Merriam-Webster defines the meaning of “mystique” as “a special quality that makes a person or thing interesting and exciting.” From my experience of working and living there for many years, I believe that Wausau, Wisconsin and its surroundings is evidence of that quality brought about principally by the nature of its inhabitants.
When the Klein family arrived there during the cold winter of 1960, we moved into a rental house on the west side that was located near a hardware store named Grebe’s and across the street from the family of one of the men that worked in the maintenance department of Employers Mutuals. We became friendly with them and some other close neighbors that we found to be helpful in getting settled in this new environment. I had been working as a branch underwriting manager in the Kansas City regional office of the Employers Mutual Liability Insurance Company that had its headquarters in Wausau. Shortly after I arrived an incident occurred that opened my eyes to the unusual existence of the Wausau “mystique”. One morning at the office, which at the time was the building that now houses the city’s administration, I went down to our lunch room in the basement for our company approved coffee break and saw my neighbor sitting at a table with a cup of coffee. After filling my cup at the big dispenser, I joined him, and we chatted about neighborhood events. A few minutes later, the president of the company, Mr. Schweitzer, came into the room, helped himself to a cup and walked over to us. Greeting us both by our first names, he asked if he could join us, then sat and we continued with a three-way chat. Part way through it suddenly dawned on me that something very unusual had just happened – here we were, three individuals having a cup of coffee and chatting away with complete ease and comfort – one very junior new staff employee, one company maintenance man and the president of the company.
I should not have been surprised. My earlier experience with this employer, that eventually grew to be the Wausau Insurance Group, had given me clues. My two previous employers had been the Marine Corps toward the end of WWII and then a part of a year as a clerk for a large insurance broker in NYC. Next, I joined Employers Mutuals at their downtown NYC office and later moved to their main uptown office. I didn’t realize it at the time that most of the management was from Wausau – the regional manager and underwriting, safety engineering and claim managers and possibly others – all from near Rib Mountain. When I later transferred to their Albany office, I found the same situation there and also when I moved to the Kansas City regional office.
What I found especially interesting is that the employees in those offices, and many others I had occasion to visit over the years, that were not originally from Wausau, seemed to pick up those great work habits and attitudes from their Wausau co-workers. I had by happenstance found a group of people that worked hard, played hard, treated each other with respect and had their customer’s best interest at heart. I loved working for them. During those years I had some offers from other companies, but the temptation of a higher salary didn’t overcome my enjoyment for being where I was.
Eventually, locating and working in Wausau, emphasized that realization. It was not only the people at the company it was the whole area. Storekeepers, the police and fire departments, the health providers, the city government, other companies and their bosses and workers – most everybody seemed to have been cast from the same mold. Of course, there were exceptions, but they were very much in the minority. I don’t know what brought this about. Some say it is the continuing values established by the original settlers; mostly represented by northern Europeans. Although there had been many changes over the years, some major wars one of which caused the name of the German-American Bank to be changed changed to the First American Bank (now BMO), economic crashes, immigration influxes, just to name a few, Wausau’s character has not changed. I’m sure it’s location has helped. With a large lake practically downtown created by a confluence of four rivers and a good sized “mountain” a short bike ride away, everybody has nature at their doorstep. Fishing, boating, skiing, hunting all are just minutes away and four good seasons with winters that are “interesting” create an environment that adds to the good nature of its inhabitants.
My wife and I were part-time residents in more recent years; so-called “snow birds”, and now are permanently in Florida. We both miss Wausau. Recently one of our kids told us about “You Know You’re From Wausau” and we’ve enjoined visiting it. It appears from the interest shown and the content it contains that the mystique is still quite alive.