Our former colleague, friend and the inspirational President of AFT Local 212, Ernie Schnook, died Wednesday in the home he grew up in, surrounded by his wife and family.
Ernie graduated from MATC in Foundry Science, worked in private industry, then came back to the college that changed his life to teach Foundry Science. While working full time as an MATC instructor, Ernie earned both M.A. and B.A. degrees with honors. When the local industry declined due to jobs being exported to lower-wage countries, Ernie transferred into the Liberal Arts Division where he taught Social Science.
His life’s work was the thousands of students whom he inspired. Ernie always said that there was nothing more important than MATC’s students. Whether teaching with foundry grit under his fingernails or about American institutions, Ernie taught skills that lasted a lifetime with strong doses of philosophy and pride. “Nothing is too good for the working class,” was his mantra. And he practiced what he preached, dragging foundry students out of bed to make sure they attended his classes. The poorer and more disadvantaged the student, the harder Ernie worked to help him succeed.
Ernie Schnook had as much influence as anyone over the past twenty five years in shaping the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC). MATC employees’ and retirees’ careers and quality of life are the fruits of Ernie’s tireless advocacy. He was an unstinting champion of technical education, and fought ferociously any attempts to downplay technical instruction or transform MATC into merely a junior college.
Under his leadership Local 212 won and protected contract language that ensures manageable class sizes, guarantees faculty and staff a voice in the affairs of the college and provides part-time faculty the best adjunct contract in the state. Ernie believed passionately in empowering MATC employees who worked directly with students because they, and only they, knew what was best for our students and the institution. He hated “the carpet bagging careerists and sycophants” who used MATC but never valued it.
Nobody who ever met Ernie could forget him. He was a bull of a man with a heart as big as the downtown campus. He was tenacious, whether encouraging and cajoling his students, convincing an MATC Board member on an issue, fighting the administration or insisting that a 212 member come to a meeting or a picket line. Former MATC President John Birkholz once said of Ernie, “When he gets on an issue, he’s like a bulldog with his teeth in your calf – he just doesn’t let go.” Ask anybody who served on the Executive Board under Ernie, and they’ll tell you it was impossible to say “no” to him.
In addition to being an activist, Ernie was also a public intellectual in the best sense of the word. Behind his ever-present vest and his foundry man’s gruff exterior, he was incredibly well-read in the classics and contemporary affairs, a passion he always credited to his Communications Skills Instructor and former Local 212 President, Maxine Lubenow. He created hundreds of wooden plaques that adorn Local 212’s office walls: plaques quoting philosophers and activists who inspired him, cartoons lampooning bosses, corrupt politicians, the rich and powerful, and the MATC administrators who used the college for their own promotion rather than the students’.
Even though he spent his last ten years at MATC teaching Liberal Arts, Ernie’s heart never left the foundry. While he valued craftsmanship and was skilled with his hands, he passionately believed in higher education. He hated the class system that condemns working people to a life of labor while reserving the life of the mind for the elites, and his life was the embodiment of rebellion against that system.
Despite being more ill than any of us knew, and despite deep skepticism towards both political parties, Ernie worked tirelessly in the Local 212 office to help change the direction of the country and elect Barack Obama President of the United States. Ernie made thousands of Obama buttons. Some made their way to EBay even though Ernie, an admitted Luddite, never learned to use a computer.
Ernie was a man of the world. Born in Germany, he served in the U.S. Army in France where he met his wife and life partner, Josiane, an MATC Early Childhood educator. He was an internationalist who believed he had more in common with working men and women in Iraq, Rio or Paris than he did with any boss. Long before the war in Iraq became highly unpopular, Ernie organized a weekly picket line against it, and he continued to walk that line every Sunday until his health prevented it.
Ernie never talked around an issue. When Mike Rosen and Frank Shansky visited him late Sunday afternoon, he woke up, looked them straight in the eye and said with his characteristic straight-forward honesty, ”Thanks for coming. It’s over!”
At 4:30 on the last day of 2008 this larger-than-life man’s big heart stopped beating. Through his life and work Ernie set a standard that all of us can learn from and try to live by.
A celebration of Ernie’s life and work will be held at the Milwaukee Area Technical College on January 14, from 4:00 – 6:00 PM, with the program beginning at 5:00 PM. The exact location will be announced as soon as arrangements are final.
In lieu of flowers, please contribute to the Ernie Schnook Scholarship Fund at the MATC Foundation, 700 West State Street, Milwaukee, WI 53233.
Michael Rosen, Frank Shansky, Charlie Dee