Boomers: Shirley Heise committed to education, family, community
After years of teaching, Shirley Heise hadn’t any intention of seeking the post of principal at Nativity Catholic School in Rhinelander. But as with so many other times in her life, events seemed to fall in place, pointing her to where she was needed most.
Growing up in the tiny community of Barnesville, 30 miles north of Hayward, life for Shirley and her six younger siblings could have been bleak.
“We grew up extremely poor,” she explains. “We had no indoor plumbing for a long time. And besides the seven of us, my parents took in four Native American foster children, so it was a very busy house.”
Her mother, Joyce, kept everything together while her father, Bill Friermood, ran a garage to support the family. “My mom’s an angel,” Shirley says. “We have such a supportive family, and we all grew up with a strong sense of family values.”
Life was not without its drama, however. In 1968, when Shirley was 14, a tornado struck the homestead. “We were all sitting down to supper – my dad was still at work – and I had gone into the kitchen for something. I looked up and saw it out the window.”
Thanks to Shirley, everyone was able to get to safety in the basement, but when they emerged, the house had been destroyed. “Forty acres of trees were leveled,” she recalls. “But there were still towels hanging on the clothesline and I found my Cinderella watch undamaged.”
The nearest neighbor was a mile away. They managed to flag down a passing car and all piled in for the six-mile trip to town. “My brother was cut and needed medical attention, but otherwise we were all OK.
“We still talk about it to this day,” Shirley says. “A trauma like that either brings you closer together or tears you apart. For us, it’s always been about family.”
Shirley’s next youngest sister, Debbie, was her best friend. “We were just 11 months apart and did everything together. Growing up, we always played office or school, when we weren’t reading books or climbing trees.”
As financially challenged as the family was, they’d seen worse suffering. “My foster siblings came from very hard backgrounds. They were victims of fetal alcohol syndrome, although they didn’t call it that back then.”
Placed in the midst of several different tribal communities, Shirley’s family saw racial conflicts up close. “People would say things about my foster brothers, but my mom put a stop to that. She could just look at people, and they knew there was no messing with her or her kids.”
Shirley enjoyed school and did well, but she was troubled to see other students treated in ways she didn’t think were right. “I’ve seen some bad things happen. I think that’s what made me want to be a teacher. I knew that school should be fun and still be a place to learn.
“I had some wonderful teachers,” she recalls. “My high school biology teacher was my favorite. And I was never great at math, but my high school geometry teacher made me feel I could do it. Everyone has gifts, and a good teacher can bring that out.”
It was natural that when she went off to college in Superior at age 17, Shirley chose to study education with a major in physical education and a minor in science. There, she met her future husband, Gaylon Heise.
The Heises began their careers in the Wausau area, where Gaylon had grown up. “I taught at Catholic schools in Wausau and in Edgar for years. Gaylon taught for a while, then became a firefighter.”
The couple’s son, Justin, followed in both his parents’ footsteps. “He was a ‘tag-along’ kid,” explains Shirley. “I took him everywhere with me to all kinds of school events. He was a great kid; he did a lot of sports, but basketball was really his thing.”
Justin went on to complete double majors and double minors at UW-Stout. “He doesn’t use any of it now, though,” Shirley says. “He decided to follow his father into emergency services, and he’s now a paramedic in Indiana where he lives with his wife and son, with another baby on the way.”
When Gaylon retired, the couple decided to start refurbishing the family cottage in Lake Tomahawk, creating a year-round home. Shirley began seeking a teaching position further north, while turning her spare time to her personal passions of home decorating and landscaping.
While teaching in the Wausau area, Shirley had taken courses to obtain her master’s degree and became qualified for school administration. So it was that when she applied for a teaching post in several northern communities, she was offered the job of principal in Rhinelander 13 years ago.
“When I arrived, there were some financial concerns at what was then called Rhinelander Catholic Central. I also found myself in the middle of an accreditation renewal that was challenging,” she says. “Fortunately, we passed with flying colors.”
Shirley credits the success of Nativity School, which serves pre-kindergarten through 8th grade, to its founders. “For 114 years, this school has been lead by strong nuns. They are sorely missed, but won’t be forgotten.”
Supported by area parishes, the school has always had strong community backing, according to Shirley. “A school is a drain on resources,” she says. “But our staff and our parishes love our school. The staff is so dedicated. They earn about half of what public school employees make, but they’re not complaining.”
Looking back, there’s no doubt that her mother’s strength inspired Shirley. “She’s been through so much,” she says. “My sister, Debbie, died when she was just 48 years old. My dad suffered a massive stroke when he was 56, and my mom cared for him at home for 19 years until he died four years ago.”
Now, at age 80, Joyce is doing pretty well. “She has a sewing business and a cake decorating business,” says Shirley. “She’s had some health problems, but she’s doing well now. She’s an amazing woman.”
Shirley herself isn’t ready to retire anytime soon. “Friends kid me that if I retired, the whole community of Lake Tomahawk would be re-landscaped.
“I would love to stay in education,” she explains. “I’ll know when it’s time to leave. If I’m not effective anymore, if I lose my sense of empathy and sympathy, then I hope God will give me the wisdom and courage to walk out the door.”
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander. Her articles also appear in Northwoods Commerce and Living on the Lake magazines.