12 Milwaukeeans Making a Big Difference in Our Community

Let us now praise our fellow citizens who, through their commitment and caring, have touched the lives of those around them in ways big and small.

John “Chin” Klein

Giving his best to get the best from special-ed kids
by Matthew J. Prigge

When asked what he considers the most rewarding part of his work as an emotional and behavioral disabilities teacher at South Milwaukee High School, John “Chin” Klein takes a deep breath. “Wow.”

He is on a break between his daughters’ soccer games, a weekend task he manages to fit into his busy schedule of teaching and coaching girls rugby. Klein’s sturdy build and lantern jaw (which earned him his nickname as a kid) belie the emotion in his eyes as he considers the question. Klein grew up in a poor family in a poor neighborhood near Washington Park. Both of Klein’s parents, and his sister, were born with cognitive disabilities. With neither of us parents able to read, Klein had to take an active role in running the household at the age of 9.

“It was all that I knew, so I didn’t really see it as a challenge,” Klein says. “To be honest, I didn’t feel like I wanted for much. My parents loved me and that was all that I needed.”

Photo by Sara Stathas

With the financial help of a wealthy benefactor, Klein was able to attend Marquette University. He decided to become a teach and, out of respect for his family, focused on special education. Klein uses his life story as a means of reaching his students. “I think the kids understand that I’m not someone who has gone through life with no problems at all,” he says. “[That] gives you a little bit of an opening to make a connection and to build a relationship.”

“John’s vocabulary does not include the phrase ‘give up,’” says South Milwaukee High principal Beth Kaminski. “I am lucky and proud to be able to call John a member of our staff.”

Klein works with a very different group of young people in his role as head coach of the girls’ rugby team at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School in Milwaukee. Although Klein has led the team to six national championships, he views success in coaching as something that isn’t measured by titles or trophies. “The winning is not that important. It’s about the experience and the fact that the girls get the best and the most out of it.”

And why does he do it? “I think I do this all for my kids. I want them to know that you always give the best. And if you give the best, you’re going to get the best. Life is a precious gift,” he says softly. “I think that’s why I do it.”

Emmy Myers

Fighting back against sex trafficking
by Stephanie Harte

Photo by CJ Foeckler

As a high school student in Milwaukee’s suburbs, Emmy Myers had many friends and participated in cheerleading, gymnastics, soccer and the Model UN educational simulation. Then an older boyfriend introduced her to drugs and the sex-trafficking trade.

Today, Myers, 28, shares her story to prevent others from suffering her fate. In memory of a friend who lost her life to trafficking, Myers founded Lacey’s Hope Project, a Wisconsin- based nonprofit that educates the public on the subject.

“If you talk to anyone in the life [of sex trafficking], we don’t know at the time that we are victims,” says Myers. “I had a drug addiction and was not in the right state of mind.”

Carol Redders, a leader of the Micah Ministry anti-trafficking group that operates out of Northbrook Church in Richfield, says hearing from people with first-hand experience like Myers helps the public grasp that sex trafficking happens right here in Milwaukee. Redders believes Myers’ speaking engagements not only help those listening, but help Myers in return.

“I think the more she shares [her story], the more freedom will come into her life,” Redders says.

Through Lacey’s Hope Project, Myers strives to break down the Hollywood stereotypes of sex trafficking. “It is definitely not something from the movie Taken,” she says. She also wants to inform people of the warning signs: marks of physical abuse, unexplained work or school absences, fear of police and lying about where they’ve been.

But mostly, Myers wants to inspire women who have been victims of trafficking. “I want to give people hope that there is life after ‘the life,'” she says. With regard to the work she does, Myers says: “I always wanted to be a part of something good.”

Vera Hutson

Fostering hope
by Carolyn Kott Washburne

Photo by Sara Stathas

One girl, age 8, spoke only gibberish and didn’t know how to use a fork. One child was hungry all the time and physically guarded her food. Two biological sisters had previously been in 13 foster homes.

For 24 years, Vera Hutson has been a foster mother to 10 of the city’s most challenged children.

“At age 15, I knew I would raise other people’s kids,” says Hutson, 60, a retired pre-sentence writer – compiling a felony offender’s history and circumstances into one report – for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. “I grew up in a stable, loving home, and I wanted to provide a place where the children would be fed, clothed and not beaten or raped.”

The children come from distressed families of parents with mental illness, drug abuse problems and/or cognitive disabilities. One mother had 16 children by the time she was 31, all given up for adoption.

The youngsters have brought a host of challenges into Hutson’s tidy North Side home filled with crocheted afghans and family photos on Milwaukee’s North Side: crack baby symptoms, violent tempers, promiscuity, pathological lying. To steady them until they reach adulthood, Hutson provides shelter, love, clear boundaries and, when necessary, discipline. “It doesn’t matter what they throw back at her, she hangs in there,” says Patricia Parker, family friend and pastor of the Craig Memorial Chapel C.M.E. Church.

Most of the 10 children Hutson has fostered – five of whom she adopted – have come to her through word of mouth even though she is a licensed foster parent. Some were siblings, including two of the three with her now; the third is her great-niece.

The first boy she took in, an 8-year-old, had been severely neglected and abused. He had selective mutism and did not start school until age 7. “He was put in a class for the mentally retarded, but I could tell he wasn’t,” Hutson recalls. She fought to have him mainstreamed, and by his teenage years, he was excelling in a pre-college program for low-income students at UW-Madison. He died of acute lymphoblastic leukemia at age 16, a loss Hutson still mourns.

Hutson has also provided her foster children with opportunities: music lessons, camp, clubs and travel. “I made sure everyone went on a plane,” Hutson says. “I want them to know there is life outside of Milwaukee.”

Not all of Hutson’s charges have gone on to easy lives; some have been arrested or had adolescent pregnancies. But as adults, most are self-supporting. One is a long-distance truck driver, another a health aide, another a nursing student.

Parkers says Hutson doesn’t brag — she simply sees a need and steps in.

Hutson says, “I don’t talk about it, I just do it.”

James Wood

A teen making a difference
by Karisa Langlo

Photo by CJ Foeckler

Eighteen-year-old James “J.D.” Wood serves his community like the average person does his or her laundry – regularly, and without a second thought.

“Sunday’s usually the day when I do all my service,” Wood says, with a shrug. “Usually it’s pretty easy for me to fit it in. I just do it.”

The high school senior fulfills an impressive assemblage of volunteer obligations, on top of Advanced Placement classes and a lengthy roster of extracurricular activities – soccer, ski team, lacrosse, presiding over the debate team. Effective time management seems to come as naturally to him as being of service.

Wood’s most enterprising achievement is Juniors Connecting Seniors, a service organization he founded with a friend last fall. After a Wi-Fi troubleshooting phone call with his grandfather, Wood identified a need – senior citizens struggling to master basic functions on their mobile devices, such as setting reminders or responding to text messages – and got to work determining how to fill it. Now, he’s greeted weekly at Mequon retirement community Ovation Sarah Chudnow with a sign-up sheet of residents needing tech services.

“J.D. has mentioned that the most valuable lesson he has learned from serving others is the understanding that we are all human,” says Mike Snyder, one of Wood’s teachers, adding, “J.D. understands what it means to be a part of something bigger than himself, and that’s pretty cool.”

This spring, Wood was recognized by Milwaukee’s North Shore Rotary branch at its annual “Service Above Self” awards, in part for his work with Pivotal Directions, an organization that brings Mequon-area students to underserved communities in Jamaica and Guatemala for week-long service expeditions. While in Jamaica last summer, Wood’s group befriended a local man named Addo who struggled to afford tuition for his remaining university requirements.

“I was thinking, we all brought money. Maybe we could help him pay for bus fare,” Wood says. “Turns out [tuition] was only about $400 for the whole year.”

Wood rallied the group and collected enough to fund a year of school for Addo, who completed his final exams this spring.

As he begins his senior year at University School of Milwaukee, Wood is working on a succession plan for Juniors Connecting Seniors and preparing for his second Pivotal Directions trip, this time to Guatemala. He aspires to study engineering in college and eventually participate in Engineers Without Borders, using his math and science skills to build “something that would make somebody’s life easier.” Whatever that “something” might turn out to be is almost unimportant to Wood. He just wants to do something helpful.

Milunka Radicevic

Family ties
By Ann Christenson

Patricia (left) and Milunka Radicevic at Three Brothers Restaurant. Photo by Sara Stathas

Every day but Monday, decades of tradition come to life inside Bay View Serbian restaurant Three Brothers. In the kitchen that has changed little since the restaurant’s Eisenhower-era opening, Milunka Radicevic begins the prep work for an evening of Serbian salad, soft homemade rye bread served with a creamy goat’s milk spread called kaymak, and slow-roasted lamb. Her mother, 75-year-old Patricia, still proudly holds the title of head chef. Milunka and her siblings joined the business once they were able to see over the kitchen table. Her parents taught them “to be useful at a young age,” she says of her industrious parents and paternal grandparents, who set the example for two generations.

While the eldest daughters pursue careers in Chicago, Milunka and brother Branko Jr. have stayed close to Three Brothers. On a busy night, it’s not unusual for Milunka to serve a course or clear a table, along with sharing the cooking duties (she relishes making the rich, savory burek pastry, calling it the culmination of “yin-yang extremes in texture”) and overseeing the waitstaff. Days and nights are a family balancing act of shopping, managing, training staff, paying the bills, cleaning and so on. On Monday, when Three Brothers is closed, they cook and eat together as family and friends. But “when the open sign is on, we’re no longer related; we’re a business,” says Milunka, whose title is simply “daughter.” This generation hasn’t forgotten what previous ones endured.

The restaurant-founding Radicevics, Yugoslavian emigrés, endured quite a lot. Milunka’s grandfather forged a harrowing path from a Nazi concentration camp in German-occupied Poland during World War II to working-class Bay View freedom, where he molded a former Schlitz tavern into the soulful seat of long, hearty meals on Formica tables. Grandmother Radicevic shaped the menu, suffused with slow-cooked Balkan specialties.

Branko, who died in late 2014, didn’t let his time in a Yugoslavian jail fracture his dreams of American success. He left a Bank of America job in California when his father fell ill and needed him to come home and take over Three Brothers.

Patricia learned to cook and speak Serbian. Branko, among other things, shopped, cleaned, butchered whole animals and kept the books. Their world revolved around that dining room with an old Schlitz globe over the bar. When the lights went out each night and the door was locked, they had only to walk upstairs to go home. Milunka studied at UW-Milwaukee and traveled often, but as her father aged, she “learned the value of time” and felt the pull of family. Branko’s body had begun to wear down but not his spirit, buoyed in 2002 when they won the James Beard Foundation America’s Classics Award. “It was sweet for so many reasons,” says Milunka. “My mother has been cooking for 45 years. [Diners] give us an incredible openness. We give you who we are.”

For so many reasons Three Brothers is unlike any other restaurant. Seated at a little table close to the kitchen (from which the active sounds of cooking emerge), Branko would sit and benignly survey the room. Sanford Restaurant founder-cum-cooking school co-owner Sandy D’Amato and his wife Angie “spent many an evening with Branko and Pat, sharing slivovitz and solving all the problems of the restaurant world.” They came as much for the “graciousness and generosity” of the owners, as much as for the food, D’Amato says. Milunka learned to cook her grandmother’s food, but aside from making the magnificent Branko’s torte for special occasions, she leaves the last course to her mother. Patricia is “phenomenal with desserts. I don’t have tremendous patience!” she says. Cutting onions – for so many dishes – is her bane. But working alongside her siblings, mother and sometimes extended family is a “continual blossoming of what you wish a family would be. There has never been a separation of family and business.” It’s unlikely there ever will be.

Maggie Stang

Bees for change
by Anna Miller

Photo by CJ Foeckler

Underneath the steeple on the rooftop of Redeemer Lutheran Church on the corner of 19th Street and Wisconsin Avenue are two hand-crafted wooden beehives, each holding a queen and all of her workers. As the bees fly to and from the hives carrying pollen, Maggie Stang, a bright-eyed recent college graduate, is a busy bee herself. Filled with a selfless desire to save the world, or at least the neighborhood she works in, she cleans the hives most days, collects honey and coordinates programs for Bee the Change, a non-profit organization Stang helped create that is run out of Redeemer and empowers the Church’s meal-program participants by teaching them the skills of beekeeping.

To most, bees are not an obvious solution to pressing social issues like homelessness and hunger, but in them, Stang saw an opportunity. The beehives were installed on the church’s roof at the urging of the pastor, Dr. Lisa Bates-Froiland, in summer of 2015. Stang had coordinated meal-program volunteers at Redeemer as a Marquette University student, and Bates-Froiland saw a parallel between the reputation of bees as malicious stingers and the stigma meal-program recipients encounter as homeless men and women.

In collaboration with Redeemer parishioners and Charlie Koenen, founder of the “BeeVangelists,” another non-profit spreading awareness about beekeeping, Stang launched Bee the Change, steadily recruiting her meal-program participants to join the cause. Members of Bee the Change, most homeless or formerly homeless, tend to the rooftop bees while training to be certified beekeepers. They travel with Stang across Milwaukee, educating people at churches and community centers about how installing beehives positively affects the community and the environment.

“Bees touch us to learn how to care for each other,” says Stang. “When people come to our talks, not only do their perceptions about bees change, but also do their perceptions of our members. The bees are bolstering our community environmentally, socially and spiritually. They help us build relationships across neighborhoods and across previous misconceptions.”

In the past year-and-a-half, Bee the Change has certified six members as beekeepers in Wisconsin and taught program participants business practices as they sell their honey at Redeemer and elsewhere. Central to Bee the Change’s success is Stang’s ceaseless compassion and dedication. She helped meal-program participant Ken Jones, for instance, take a leadership role within the group.

“Working with Maggie has been a complete and total delight,” says Bates-Froiland. “She is remarkably trustworthy and dependable, and she has this incredible gift of connecting with people.”

Stang plans to work with the bees throughout the rest of this summer, and then bring her ability to creatively think of unusual solutions to urgent social problems to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Tacoma, Washington, where she will work to create free programs at a day center and shelter for low-income individuals.

“Even without the bees, I’ll be doing the same kind of work,” says Stang. “I will keep forging relationships with the people I care for and work to break perception barriers. But I will definitely still keep a personal beehive if possible.”

Emma Rose Paulson

Offering support to kids with cancer, one hug at a time
by Matt Hrodey

Photo by CJ Foeckler

Emma Rose Paulson had a bad April. The 21-year-old leukemia patient checked into the H.O.T. (Hematology, Oncology and Transplant) unit at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin on March 31 to continue her third block of chemotherapy, and seemingly everything that could go wrong did. The chemo caused such tremendous pain in her eyes that she had to hold them shut, even with drops. An odd episode of delirium preceded the onset of a blood infection, aka sepsis, which led to a few days in the I.C.U., and another complication of the chemo, a painful inflammation in her mouth called mucositis, prevented her from eating. Troubling nausea swelled into vomiting that repeated every hour or two through Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, and a couple days later, a fever prompted a CT scan that led to a diagnosis of colitis, meaning her colon could rupture at any moment. Next she developed a blood clot in her arm, which would necessitate shots every day for two months, and the colitis was found to be a bacterial form, meaning she had to stay “on isolation,” not mixing with others.

Paulson is in the middle of her second battle with leukemia. The previous fight began in 2012, when she was 16. Just 10 months in, she and her mom, Kim, a teacher, started a small organization, Emma Rose – A Patient Helping Patients. It delivers several dozen care packages to children with cancer each month, many of them at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. “We have always wanted to do something to help the other kids here,” Emma says. Families arriving for the first time are heartened by the toys and comfort items delivered by Emma and Kim, judging by the thank-you notes they’ve received. Emma Rose connects to young cancer patients through her web presence and with hugs in hospital corridors, where she’s among the tallest patients.

In late April, Emma and Kim were putting together Mother’s Day packages filled with gift cards, Gummy Bears and eucalyptus pillow mist. Emma had just started eating solid food after several days on an I.V. diet. Soon after, the doctors announced that the chemo appeared to have driven the cancer out, so the second phase began, an arduous bone marrow transplant. She hopes to return to St. Mary’s College in Indiana in 2018 to finish her nursing degree and go to work in pediatric oncology. She could’ve undergone treatment at Froedtert Hospital, but she was more comfortable at Children’s. “We know everyone.”

Neven Zorić

The benevolent barber
by Joseph Boyle

Photo by Sara Stathas

At MKE Shears, a trendy hair salon located on Milwaukee’s Lower East Side, co-owner Neven Zorić offers a service you may never see and you won’t find at your average barbershop: quiet, “sensory-friendly” haircuts for children who are on the autism spectrum.

On the first Monday of every month, when the salon is closed to the public, Zorić cuts hair for people who have sensitivities to noise, commotion and other customers. He keeps the salon as quiet as possible, avoids the use of noisy tools like blow-dryers and clippers, turns off the background music and works with only one child at a time, slowly, to avoid overstimulation.

Haircuts can be stressful for people challenged by certain sensory experiences. What Zorić provides helps lessen the anxiety for children and their families. “Doing something like that, it makes me happy,” he says. “I want to give back to the community. I just wanted to do something good.”

Zorić, a stylishly dressed, 31-year-old native of Bihac, Bosnia and Herzegovina, graduated from Milwaukee’s Aveda Institute of Beauty & Wellness in 2011; he opened MKE Shears with fellow Aveda grad Nilo Brajs three years later.

According to Zorić, the idea for the sensory haircuts came from a client who worked for Autism Speaks, an organization that MKE Shears has sponsored for over two years. With friends on the autism spectrum, Zorić leapt at the chance to offer families an uncommon resource.

The process is “never the same, from child to child,” he says, adding that the same client’s needs may change dramatically between visits. “One child may hate clippers, while another may not. Any child may hate clippers one visit and be okay with clippers the next.”

Sometimes children sit for the haircut in the chair themselves. “Sometimes, they have Mom or Dad holding them,” says Zorić. “I try to make them as comfortable as I can. There really is no defined way to handle children on the spectrum where cutting hair is involved. It’s really a labor of patience and understanding.”

Aaron Polansky

Carving a community of skateboarders
by Maureen Post

Photo by CJ Foeckler

From the start, skateboarding has been about creating community for Bay View Sky High Skate Shop owner Aaron Polansky. “When I was a kid, I saw this skate video called ‘Curb Dogs’ and it was all these different looking kids all doing it together,” says Polansky. “That’s what really sparked it.”

Decades later, as Sky High Skate Shop enters its 29th year, Polansky still embodies that spark, cultivating an engaging space for skaters.

When Polansky was a teenager in Racine, he began working at the shop. He took over as owner in 1999, and moved it to Howell Avenue in Bay View in 2004. Regularly, Polansky, a dark-haired man with an air of gentle calm, fostered connections with youth through afternoon skate jams at the Cass Street School playground, setting ramps on the blacktop and lending boards to kids who couldn’t afford them.

For skateboarders who visited him years ago and are now in their 30s with kids of their own, Sky High’s still a home away from home.

“I always want to take abandoned spaces and create something from nothing,” Polansky says. “Estabrook is the main project now. It had been this empty zone used by kids for skating or bike polo, so we cleaned it up and slowly added concrete skate elements. Now there’s support from all these groups because they see it as something positive.”

Patrick Murphy, now in his mid-20s, has been going to Sky High since he was a teen. “Estabrook wouldn’t be what it is without Aaron,” he says. “He’s showed all us younger guys what it means to be a part of a community and how supporting your local shops keeps that community alive.”

Murphy watches a younger generation swing by Sky High to see Polansky for help with homework, to talk about art and music or to simply seek support. And, like clockwork, at the annual summer skate jam and block party outside the shop, skilled skaters and shop supporters meet kids on the block and just hang out.

“This is just me doing me,” says Polansky. “If I didn’t have the shop, I’d no matter what be building and creating and doing things with people.”

Cindy Bentley

Going the distance
by Carolyn Kott Washburne

Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

Cindy Bentley’s path has not been easy. Born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome to an imprisoned drug- and alcohol-addicted mother, she was given 24 hours to live. Bentley survived, but with intellectual disabilities. Her early years were spent in foster homes. When she was 2, an angry foster mother lit Bentley’s shirt on fire, causing third-degree burns. Again Bentley survived — after six months in the hospital and nine surgeries.

At 8, she was sent to the Southern Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled in Union Grove, where she would live for the next 18 years. “I hated it,” says Bentley, now 59 and a Glendale resident.

But at “Southern Colony,” Bentley met a Special Olympics coach who changed her life by encouraging her to run. “She started to believe in me, and then I started to believe in myself,” Bentley recalls.

In 1970, at age 12, Bentley competed in the second International Special Olympics Game in Chicago, surprising everyone, including herself, by taking first place in the 50- and 100-yard dashes. “I began to think of myself as an athlete,” she says. She also participated in softball, bowling and basketball.

At age 26, she moved to a group home and eventually to her own apartment. For 20 years, she has competed with the North Suburban Special Olympics team, and still competes in soccer.

Among her leadership roles is executive director of People First Wisconsin, which helps people with disabilities speak out about healthcare, voting, employment, housing and transportation issues. Since the 1980s, she has been active with the Athletic Leadership Program, speaking about Special Olympics and coaching other athletes.

“Cindy’s bravery and passion to help others is second to none,” says Jennifer Wagner, vice president of marketing for Special Olympics Wisconsin. “Her influence will be felt for decades to come.”

Bentley has been hosted by two presidents, met celebrities and traveled throughout the U.S. and abroad to promote the Special Olympics — all of which she downplays.

“I’m a regular person trying to do the right thing.”

Dr. Lori Barbeau

Filling a need
by Carolyn Kott Washburne

Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

Staff and patients singing together. Children cuddling teddy bears they brought from home. What kind of dental office is this?

A darn good one.

The Children’s Dental Center of Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin is a cheerful, welcoming place, from its brightly colored waiting room to its patient-friendly, open treatment space. Th Center – which has four clinics throughout Milwaukee – is led by medical director Dr. Lori Barbeau, “Dr. Lori” to her patients.

Because nearly 40 percent of the Center’s patient base has special needs – physical, cognitive and/or emotional – the staff must devise creative approaches to treatment. For an anxious or fearful child, for example, the first two visits might be spent without treatment at all, just acclimating the child and helping him or her feel relaxed with familiar songs and toys. If a child uses a customized wheelchair, the staff tips it back to provide treatment. “It works best to keep children in their most comfortable setting rather than force them into what works best for us,” says Barbeau.

“We call Lori the ‘Child Whisperer,'” says Dr. Michael Melugin, director of orthodontics at Children’s. “She is a gifted clinician who can get a child through an appointment when no one else can.”

Short and vivacious, Barbeau, 56, moves comfortably around the clinic in T-shirt, scrub pants and tennies. She and her team have a passion for serving the Center’s medically underserved patient base, approximately 93 percent of whom are on Medicaid. “We are a safety net in the community by providing care for children who wouldn’t have other options,” she says.

She is program director of the nationally recognized Pediatric Dental Residency Program, which accepts four graduate dentists each year for a two-year training program in pediatric dentistry.

Perhaps most gratifying for her is seeing a child’s life turned around with proper dental care. The staff operates five days a week on children as young as a year old, some of whom have as many as 15 cavities. “After we provide restorative care, parents report that their children are eating better, sleeping better, not so crabby all the time,” says Barbeau. “It’s like they have a new kid.”

Phil Himmelfarb

Making death a loving experience
by Rich Rovito

Photo by Sara Stathas

Phil Himmelfarb provides comfort and companionship to those who are in the waning moments of life. The Whitefish Bay resident is often found at the bedside of dying residents of the Jewish Home and Care Center on Milwaukee’s East Side in his role as a volunteer in a program he helped revitalize.

“It’s very intimate and profound and it’s different every time,” Himmelfarb says. “Whether with words or just breathing with them in the same space, or a simple touch. Sometimes people are scared. Sometimes they aren’t even conscious or sentient in the way we are.”

A near-death experience when a car struck him and left him seriously injured two years ago, along with this bedside hospice work, has transformed Himmelfarb, whose nearly wrinkleless face and shock of dark curly hair tinged with gray belie his 80 years of life.

“I don’t take life for granted. Life ends,” says Himmelfarb, his piercing blue-green eyes unblinking. “What has changed for me is the awareness. I don’t fear death any more. It’s a normal part of life.”

A New York native raised in Boston, Himmelfarb earned a Ph.D. in microbiology and biochemistry from the University of Massachusetts. He made his way to Milwaukee in 1970 to work at the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co., where he helped develop new products for the company, including its first low-alcohol beverages. After 12 years at Schlitz, he launched a consulting firm that focused on strategic planning and new product development. In 2000, he began seriously contemplating the post-work phase of his life.

“I was starting to think of what’s next,” he recalls. “I have been given so many gifts. I’ve had some lucky breaks. It was time. It wasn’t about me anymore. It sounds terribly cliché, but it was true.”

His attorney at the time, Mike Joseph, suggested something that had never crossed Himmelfarb’s mind: take a volunteer role at the Jewish Home and Care Center. Nearly two decades later, it is part of the fabric of his existence.

“He just seemed like a person who had an interest in doing good for the community,” says Joseph, who has served in a variety of roles at the Jewish Home and its affiliates, including an extended stint as board chairman, over the past 35 years. “You get attached to it. I’m sure Phil will keep going.”

He says Himmelfarb has taken on a “highly thoughtful role” in his volunteer efforts focused on the dying. “It takes a special mentality to assist people in the last stages of their lives,” says Joseph.

Arleen Peltz met Himmelfarb in 2001 when her husband, Walter, was a resident at the center. “Phil would stop by, always being considerate to see if Walter was up to having a visitor and spent quality time with the two of us,” Peltz recalls. “After Walter passed away, I knew it also was my destiny to volunteer there. That is when my friendship with Phil began. One could not ask for a more caring friend.”

Rabbi Steven Adams, director of pastoral care at the Jewish Home and Care Center, describes Himmelfarb as a “reassuring presence” for the residents, and considers Himmelfarb a chief advisor. “He has a wealth of knowledge, and his understanding of people is something I benefit from,” says Adams. “He’s just focused on doing something meaningful.”

Himmelfarb enjoys learning about the lives of the residents with whom he spends time. “It’s important to meet with people who are near the end of their lives,” he says. “Everyone has a unique story and needs human companionship. Just someone to talk to and to be there.”

Himmelfarb says it’s his hope that those with whom he spends time feel respected and not alone. “Death actually can be a very loving experience.”

Tune in WUWM’s (FM 89.7) “Lake Effect” July 26 at 10 a.m. to hear more about the story.

‘Local Lights’ appears in the July 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning July 3, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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