Giving Back

2017 Wisconsin FamilyBiz

The American Legion Post 70 building, restored to its early grandeur. (Photo: Melody Wollangk).

Giving back is a way of life. My family has been doing it for generations and I am lucky to be able to continue the legacy.

My great-grandfather on my mother’s side, Charles Wickering, was a hard-working blue collar worker in Oshkosh. He became interested in city government and was elected mayor in the early 1900s. He was a man who thought about the future and gave his extra time to the community.

The American Legion Post 70 building, restored to its early grandeur. (Photo: Melody Wollangk).
The American Legion Post 70 building, restored to its early grandeur. (Photo: Melody Wollangk).

My grandfather on my father’s side, Earl Wyman, was a man who is still remembered by many in Oshkosh today. After being a record-breaking athlete at Ripon College (he set the college football dropkick record), he fought in WWI and became a lieutenant. Upon his return Oshkosh, he wanted to help the city’s other returning veterans and was one of the founders of American Legion Post 70. He was selling insurance when his college friend, Sam Pickard, approached him about a business partnership. Together, they purchased and operated Oshkosh B’Gosh. Sam, being a banker in Neenah, was the finance partner, while Earl was the managing partner.

Earl’s years at Oshkosh B’Gosh showed great growth. The company went from being a small regional men’s workwear manufacturer to a nationwide, prominent, high quality workwear manufacturer. With the company’s growth, Earl gave back. He strongly supported the charitable giving of the American Legion post; he helped individual workers at Oshkosh B’Gosh when they were in financial need; he was a strong supporter of his alma mater, Ripon College; and he supported children’s causes throughout the Oshkosh area. Even today, elderly ladies who once were young seamstress at the company tell me how nice Earl was. The Ripon College gym has Earl’s name on it and the Oshkosh Boy’s and Girl’s Club gym is named the Earl Wyman Gym.  Earl was a great man to be around, and was the beginning of our family’s legacy work.

Earl’s two children, Joyce and Tom, are both still alive and still giving back. Joyce and her husband, the now-deceased Fritz Hyde, have always been very involved in the community as well. They were on many community boards and have been impactful givers to numerous nonprofit organizations. Joyce, at 92, is still giving me wonderful insight and advice on how to make Oshkosh better.

Tom Wyman married Shirley Friedrich over 60 years ago, and they are still the best parents a person could have. Not only have they taught me the importance of giving back, they have been my mentors for ethics, integrity, honesty and trust. The family legacy that I hope I’m teaching my children was ingrained in me by the everyday life that my parents live and believe.

I am very lucky to be born into such a great family. As a very young child, I was taught the importance of respect and manners. Sayings like, “Put yourself in their shoes,” “Help someone else before you help yourself” and “Do unto others as you would like them to do to you” (The Golden Rule) were not only preached in our home, they were practiced every day. That way of life and the mentality is the core of who I am.

My wife, Beth, is also an important reason that our family is who we are. Beth’s mantra is excellence. Everything she does, she does with the desire to do it the best. She is involved in many community activities and always wants to help. She holds our whole family together with love and high expectations. Our children have become strong, independent, motivated people. Beth is my soulmate and the love of my life.

After college, I started working for our family company, Oshkosh B’Gosh, as a salesman. The time was very exciting for the company. Our kid’s clothes were “hot.” The cute styles, along with the underlying quality and durability, made the demand much stronger than the supply, and manufacturing decisions needed to be made on how to handle the growth. Our family decided slow growth with emphasis on quality was the direction to take, which is similar to our family traits in life. This company decision showed me the true meaning of values, ethics and integrity.

In 1988, I left the life of a road salesman in California and moved home to Oshkosh to work at corporate. My wife, Beth, left a great job, moved to Oshkosh and became pregnant with our first child all in one week. Change in our life had arrived.

I soon became involved in the community with organizations like United Way, Junior Achievement, the Mercy Hospital Foundation, Progress Oshkosh and the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation. They all showed me the importance of giving back firsthand and the wonderful feeling you get when you see that you are making a difference.

I was asked to get involved in the Oshkosh B’Gosh Foundation, and this was the start of what has become a passion for me. Each year, the corporation would give two to three percent of its profits to our corporate foundation. As time passed, our foundation became more well-known and we saw an increase in charities pursuing grants. This was very rewarding; it forced us to weigh the effects the grants would have on the charity, but the abundance of grants also forced us to focus our mission to specifically guide our grant-making. It was decided that we would direct our gifts to help children.

In 2005, due to changes in both the supply side and the customer base, the corporation had two choices: buy other brands to become more influential or sell to keep the brand name relevant in the market. The second choice made the best sense for our family.

Oshkosh B’Gosh was sold to Carter’s Children’s Wear. At the time of the sale, the Oshkosh B’Gosh Foundation also had two choices. It could be spent down to zero and sunset, or it could be transferred to another foundation so the money could be invested, grow and last for many years into the future. Moving the Oshkosh B’Gosh Foundation to the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation was the perfect solution to keep its mission alive.

So I was “retired” at 47, but I wasn’t ready to quit working and for sure did not want to move to Florida or Arizona. In 2007, after years of soft negotiations, Beth and I bought the American Legion Post 70 building, which my grandfather was involved in, with the plan to restore it to its original grandeur. We wanted to give the community something after it had done so much for our business and our family.

The big white building at the foot of Washington Avenue was a dilapidated historic landmark on the city’s lakefront. It was built for the Oshkosh Yacht Club in 1903, at a time when Oshkosh was booming and filled with rich lumber barons looking to have their sailing hobby and fancy lifestyles compare to places like Chicago and New York. The building was extravagant, and for 20 or so years a highlight of the Midwest sailing crowd.

When the Depression hit, the Oshkosh Yacht Club lost its luster. The club could no longer afford its home, and in 1937 the American Legion bought the building. Fast-forward to the 1990s and again the costs of maintenance and the willingness of the aging WWII veterans to volunteer to keep things up brought hardship to the Oshkosh landmark.

Restoring the building was thrilling. The daily excitement of taking a run-down, but historic, eyesore and turning it into the most elegant, upscale special events facility in the area was mind-blowing.

The renovation of the physical building was not the only exciting part. Working with the Legion and the Yacht Club to make sure they had a home for the next 50 years was also very rewarding.

Now, almost 10 years later, it is still gratifying to see the legionnaires holding meetings at their old headquarters, the Yacht Club having their home back – including an expanded, renovated harbor – and the community having a beautiful place to hold meetings and receptions.

Since 2002, I have had been involved with the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation –first as a board member, then as board president – and in 2012 and 2013 as the interim president and CEO. One of the proudest moments in my life was being hired permanently into the role of president and CEO in 2016.

The organization has been in existence for 87 years; it’s one of the oldest in the state. It has approximately $100 million in assets. The OACF mission statement, “Strengthen our community through stewardship, collaboration and leadership” fits perfectly with my family’s passion.

Giving back is my legacy.

-Bill Wyman is the president and chief executive officer of the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation.

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