||Schofield Hall 218|
||Eau Claire, WI 54702-4004|
UW-Eau Claire Alumna|
Enjoying Government Role
MAILED: Feb. 16, 1999|
Most University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire alumni who enjoy an afternoon of ice fishing worry most about catching fish or staying warm.
But this winter 1961 UW-Eau Claire alumna Mae (Gasparac) Schunk also worried about how many reporters and cameras would follow her onto the ice during an annual outing she and her husband had planned with friends.
So it goes when you're a 64-year-old political novice who agrees to be a former professional wrestler's running mate in a Minnesota gubernatorial race and then shocks the nation by actually winning.
"It's been a whirlwind," the longtime educator said of her life since she met Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. "It's very exciting but it's been a whirlwind. This is my career's grand finale."
When Schunk got a call from a member of the Reform Party asking if she was interested in running with Ventura, she had never heard of the man who was known as "The Body" during his wrestling days and later became a Twin Cities suburban mayor and radio personality.
"My first comment was, 'What? Who is Jesse Ventura,'" the lieutenant governor remembered as she sat in her office in the governor's suite of the Minnesota State Capitol building. "When my husband got home that night I asked him if he had heard of Jesse Ventura and he told me about the wrestler with the hair and the tights and the boa. I thought, 'oh gosh, a wrestler.'"
But any reservations she had about joining Ventura in his bid for the Governor's office disappeared within minutes of her first meeting with him.
"I was impressed," said Schunk, who was referred to Ventura by a parent of one of her students. "Our conversation immediately went to education and as we talked, we realized that our philosophies are very much alike. I was coming from the perspective of a teacher and he was coming from the perspective of a parent. I liked his family values and his commitment to doing what was best for the people of Minnesota."
Despite Ventura's popularity, Schunk said she was unsure that a Reform Party candidate could win the race. However, even as the polls showed she and Ventura getting at the most 15 percent of the votes, her husband, William, predicted that they'd get 40 percent of the votes close to the 37 percent they did receive.
"He recognized before I did how disenchanted people are with government today," said Schunk, adding that it was particularly exciting to see young people who had never before voted rushing to the ballot boxes people's whose opinions the pollsters had not considered. "People were looking for someone they could connect with."
While this was Schunk's first bid for elected office, politics has always been an area of interest particularly how it relates to education, said Schunk who has spent 36 years in Wisconsin and Minnesota classrooms, the last 22 in the St. Paul School District.
"I was too involved in teaching to think about running for office," said Schunk, who had planned to retire from elementary teaching this June to teach part-time at a college. "My passion for teaching kept me from making other commitments."
"Election night was an experience that is hard to explain," Schunk said. "I was ecstatic that we had won but then I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm not a teacher any more.'"
After getting two hours of sleep on election night, she went to school the next day to the cheers of hundreds of colleagues, students and friends. (She worried that she was in trouble for being 30 minutes late when the superintendent met her at the school's door.) After the celebration, she taught her kids like any other day but with journalists and cameras looking on.
"Letting go of the kids was difficult, but I now have an opportunity to make education better for every kid in Minnesota," said Schunk, who plans to continue volunteering at her former school despite her new responsibilities.
And Minnesotans haven't been shy about sharing their ideas on education or anything else that's on their minds, said Schunk, explaining that grocery shopping can now be an all-morning affair and dining out can take hours longer as crowds often gather when she's out and about.
"I really like this job," Schunk said of her new position. "It carries with it a lot of power but also a lot of respect. Because they respect the office, it makes it hard to walk away."
Her passion for teaching began during her years at UW-Eau Claire, said Schunk, who graduated from UW-Eau Claire with a degree in elementary education. She later earned her master's at St. Thomas in St. Paul.
"UW-Eau Claire was a wonderful experience," the Greenwood native said, noting that she always worked two or three jobs to pay for school. "I loved learning. Those were some of my best years."
Janice B. Wisner
UW-Eau Claire News Bureau
Updated: Feb. 16, 1999