Lawrence University is mourning the loss of Dr. John Mielke, an iconic leader and philanthropist in the Fox Valley whose passion for education and health care has left a lasting impact on the community.
Mielke died Nov. 4 at the age of 87.
The cardiologist’s incredible life included improving health care across the region, serving on the Appleton Area School District Board of Education for 26 years, and, with his wife, Sally, partnering on multiple health and education initiatives aimed at leveling the playing field for all residents. A number of those partnerships, via the Mielke Family Foundation, involved Lawrence, including establishing two endowed professorships, launching the Mielke Summer Institute in the Liberal Arts at Bjorklunden, and, in 2014, providing a multi-million-dollar gift that broadened opportunities for education students interested in teaching in elementary schools.
“The hundreds of Lawrence graduates both past and future who become educational leaders are a testament to John’s passion for learning, community, and educational access for all,” Lawrence President Mark Burstein said. “I will deeply miss John’s counsel and friendship.”
The Mielke Family Foundation, which was started in 1963 by Mielke’s parents and has been supported by the family through three generations, put much focus over the past decade on early childhood education. That led to a $2.5 million gift to Lawrence in 2014 that expanded the teacher education program and allowed students to earn certification for teaching in elementary grades.
That was a game-changer for the program, said Stewart Purkey, director of teacher education at Lawrence and holder of the Bee Connell Mielke Professorship of Education, established 25 years ago. But it was just one piece of Mielke’s work to improve education at all levels, most pointedly for the youngest of students.
Purkey referenced Mielke’s work with the Building for Kids Children’s Museum, the Early Childhood Learning Center, and the development of Pre-K programs for 3- and 4-year-olds.
“John was prescient in his commitment to working with early childhood education and recognizing the incredible importance of helping young children learn and grow,” Purkey said. “He pushed over and over again for us to focus as much as we could on the education of the youngest children so they had that really strong foundation. Now, that’s sort of accepted and it’s a given that we have to work with pre-K 3 and pre-K 4-aged children. John was championing that years and years before it reached mainstream thinking.”
Purkey said that while he is saddened by the loss of a friend and mentor, he is buoyed that Sally Mielke will continue the work that she and John have been so devoted to through the years.
“It’s important to note, when we think about John, it was always John and Sally together, and, of course, Sally is still with us,” Purkey said. “I know she will continue John’s good work in the community, including how she’s involved with the teacher ed program here at Lawrence.”
Jenna Stone, Lawrence’s associate vice president of finance, has worked often with the Mielkes and called the loss of John Mielke monumental for the Fox Cities.
“John and Sally Mielke have been an extraordinary force for compassion, caring, health, and education in our community,” Stone said.
Until his death, John Mielke served on the board of the Mielke Family Foundation, one of the most active philanthropic foundations in northeast Wisconsin. It serves residents in both the Appleton and Shawano areas.
In 2010, the foundation was the recipient of Lawrence’s first Collaboration in Action award. It spoke to the long relationship between the university and the foundation, dating back to 1982 when the foundation established the Edward F. Mielke Professorship in Medicine, Health, and Society, currently held by Brenda Jenike.
In 1996, the foundation established the Bee Connell Mielke Professorship in Education. In conjunction, the foundation established a community outreach program called the Mielke Summer Institute in the Liberal Arts, which provides local educators with an opportunity to examine a specific theme of cultural or social significance from a multidisciplinary perspective, held at Bjorklunden, Lawrence’s northern campus in Door County. Purkey said more than 1,200 educators have since gone through the institute.
In recognition of the Mielke family’s decades of support, Lawrence’s education department is named for them, the Mielke Family Department of Education.
“John’s passing will be mourned by so many, but he leaves a remarkable legacy in the people and organizations he touched and made better,” Stone said. “He was relentless in chasing problems upstream to find root causes.”