At 98, Bernard O. Gruenke lives alone in the same home he shared with his late wife, Mary Anne. He has a caregiver to help with cooking, cleaning and driving since losing a portion of his leg due to infection a few years ago, but dresses up each Tuesday to report to work.
“I probably should retire; I think I need it very soon,” laughed Gruenke. “But I like the idea that they keep my office for me and maintain it steadily. I enjoy coming into work and having them show me sketches and drawings. I still share my ideas and together we come through with the thoughts of the future and what churches can do in creating something beautiful.”
As president emeritus of the New Berlin-based Conrad Schmitt Studios Inc., Gruenke no longer sits at the helm of the day-to-day operations of the award-winning interior decorating, restoration and stained glass company, but he retains a significant and positive presence.
Founded in 1889 by Conrad Schmitt, the son of Bavarian immigrants, the firm remained in the Schmitt family until 1953, when it was purchased by Gruenke. Today, three generations of the Gruenke family are involved in the company – his son Bernard E. serves as CEO; grandson Bernard Gunar as president; and granddaughter Heidi Emery as vice president.
Getting started at Conrad Schmitt in 1935 was not as easy as Gruenke had expected. After graduating from Corcoran College of Art in Washington, D.C., he apprenticed under artist Caesar Riccardi and early on had his heart set on becoming part of the Conrad Schmitt team.
“I showed up at the company and told them that I wanted to work there, but they told me that I should come back in six months or a year because they didn’t need me or want me,” explained Gruenke.
Not easily dissuaded, he returned the next day, sat on the doorstep and waited patiently until the business opened.
“I told them that whether they liked it or not, I was going to work there, whether they paid me or not,” said Gruenke. “Well, they paid me! It wasn’t a great deal, just $7 a week, but it was so much fun and it still is fun today.”
In the beginning, the work was rather menial. Gruenke’s initiation consisted of scrubbing floors, washing cars and moving wine casks for Mrs. Schmitt. Later, he learned the art of stained glass, including hours stick-lining borders on stained glass windows. By 1940, he worked with Munich, Germany native, Conrad Pickel, and learned to design stained glass and murals.
In 1953, Gruenke purchased the firm and continued its international presence in ecclesiastical and decorative art, stained glass and interior design. The firm has conserved stained glass windows designed by famous artists such as Louis Comfort Tiffany, Thomas O’Shaughnessy, John LaFarge, F.X. Zettler, and Mayor of Munich; and restored theatres designed by architects Rapp & Rapp, John Eberson, C. Howard Crane and Thomas Lamb, and religious and secular buildings designed by Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and others.
On the forefront of similar businesses, Gruenke is proud of developing a variety of glass techniques, especially etched and faceted glass.
“We did a wonderful project at the Waldorf Astoria in New York and many other places, and developed techniques that weren’t even available in Europe,” he said. “It was all so worthwhile – especially when I think back on the art aspects of it all.”
Since beginning at Conrad Schmitt 76 years ago, Gruenke has also traveled throughout the United States and the world designing and creating art glass and interiors for basilicas, cathedrals, churches, synagogues, theatres, train stations, hotels, universities, state capitols and government buildings.
“I have enjoyed every part of my work, but if I had to tell you that I have a favorite aspect, it would be working with churches, cathedrals and basilicas,” he said. “The work is my life and I am most proud of doing new things in etched glass and faceted glass and working with priests all over the world in representing the spirit of the people and being obedient to the spirit of the Catholic faith.”
One of the more memorable restorations took place in 1966 when Holy Cross Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Notre Dame, Ind., commissioned Conrad Schmitt to bring the church into accord with the liturgical norms of the Second Vatican Council.
“Fr. Hesburgh gave me the go ahead to decorate and while I was decorating I told him that I didn’t like that he had his back to the people and asked if I could bring the altar out further so he could face the people,” said Gruenke. “He agreed to try it for one Sunday and continued to do it that way.”
As a member of St. John Vianney Parish in Brookfield, Gruenke was instrumental in decorating the original church, now the school cafeteria. In the 1970s, when building began for the new church, Gruenke designed the risen Christ in the sanctuary, interior artwork and stained glass, and moved the tabernacle to a side chapel in order to allow parishioners to linger and socialize in the nave of the church following Mass.
According to Emery, Gruenke continues to work in the studio which now employs 45 people, because the promotion and creation of ecclesiastical art has been his life’s passion.
“He is an absolute inspiration to the other staff as they know he so loved what he did and has so much experience and stories to share,” she said. “His strong work ethic emanates from his parents and growing up in the (Great) Depression. He is a strong practicing Catholic and is still a member of St. John Vianney Parish, but due to his health issues, receives holy Communion in his home most of the time.”
In addition to his passion for ecclesiastical art, Gruenke has a penchant for his eight grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren, as well as playing Sheepshead. He has regular games in his home, or at the Brookfield Senior Center.
“I get a kick out of him playing with ‘the boys,’ who are all over 80,” said Emery. “I have often come by to deliver stuff when they play – they put their hands up to greet me, but continue to go on playing because they are so into the game.”