Friday, January 2, 2009

Ernie Schnook, 1940 - 2008

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


- said...

Ernie was a heck of a nice guy. I didn't get to know him well but he is unforgettable.

Anonymous said...

I had the honor to work with ernie in the 212 office for a year. I will always remember our conversations about the labor movement and life. One of the greatest union leaders/activist I have met.

Anonymous said...

1 in a million humanitarian!
I'm going to miss you too much Dad!
Your son-in-law

Anonymous said...

This is Charlotte, Ernie Schnook's youngest daughter. I want to thank you for putting up a memorial of my father on your web site. It comforts me greatly to know that many see my Father for what he was: a philosopher, a philanthropist, a political advocate, union organizer, moral compass, educator, lover of humanity and ultimately: A great human being.

I always seen my Dad as an unsung hero of men. I grew up to the sound of his reading the thoughts which sprung from the minds of giants like: Einstein, Marx, Voltaire, Joe Hill, Big Bill Hayward, Mother Jones. In my eyes he was as big as those people whose thoughts he treasured, but the world wouldn't know it because he choose to love my Mother and spend his life in toil to raise us kids.

When my Father passed I felt alone in my abhoration that the world lost such a tremendous man. To see this here makes me feel so proud. Thank you so much for giving my dear Father a moment of memory, he deserved it.

I love you Pa, with all my being. All of us are so lost and hurting, We feel like a piece of us died. We try to go on with your words in our mind: "Don't mourn, Organize!". I hope I can take this life you gave me and use it to make you proud, I'll organize Pa.

You had a sign on your wall in your office that I've read a million times since I was a child, it read: "Be ashamed to die until you won a victory for humanity". You won many, rest well my best friend.

Anonymous said...

I was deeply honored when Ernie Schnook, President of Local 212, saw me as a fellow union activist and champion of technical education. I wouldn't consider myself even close to Ernie's league; rather he has been my inspiration, guide, mentor and hero since I met him 15 or so years ago. A picture of him that he sent me several years ago sits prominently on my file cabinet -- to always remind me of what a "true union guy" looks like -- and to remind me how Ernie would always tell me to "come visit the Local 212 office and see what a real union office looks like."

One of my first ventures with Ernie was to co-host a joint meeting of WTCS union leaders (and John Birkholz) with the head of the North Central Accrediation Agency to discuss (and protest) changes that had been made in NCA accreditation standards. NCA arrived expecting to hear arguments against the Master's degree for general ed. instead Ernie argued passionately how the changes would affect vocational/technical education - by placing too much value on bachelor degrees and too little value on work experience, journeymen, hands-on knowledge. I remember how surprised the NCA official was at such support and passion for the vocational technical aspects of our tech colleges.

Ernie went on to help us at WCTC organize our part-time faculty. He came to a union meeting of the WCTC FT faculty where he delivered an (of-course) passionate speech about the benefits to FT faculty of organizing the PT faculty. To this day, I believe Ernie's leadership, passion and convincing rhetoric that evening marked the turning point in our successful organizing campaign.

I knew something wasn't right when I didn't get Ernie's yearly holiday card filled with stinging political cartoons, sayings, and railings against the capitalistic pigs. This year would have been extrordinary, too!

Ernie touched my life - as he touched so many other lives -- and made me a better person for having known him and gotten to work with him.

2008 was a year of losses - the loss of Ernie Schnook is right up there as one of the biggest. Ernie -- you made a difference; the world is better because you lived.

Warmly, Leigh Barker

Rich Miller said...

I am at a total loss on how to heap on the praises of this GREAT man!! I would make one change to the original comments, however: "Ernie Schnook had as much influence as anyone over the past twenty five years in shaping..." MATC. That phrase should be changed to state that there has been NO ONE that worked as tirelessly, with such total selfless regard, with such unappeasable goals, with such charisma, enthusiasm, and altruism as this bigger-than-life man!! His impact on the influence of faculty having input on the shaping of MATC has no equal.

He was a personality that you could not ignore. Anyone that met him would leave with distinct feelings toward him. It seemed as though he could be gracious, arrogant, empathetic, berating, comical, and soulful all at the same time. But, if nothing else, he was always honest and sincere!! And...shame on you if you did not reciprocate the same. He was quick to call you out if you didn't exhibit his standards of behavior, philosophy, or dedication. He was even quicker, however, to listen to your explanations after he corrected you!

I loved this man deeply and respected him more. We couldn't have been more opposite in our political and philosophical views, but that only made us closer. The myriad times we spent trying to convince each other of our opinions are incredibly fond memories that I'll carry forever.

The world is diminished with his passing.

Rich Miller
Ernie's Local 212 VP

Depends on the day said...

My name is Cathy Rought, and from 2003-07, I was the communications director for AFT-Wisconsin, the state federation with which Local 212 is affiliated.

My favorite Ernie memory…while volunteering for Kathleen Falk on her Attorney General race, we encountered a last minute situation in Milwaukee. Kathleen and Van Hollen were to appear on Here and Now for a final debate; Kathleen was to be filmed in Milwaukee, Van Hollen in Madison. Michael Rosen was gracious enough to grant us permission to have Kathleen tape in the Local 212 hall.

It was also the name day that President Clinton was in town to stump for Governor Doyle and all of the Democratic candidates. While at the event, I got a call informing me of Van Hollen’s decision to also come to Milwaukee to tape. And as a result, they had to be filmed at the same place! I called Michael and once again asked for help. He hated the thought of Van Hollen coming into the Local 212 hall, but also wanted to help Kathleen. He agreed to let us use the space.

I showed up at the Local 212 hall to setup prior to the candidates getting there, and Ernie was at the hall. I explained the situation to Ernie, and he was hopping mad. He said, “Not without my president. I am not letting anyone in until my president says so to my face.” I called Michael, and on a bad ankle, Michael almost ran from the President Clinton event to the union hall to talk with Ernie. After Michael explained the situation, Ernie nodded and said OK, but that he was going to make sure Van Hollen didn’t step one toe out of line. From that point on, anytime anyone spoke with Ernie, he used the opportunity to provide some colorful commentary about just what he thought of Van Hollen (including when Van Hollen was within earshot) and watched the man like a hawk.

The fire and passion that burned in Ernie made him a fearless union brother, and the world was made better just by him being in it.

Anonymous said...

I am shocked and saddened by his passing. I have known few who are as full of life and passion.

He will be truly missed.
-Aimee Davis

Anonymous said...

Ernie Schnook is the main reason I've been active in our Local since arriving at MATC 16 years ago. He inspired me to get involved initially by volunteering for one of L212's Milwaukee County Labor Council (MCLC) Rep positions. One night after a MCLC's monthly meeting I decided to ask this ZZ top, vest wearing union president a few questions. One in particular was "Why weren't there many minorities active in our union"? We'll Ernie did more than answer my question he spent the next two and a half hours challenging me to help do something about. When I told him a little about my active duty Army experience, most of which was in Europe, we really began to connect and shared some memorable Army stories. When he told me the one about how a stubborn, German, US Army private met and feel in love with a young French girl over there I new I had met a man of deep passion, conviction and action. From that point on I trusted him and over the years he blessed me and others with a style of courage and leadership, I'm sad to say, that I have not seen in any of my superior officers. Ever since that night Ernie has always refereed to me by my rank. I think it was because it reminded him of when he served and met Josie Ann and to challenge/encourage me to continue to serve the union as I had in the military. Thank you Ernie and God bless you and you Family.

The Colonel
Steve Holloway

Anonymous said...

Ernst and our families have been close for the past 35 years...close as neighbors and close as friends. If we need any reminders along the way, we have the many pictures, plaques and special notes from Ernst.

Our family will miss you, Ernie.

Lois and Ed Marti

Anonymous said...

"When you die, you become worm food" Ernie liked tell his Christian friends to get a rise out of them. Ernie liked to shock people but he was really very warm and his heart was huge. A deep and independent thinker, Ernie's spirit and inspiration will live a very long time.

DonOneWorld said...

..and thanks for all the political cartoons...

Anonymous said...

Hugs for you, Josie. Thanks for sharing your wonderful man with us.

Roxine McQuitty

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your beautiful commentary Dr. Miller. I missed my Pa really bad tonight so I came here and read over it all again. I was really touched by your words concerning how hard my Dad fought for MATC. When my Dad was young he often dreamed of being a revolutionist. But he fell in love & got married, had a ton of kids & so had to work very hard to support all us young Schnooks. MATC was my Pa's revolution - he tried to make that place kinder to workers & students. The accomplishments he made there helped him to feel as if he didn't trade in all his goals, it helped him to feel his life was worth more than just being a tool in the capitalist machine. My Dad loved MATC with all his heart, he loved being an educator, he redeemed himself to himself via fighting for the poor students and fellow workers.

I know he especially loved you Dr. Miller. He made me read many of your correspondences to one another, he was excited every time you wrote him because he got another opportunity to tickle the proletariat part of your soul. My Dad looked at the pictures of you and your daughter many times, he kept them on the dining room table next to a stack of letters between the two of you. He still has plaques for you down in the basement.

James Blessington said...

For some reason I "Googled" Ernest today, wondering what happened to one of my favorite teachers. Sad to hear that he passed away. I loved how real he was. A very smart, caring individual. I believe I still have some class papers (from the late 80's)where he wrote very encouraging notes. God bless him and his family.
Jim Blessington, Fiction Writer Milwaukee WI.

James Blessington said...

For some reason I "Googled" Ernest today, wondering what happened to one of my favorite teachers. Sad to hear that he passed away. I loved how real he was. A very smart, caring individual. I believe I still have some class papers (from the late 80's)where he wrote very encouraging notes. God bless him and his family.
Jim Blessington, Fiction Writer Milwaukee WI.

Bibi Adell said...

We need people like this more than ever...he had the ability to craft and teach those crafts to affect generations. Now sadly generations may lose some of the arts that were essential to humanity bc of union busting. Ernie Schnook, send a hero to Wisconsin, from up above, and restore the lost manufacturing arts and foundry education and more to this slice of the earth.