To Sharon Schmeling, Messmer High School was the firm foundation she built her life upon.
“When I look back,” she said, “I think I loved high school the most. It was a great experience.”
Her family lived in Ozaukee County; so every morning she climbed into her father’s car next to variations of her four siblings over the four years of her high school education, and drove 30 miles a day to get to her parents’ alma mater.
“(They) weren’t just committed to a Catholic education for their kids, but to that school in particular,” Schmeling said. “They knew it was someplace special.”
The magic of Messmer began for Sharon when she joined the school’s student run newspaper, Foursquare, and began to discover her lifelong passion for journalism. At the end of her sophomore year, she was nominated by students and teachers to take on the role of editor for the Foursquare, the first junior in Messmer history to do so. She spent the summer after her sophomore year being tutored in the fundamentals of journalism by a part-time teacher, former journalist, and advisor for the paper, Rosemarian Staudacher. Schmeling remembers her fondly as an inspiration who taught her everything she needed to know about good communication skills, proper writing, and clarity of thought.
“She changed my life,” Schmeling said. “That an adult would take the time with a young person in their formative years to help them develop a talent that they may have an interest in, it cemented my passion for journalism.”
For two years, Schmeling ran Messmer’s student newspaper. She remembers it fondly as the old-fashioned way of doing things: they typed each article on a typewriter, laid it out piece by piece and drove it to the printer themselves. A week later, they’d get the proofs and edit them, spending eight to 12 hours a week for the once-a-month publication.
“It was a lot of work,” she said, “but I loved it. We all did; we were like a little family in that room.”
Without realizing it, the students’ work was changing their lives.
Their class advisor was Sr. Margaret Mary, who Schmeling says helped guide them and temper their teenage zeal as they wanted to write stories that pushed the envelope and took on the administration.
“She never said we shouldn’t follow our passion, but she tried to drill into our heads the correct way to approach it,” she said.
When Schmeling told Sr. Margaret Mary that she wanted to go to Marquette University and major in journalism, no one was surprised. It seemed like Schmeling was meant to write.
She began college right away after graduating in 1981 and, because of the training she’d had at Messmer, felt immediately one step ahead of her peers. While in school, she applied to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
She said, “It was a long shot. I only had high school experience and, from what I understood, they didn’t hire college freshmen.”
But Schmeling got the job anyway and worked at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for a year before being promoted to reporter while she completed her degree at Marquette. Due to Messmer’s encouragement and facilitation, she didn’t have any doubt she could accomplish her dreams if she put in the work. She said the foundation was given to her in high school, that she had so much confidence and the ability to take risks and go apply for a job at the Journal Sentinel; she wasn’t afraid they would laugh at her. She was only afraid of not taking a chance and stepping closer to the life she wanted.
When she graduated from Marquette in 1987 with a degree in journalism and theology, she stepped out into the unknown again and applied for a job at the Madison Capitol Times, a publication that typically didn’t look at the applications of college graduates, but expected them to pay their dues in places like Appleton or Green Bay first. But Schmeling had what most did not: experience. They grabbed her up and put her in charge of religion and farm issues, and gave her general assignments.
She moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania, and worked for the Morning Call after she got married, and earned her master’s degree in theology and political philosophy from Villanova. Her experience and her degrees led to her work as a lobbyist on education issues for the Wisconsin Catholic Conference. She also worked as a project manager for Marquette University’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning and the American Education Reform Council, working closely with the White House on education policy issues. After moving back home to Wisconsin to raise her children, she became the first woman elected to serve as Chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Supervisors, where she had great success leading Jefferson County through the Great Recession.
Now, Sharon Schmeling works as the executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools.