Helen Laufenberg and Mary U’Ren have not been a part of Southwest Wisconsin Technical College since day one.
But it has been close.
Laufenberg will be retiring in June after 43 years of service. U’Ren retired last week after 41 years of service.
When one considers the College was established just 47 years ago, and the fact both Helen and Mary were students at the College, they have just about seen it all.
Helen graduated from West Grant High School in 1969 and Mary graduated from Boscobel High School in 1970. Both chose to attend Southwest Tech because of its proximity to home.
“I had originally thought of going to college in La Crosse,” Mary said. “But my mother took ill and they needed me around, so going to school in Fennimore solved two problems.”
Both Helen and Mary enrolled in the College’s accounting program. Helen graduated in 1970 in the account/clerk program.
“That summer I got this great job in Madison, but I didn’t like Madison,” Helen recalled. “So I came back to school for the second year in the accounting assistant program.”
Mary graduated in 1971 in the account/clerk program. She worked the following year at Rayovac. Ironically, Helen worked at Rayovac in Madison.
When Helen and Mary learned of job openings at their Alma mater, the decision to apply was an easy one to make.
“I liked the school, I just loved the school atmosphere and being around the students all the time,” Helen said. “It just seemed like a good place to work.”
“One of my teachers mentioned to me there was a job opening,” Mary recalled. “I kept kind of in touch with the teachers around Fennimore that I had while I was in school, so I didn’t lose contact with the school even though I worked at Rayovac.”
Helen’s first job at the College was in the student services area, which could be found in the former St. Mary’s Catholic Church school. One of her first duties was to write a weekly newsletter for the campus.
“Also, one of my first jobs was to come out here and give tours of the new construction that they were doing at the time,” she recalled. “I would bring people out and we would walk through the construction and I’d say, ‘this is where this shop is going to be.’”
Mary began her career in accounts payable, which was housed where The Depot Exchange Thrift Store can be found on Lincoln Avenue today. Mary Louise Bender served as her mentor.
When a financial aid officer was hired, Helen worked under his direction. She later became parts department manager.
“The department was used for the school vehicles they had on campus and they also used it in the shops,” she said. “There was a parts program at that time that taught students how to look up parts and sell parts.
“I learned a lot about auto parts.”
Helen returned to the business office in the early 1980s and has worked there ever since.
A self-proclaimed fan of numbers, Mary spent her career in accounts payable and later as payroll supervisor.
As one can imagine, Helen and Mary have seen plenty of changes in their workplaces in over 40 years.
“When I started, we used typewriters,” Helen said with a laugh. “There is a lot more technology now than we ever started with and it keeps changing.”
“Computers, I think the only thing we had for a computer then was a mainframe and it used punch cards,” Mary said. “You had someone that sat and punched the card and ran it through, and it generated the reports you wanted.”
On Aug. 24, 1973, one day after Mary gave birth to a son, the business offices moved to their current location on Bronson Boulevard. Helen and Mary have since enjoyed witnessing the campus grow throughout the years.
“It’s gorgeous and so well laid-out,” Helen said. “The shops are magnificent for the kids because they have the latest in everything.”
While the thought did cross their mind sparingly over 40 years, Helen and Mary were never persuaded to leave the College for a different employer.
“When the county treasurer’s office came open, people told me I would do a good job there,” Mary recalled. “I like to talk to people and maybe being a county clerk I’d be more isolated.
“I decided I would just stay here.”
What has been the favorite part of their job?
“I like the accounting part of it the best,” Helen said. “I do some invoicing and some troubleshooting on our student system, and I like solving those problems.”
“I like working with numbers also and I like meeting people,” Mary said. “I like solving problems with people more-so with benefits, if they had an insurance problem if they had something like that.
“I like being able to help people and getting to know them.”
Helen and Mary were both quick to say they will miss the people they have met in their tenures at Southwest Tech and the camaraderie they have shared with their co-workers.
If the last 40+ years haven’t kept them busy enough, Helen and Mary have already made plans for post-retirement.
“We are taking a trip this summer to Montana,” Helen said. “I have lists of things I want to get done at home that I haven’t done for years.”
“I love to quilt and sew, and I love to fish, which we will do more of,” Mary said. “We have two sons that live out of the state, so we plan on spoiling the grandkids.”
In careers full of memories, Helen and Mary found it hard to choose just one.
“When we were first out here, we didn’t have a public address system that connected to the other buildings,” Helen recalled. “I would have to go every morning and take the announcements up to the shop, and read those to the students.”
“When we actually got out on campus and we were all one school, instead of a classroom here and a classroom here,” Mary recalled. “When someone said they were going to Southwest Tech and it was one place, that was a good feeling.”
Should anyone aspire to challenge Helen and Mary’s impressive resumes and spend four decades at Southwest Tech themselves, both offered a few words of wisdom.
“Always keep learning,” Helen said. “Take advantage of any classes, workshops or anything like that.”
“Don’t isolate yourself,” Mary said. “Get to know your fellow co-workers in all departments. You never know when their help or their kindness can help you.”
Caleb White, Southwest Tech’s Vice President of Administrative Services, offered his utmost respect for Helen and Mary’s careers.
“The commitment and service that Mary and Helen have given to Southwest Tech is remarkable,” he said. “Words cannot properly express my gratitude for the contributions, wisdom and kindness that they brought to Southwest Tech each and every day.”
While they will enjoy their well-deserved retirement, that won’t keep Helen and Mary away completely from their workplace for the last 40 years.
“I’ll be around,” Mary said.