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Gathering brings back reflections of 1974 Hortonville teachers' strike

It seems like yesterday Mike Wisnoski sat down in the middle of Main Street, bracing himself as he prepared to be forcibly removed by police dressed in riot gear.

Photo Gallery (click photo)

Mabel Grummer, now 82, remembers the cold March wind blowing through her jacket as she sat in front of a school bus in solidarity with her union brothers and sisters.

Jay Van Thiel, who was married earlier that month, was forced to grapple with the reality of losing his job.

These are among the stories of the Hortonville 84, the teachers who put their own futures on hold to take up the cause of collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin teachers.

It was a time of uncertainty, when the members of the Hortonville Education Association went on strike March 18, 1974, but the experience forged friendships that remain strong to this day.

Buttons serve as a physical reminder of the 1974 Hortonville teachers’ strike.

“I think we made the decision to go on strike with fear and trepidation,” said Ruth Bruswitz, who had been employed as a Hortonville teacher for nine years at the time of the strike. “I don’t think we thought we’d all lose our jobs.”

The Hortonville teacher strike was one of 30 Wisconsin teacher strikes that occurred in the 1972-73 and 1973-74 school years and one of countless teacher strikes throughout the United States. But the Hortonville School Board’s unreasonable refusal to compromise and the strength of conviction of the 84 teachers made the strike perhaps the most closely watched of its day.

Teacher strikes were illegal in Wisconsin, but with nothing in the law that forced compliance with good-faith bargaining, the strikes were frequent. During that period, a typical teacher strike lasted no more than two weeks before bargaining continued and settlements were reached.

It was Janice Exenberger’s first year in Hortonville, after teaching in Kenosha for two years. In Kenosha, she was an active union member who had been through two strikes. While the school board there had threatened to fire striking teachers, it never did.

Pages of a scrapbook outline the events of the Hortonville teachers strike in 1974.

But instead of good-faith bargaining, the Hortonville School Board fired all of its teachers on April 2, 1974, and withdrew its last contract offer.

Bruswitz and Exenberger were among about a dozen of the original 84 to gather informally in September to talk about their shared experiences, and plan for a major reunion event in 2008. They met at the Appleton home of Hank Krokosky, senior executive director of WEAC-Fox Valley.

The group spent the evening recollecting the events that changed the direction of their lives.

Grummer was one of a handful of 1974 Hortonville EA members at the gathering who were arrested for their acts of civil disobedience. In total, more than 70 supporters were arrested during the strike, including the WEAC Executive Secretary Morris Andrews.

Grummer recalled sitting in front of a school bus, wearing the jacket of a union sister, the late Jean Larson. The women thought the nylon coat would be slippery, allowing Grummer to avert being grabbed by the police. “It wasn’t slippery enough,” Grummer said with a laugh. Only members who volunteered participated in civil disobedience actions that could get them jailed.

Exenberger remembered facing large groups of police who were decked out in riot gear. “It was a traumatic situation,” Exenberger said. “My husband Al hated it when I went to jail.”

A newspaper ad published in 1984 includes letters from students and parents in support of the striking teachers.

Russ Lichte remembered returning school materials that teachers had in their possession on the first day of the strike. Instead of accepting the gesture as responsible and honest, the bomb squad was called, he said.

Lichte, who was in his second year of teaching in 1974, said Hortonville was destined to become the site for the standoff, due to conditions fostered by the administration and school board. “The teachers were fed up,” he said. “We came together because the administration forced us. No matter what you tried to do, they didn’t care. We were a unit with almost no dissention.”

Most of the Hortonville 84 are retired now, or are quickly approaching that milestone. Some are looking back on careers in education, despite the roadblock that Hortonville presented. Others never taught again. But all share the common experience that was Hortonville, and take pride in their role in shaping education as it stands today.

“All things change,” said Donna Wisnoski, whose husband Mike was the Hortonville Education Association president in 1974. “Was it good? Was it bad? It’s hard to say. But when we see how much better everyone else has it, we know it made a difference.”

The situation created some wonderful relationships and a brighter future for today’s teachers, but also brought out negativity and anger, she continued. “Overall, most people would say it was a positive thing,” she said. “But a lot of these teachers, to this day, are still suffering into their retirements. No district would hire them again.”

After losing his job in Hortonville, Mike Wisnoski couldn’t find another school district to hire him. He would receive offers, only to be denied a job when districts found out Hortonville’s case was still in court. “They thought he was too vocal, and they didn’t want to touch him,” his wife said.

He never returned to the classroom. He co-founded a successful pension firm which he sold upon his retirement.

Russ Lichte was also among those who never returned to the classroom. Instead, he began a new career in the insurance industry.

Billie Pollard had worked in Hortonville for 16 years when she was fired. She left the traditional classroom and began teaching English to refugees. She later created an organization, still in operation today, that provides literacy services to people learning English as a second language.

Other teachers found difficulty getting jobs at public schools, so went to work for private schools. Exenberger first went to work for a parochial school in Neenah. She was later hired by the Neenah School District, where she worked for 17 years until her retirement in 2006. “I’m proud to say, before I retired last year, they named me Teacher of the Year,” she said.

Betty Friemark was hired as a teacher at St. Thomas Moore in Appleton. She later taught in Kewaunee and then was hired in the New London School District, where she worked six years before retiring.

For Bruswitz, the Hortonville experience was just one in a lifetime of unique education memories she holds close to her heart. She began her career in a tiny schoolhouse in Black Creek, just north of Appleton, where she taught a combined classroom of eight grades. After staying home for a decade as she started a family, she rejoined the teaching ranks at Hortonville in 1965.

Attending the gathering with her husband, Vern, she described herself as one of the lucky ones. After losing her job in 1974, she was hired in Neenah at the pay schedule reflecting the number of years she had worked at Hortonville. “I had 19 good years in Neenah before retiring,” she said.

Carol Gruetzmacher, who had been a 2nd-grade teacher in Hortonville, was also one of those able to quickly attain another job in public education. She was hired in the New London School District, from which she retired in 2002 after a total of 40 years in the field of education.

Grummer was hired in the Appleton School District, where she worked for the remainder of her career.

John Schindhelm, 58, is still a teacher. He was in his third year of teaching in 1974, and had already applied for a job in the Neenah School District before the strike was called. He said he was fortunate to get that job in Neenah, where he worked for a decade before getting laid off. He now teaches technology education at Kaukauna High School. “I’ll work as a teacher as long as I can,” he said.

The small group of Hortonville EA members acknowledged the many others who have since passed away or were unable to attend, hoping as many as possible will gather for next year’s reunion.

Many of the original 84 say they are proud to have stood up for collective bargaining rights for the educators who have come after them. They also agree that the problems, situations and tensions that forced the strike can still be found in schools today. And the tension in the community and region over the strike hasn’t faded with time, they said.

“But if you asked everyone, almost all would say they would do it again,” Exenberger said. “In retrospect, a lot of good came through it.”

The group tries to stay in touch and keeps a sense of humor when gathered together. Mike Wisnoski said he learned many things from the strike. “For instance, I learned you never get 64 women mad at the same time,” he said with a laugh.

Mabel Grummer’s husband, Arnie, learned that the impossible can happen. “I was a parson’s son. It never occurred to me in a million years that my wife would go to jail.”

And they all smiled when they recalled how Jeanne (Wall) Lee met her future husband amid the chaos of Hortonville. He was a reporter assigned to cover the strike for the Appleton Post Crescent.

But there are no smiles when the group talks about the need for teachers to stand up for themselves and demand fair wages and good working conditions. “Some people will try to put a guilt complex on you,” said Mike Wisnoski, pointing out that when the strike began that Hortonville teachers had not won a base salary raise in three years and had been working without a contract for seven months. He also pointed to poor working conditions and little professional respect. “Don’t ever be ashamed for standing up for yourselves,” he advised today’s teachers.

The families of the Hortonville 84 were as much involved in the strike and its implications as the members themselves. Husbands watched as their wives were carted away to jail, families tightened the purse strings in the uncertainties of the future. They marched together and faced the vigilantes who escorted strikebreakers through the picket line.

The 84 also drew support from unions across the state and nation. Those who were there remember picket lines of 500 Wisconsin teachers as helmeted deputy sheriffs from five neighboring counties kept watch. In addition to supporting their cause, other locals provided food and monetary contributions.

Dick Collins, WEAC president from 1989 to 1995, attended the reunion to pay homage to the Hortonville 84. He was in his third year of teaching in the Waupun School District in 1974. “The Hortonville strike, to me, was the most meaningful thing in my professional career,” he said. “I’m honored to be with you.”

The firing of the teachers heightened support statewide among teachers for amendment of the bargaining law. By 1977, amendments to the law resulted in a system of arbitration that improved the chances of every member in the state of getting a fair settlement.

More than 30 years after the teachers’ strike, Hortonville’s 84 are finding another bit of common ground on which to stand. Those who gathered in September are wondering if they are remembered– or even known about – by the educators who came after them.

“I wonder if the young people even know there was a strike in Hortonville,” Pollard said.

Some of the 84 took time during their careers to talk with newer members about Hortonville. They say it is important for today’s teachers to understand how the Hortonville 84 gave up their own financial security to pave the way for reform.

“Some of the newer teachers knew about Hortonville, and they would say ‘Oh, you were one of those,’ Gruetzmacher said. “Others had never heard about it.”

WEAC-Fox Valley President Kim Jordan, who attended the reunion to give her thanks to Hortonville’s 84, was a senior in high school in 1974. She said a history refresher is needed, and is planning to invite some of the Hortonville 84 to speak to newer staff members. “That may help them understand the importance of the strike and the need to work together to achieve an even stronger profession,” she said.

“We need to get young people in our union activated,” she continued. “They weren’t even born when that happened. Somehow we have to tell them the story.”

If you are interested in attending the reunion of the Hortonville 84 to be held in 2008, please contact Russ Lichte by e-mail at or by telephone at (920) 739-6601. Those interested in receiving information about the reunion are asked to leave an e-mail address, if possible.

Posted September 21, 2007

Education News