(First published in the June 28, 2018 issue of City Pages)
Stan Steckbauer’s compassion and instruction for 25 years at the Salvation Army’s Learning Center helped hundreds further their education and find jobs. When he retires this week, the program there will likely end.
Stan Steckbauer (center) with former students Andrew Young and John Beranek outside the Salvation Army on Second Avenue.
John Nitschke found himself down on his luck. The 55-year-old had returned to Wisconsin, leaving a stable lifestyle behind, to help a family member dealing with addiction. The situation with that relative deteriorated, and, to make a long story short, Nitschke wound up homeless in Wausau and looking for help at the Salvation Army.
That was two years ago. Today he is doing well, with a home and a manufacturing job at Linetec doing clamp racking.
Nitschke is eager to talk about why he landed on his feet: He credits Stan Steckbauer, who is about to retire after 25 years as the lead instructor of the College Prep Lab at the Salvation Army in Wausau, run by Northcentral Technical College. Nitschke isn’t the only one heralding the work Steckbauer has done for homeless people and others in need. Steckbauer has helped roughly 200 people earn their GED or equivalent degree, and guided many of those on to college or certificates that landed them jobs in the community. Some of his past students have gone on to become IT professionals, truck drivers and even a police officer.
But when Steckbauer retired last week, NTC’s program at the Salvation Army also likely comes to an end, much to the disappointment of many people who have gone through or worked at this learning center.
Steckbauer was an instructor, but also much more than that, past students and coworkers say. He helped change lives because he was always available, listened to students with a friendly ear, drove them to jobs and appointments, and even provided work on occasion with whatever projects he could find—tasks that provided them with an early sense of accomplishment and income.
Most importantly, past students say, he gave them hope they could become productive members of society. Steckbauer’s encouragement showed that someone believed in them when few others did, and lifted them up when they felt at their lowest.
It wasn’t always easy, Steckbauer acknowledges. Struggles like drug or alcohol addiction get in the way of any progress a person could otherwise make. And sometimes the lessons don’t always stick the first, second or even third time they’re given.
But looking back on those 25 years, Steckbauer couldn’t imagine a better career for himself. “I have been blessed to have the opportunity to work at my dream job,” he says.
The right fit
Steckbauer, Young and Beranek in the classroom/lab at the Salvation Army.
Steckbauer began his career as a hospital psychologist in Brainerd, Minn. From there he took a job at Wittenberg-Birnamwood High School, teaching emotionally disturbed students. He did that for three years, then worked another four years at Homme Home and a year at Marian University.
While all of those jobs were important, Steckbauer says, none of them quite felt like a right fit. “There was so much discipline,” Steckbauer says. “I was more about helping, rather than discipline.”
In 1991 Steckbauer found himself burned out and thinking that he wouldn’t go back to Marian the next semester. That’s when he was offered a part-time job as an instructor at Northcentral Technical College’s satellite campus in Wittenberg. And that soon transitioned to his current job for NTC as lead instructor at the Salvation Army, helping homeless and economically disadvantaged people earn their diplomas, prep for college and learn skills necessary for the workplace.
The program—a partnership between the Salvation Army and NTC—started in 1992 with one computer and three students, Steckbauer says. In 1995 the Judd S. Alexander foundation in Wausau provided funding to expand. Since then the learning center has helped with not only high school and college prep, but also anything that might get in the way of employment. That could mean helping someone get their driver’s license, prepare a resume, obtain a certificate for a certain kind of employment, or just brushing up on basic education.
Steckbauer points to a wall in the hallways on the second floor of the Salvation Army, where the lab is located. On it are the names of people who have either earned their high school diploma equivalents. Also present that day to give some perspective on the program is a volunteer and one of Steckbauer’s first students, Andrew Young, who counts the names on the plaques: Nearly 200 people through the program’s 25 years have earned a spot on the wall. And of those, around 40 have gone on to earn college degrees.
Young, 46 and a U.S. Army veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm, started using the College Prep Center in 1993, and earned his high school diploma equivalent in 1994. Young now helps others in the program, as many past students do. As many as 30 volunteers were available for the 150 or so students who come through the center a year. Nearly everyone staying at the Salvation Army is required to spend at least several hours at the center, but other people in need also could use it. Some people utilized the resources and instruction for only a few hours a day over a short period of time; for others it served more like a classroom they used regularly.
Why did Young come back to volunteer? Young says Steckbauer was a source of motivation and mentorship. He remembers Steckbauer driving him to take tests at the Wittenberg NTC campus because he couldn’t make it to the classes offered in Wausau. “He cares about all of his students,” Young says. “There wasn’t one he didn’t care about.”
John Beranek, 50, shares a similar experience. It took several tries and starts and stops before he finally graduated with his high school equivalent, and all that time, “They didn’t quit on anyone,” Beranek says, referring to Steckbauer and then assistant instructor Jenny Fyksen, who worked by Steckbauer’s side for 14 years. “They put their heart and soul into this place.”
“He was our biggest advertiser,” Steckbauer says of Beranek. “If someone mentioned anything about a GED, he would say, ‘Get up to the Goal Lab’ (as the learning center is often called).”
What was Steckbauer’s secret to getting results from people? In his own words, it was that he provided a friendly face, an ear that would listen, and a plan they could follow based on what the student conveyed to him. He often discovered that he was the only person who seemed to care at the time whether the student succeeded or failed.
Fyksen says the initial meeting with students often set the tone, because Steckbauer showed he truly cared about them as a person. “It made them feel so special,” Fyksen says. “That he would sit down with them one on one, like an old friend.”
It was that connection, combined with tough love, that inspired so many of Steckbauer’s students, says Fyksen, who served as his instructional assistant from 2004 to 2016. It wasn’t uncommon for Steckbauer himself to organize an intervention for students struggling with addiction. “He is amazing at loving people, providing hope and offering them a little hard truth,” Fyksen says. “He is a master at that.”
Steckbauer pages through a commemorative book highlighting his 25-year career at NTC’s College Prep Center at the Salvation Army.
Steckbauer retired last week, on June 28. At 62, Steckbauer says he needs to take some time to work on his health, and then hopes to transition into some kind of part-time work.
Steckbauer says that as far as he knows, Thursday is the last day the learning lab at the Salvation Army is open. He’s uncertain of the program’s future. NTC has not hired his replacement, and was vague about its continuation.
NTC spokesperson Kelsi Seubert in an email to City Pages wrote, “We are continuing to explore future collaborations with organizations in the community to serve this unique group of people.”
“Stan has made a positive impact on our community for the past 25 years through student-centered instruction at the Salvation Army,” says Brooke Schindler, Dean of NTC’s School of General Studies. “I am forever grateful that students in Stan’s classroom felt safe, valued and able.”
Those who’ve worked, volunteered or used NTC’s College Prep Center at the Salvation Army stated emphatically that they hope it continues. The program has helped change lives, they say, and though a new person would have big shoes to fill, leaving those shoes empty would be far worse.
“Stan is irreplaceable,” Nitschke says. “It’s up to the community to continue forward his goals at the Salvation Army. It’s an invaluable resource at a time when employers are looking for employees. Stan’s legacy needs to be continued.”