First Lady Tonette Walker

Gronnert now a state "hero to so many"

Todd McMahon, Green Bay Press-Gazette
Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Try as she might, the much-beloved Gronnert couldn't blend in with a small sample of the large workforce that turned out for a ceremony in her honor at Schneider's corporate office in Ashwaubenon.

Tonette Walker, wife of Gov. Scott Walker, presented an unsuspecting and almost absent Gronnert with the Wisconsin Heroes Award. The distinction recognizes the heroic and voluntary efforts of Wisconsin residents to make the state a better place.

"We have some wonderful, wonderful people here in Wisconsin that are selfless, and they are really, truly the great heroes of Wisconsin," Tonette Walker said.

Gronnert, 66, knew the award would be given to someone after lunchtime Tuesday. She just figured it was going to a fellow Schneider employee and almost skipped joining dozens of others who were stretched across a balcony overlooking the presentation area above the Schneider lobby.

"I was over (standing) in the corner," said Gronnert, coordinator for the Schneider Foundation. "I just got out of a meeting, and I thought, 'I should go down (for the ceremony), but I really needed to get this (work) out.'"

Those who have become acquainted with Gronnert in her 42 years of working at Schneider or in her many years of volunteering locally know her work never stops.

"Mary is just the kind of person who is always doing for others, and it wasn't a shock to learn that she had been selected to receive this wonderful award," said LuEllen Oskey, director of the Schneider Foundation, the charitable arm of the 80-year-old transportation company.

"She is a hero to so many in this company and in our community," Oskey added. "And, she is certainly a personal hero to me."

Count those affiliated with a number of service organizations in northeast Wisconsin as huge fans as well.

"She is the gold standard for a volunteer," said Nan Bush, who has worked with Gronnert on boards and committees for CASA of Brown County the last several years.

The nonprofit, whose acronym stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates, has about 140 local residents who volunteer their time on behalf of abused and neglected children in the court system.

"Those children, they're resilient, and they need CASA's support, they need the advocates to be a stability in their life," Gronnert said. "Sometimes, they're the only persons that are always there for them, listening to them. Not coaching them or teaching them or disciplining them, but they're there to listen."

CASA is holding the inaugural Hands Around the Courthouse event to raise awareness of child abuse and neglect in the region starting at 4:42 p.m. Wednesday outside the Brown County Courthouse in downtown Green Bay. It comes on the first day of April, which is "Prevent Child Abuse Month." Organizers are hoping 221 people (or 442 hands) will participate in the event to form a symbolic full circle of support for the children in the community.

Gronnert also is a chairperson for CASA of Brown County's annual fundraising gala. The "CASA Presents … West Side Story" dinner, dance and auction events will be April 17 in the Jet Air Group hangar at Austin Straubel International Airport in Ashwaubenon.

"When you have your own kids and you have grandkids, you look at them and you think how lucky they are," said Gronnert, touching on a stable and loving environment with her family.

There to support Gronnert on Tuesday were several family members, including her husband Hank Kollross, daughter Sarah Wilder and her husband Ray, and granddaughters Olivia, 10, and Sydney, 7. Mary and Hank, Luxemburg natives who remarried after their first spouses died, will celebrate their 16th wedding anniversary on Easter Sunday, starting the day by going to church.

Then, it will be back to the busy-ness of work that comes naturally for Mary Gronnert.

She still puts in three full-time days each week at Schneider, where she previously was the longtime personal assistant of Don Schneider, the leader of the family trucking business who died in 2012.

She devotes the remaining four days of the week as well as her evenings to her various volunteer efforts, including Options for Independent Living, The Einstein Project and Meyer Theatre. Gronnert also has raised money for the local American Red Cross and been honored by The Volunteer Center of Brown County.

"All of these people within the state of Wisconsin, and I am getting an award?" Gronnert told a few well-wishers with a bashful laugh.

"I'm just overwhelmed," she added. "There's so many people in the community that work so hard and do more than I do."