

University officials hope Schmitz's contribution to UW-Whitewater will serve as a model for others. Planned giving, in the form of estate gifts, can pay for things that make a lasting difference. And almost anyone who sets aside a nest egg for retirement can do it, Matthews said.

"Planned giving helps people to create or continue a legacy," she said. "They're able to have some of the resources they've accumulated throughout their life go to support something that was important to them."