PHILLIPS: CHARLOTTE "TONI" BRENDEL, FOUNDER OF THE CZECH-SLOVAK FESTIVAL


   

Charles and Velma Brendel started their family with two daughters.  Like many couples after having two of the same gender, they anticipated their third child may be of the opposite gender.  They hoped for a boy they could name Charles Anton with Charles honoring the baby's father and Anton honoring the grandfather.  Instead, they happily welcomed a third baby girl, Charlotte Antoinette, keeping as close to the original name as possible.  She was quickly nicknamed "Toni" by a cousin, and that is the woman many of us know today, Toni Brendel.

Toni grew up in Phillips.  "I wouldn’t trade the 1940-1950’s time period for any other.  It was a safe, quiet, middle of the road existence.  No one was considered better than anyone else, and lives were being put back together after losses and injuries, aftermaths of the war.  People were reaching out to those who lost loved ones and to those who came back maimed or with “shell shock,” a term used then."

Thinking back to that time in Phillips, she said, "I remember the days when South and North Lake Street were still called 'Front Street' and then 'Main Street' without any street signs.  When street signs were installed, the streets were named South Lake and North Lake, and the three streets behind them became South and North Avon plus South and North Argyle rather than Second Street and Third Street, which they were prior to being officially named."

She remembers one great announcement on Main Street regarding the war.  Her uncle, Bill, was in the service.  "I was three years old when the USA entered the war in December of 1941.  In the evenings, Aunt Cleo would stop by for me, and we would walk to the train depot where she gave her nightly letter to the conductor.  I was seven when the war ended in September of '45.  I was playing in front of City Bakery in the block we lived in on Main Street that day and heard a ruckus.  It was Mike Sedovic, in front of Mike and Lil’ Café next to Brendel Brother’s Garage, banging two pot lids together yelling, 'The War is over!  The war is over!' and I ran home to tell my mother!"

Toni has many fond memories that involve her family.  One vacation, in particular, stands out in her mind.  "In Southern California, my dad, mother, brother and I rode the California Zepher Train that had a Vista Dome.  We took the Soo Line RR to Minneapolis, and that’s where we caught the California train.  We visited my mother’s brother in Sacramento and they took us to see the sights of the vast area.  We were there for three weeks."

While exploring on vacation is great, Toni loves being home with family for the holidays.  Her favorite one is Christmas.  "I treasure the memories of everyone in the family pitching in to give the house a thorough cleaning for the holidays.  We did a lot of baking and there was such excitement in shopping for presents for other family members; then my sister and I would wrap them up.  My mother baked babofka and lots of cookies and then made apple strudel, the hard way, with stretching the dough until it was transparent.  It was a treat!  Putting the tree up together and putting the presents underneath it was always fun.  Setting the table with the special dishes from the China cabinet and silverware that we only used for Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving, and the linen tablecloth and napkins with a 'B' on them, was part of it.  We would change into the Christmas “outfits” my mother sewed for us, and go to the candlelight service at Saint John Lutheran Church to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  We would come home and get the prepared foods out and last minute things that needed to be done to finish the meal.  Grandpa and Grandma would come and my dad’s brother and wife.  It was a very special “Christmas only” meal that we had, and I still make it for my family.  Family is what made it so special, I believe, but everything changes, and the older folks are gone now and replaced with the newer 'older folks,' and that’s the way it has to be."

Remembering some of those "older folks," Toni said her favorite childhood memory was sitting at the piano with her aunt, Cleo.  "She was gifted with the talent of being able to play by ear, and would teach me the words to songs of the day."  This interest and talent with music has followed Toni throughout her life.  She shared that Lorna Warfield, her voice teacher in Milwaukee, opened a new world to her sharing opera and symphony music.  Toni feels "Sentimental Me" is the song that sums her up best, if she had to pick one, and she said she wishes she could sing again.  "I studied voice for so many years, ten, and now can barely speak, let alone sing."

However, other things have kept Toni figuratively singing in life.  She married Richard "Pete" Haas, and they had Tami; twins, Valerie and Vicki, plus Bill Haas.  Unfortunately, the couple shared a terrible loss when one of the twins, Vicki, died of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) at one month old.  About half a decade later, Pete was killed in a car accident at the rather young age of 38 when their children were 3, 7, and 8 years old.  When Toni re-married, she and Lyle Rohrig had one son, Ryan.  Toni shared that her children have brought her the most happiness in life and said she loves when her family comes home.  "It's always so much fun!"  She admitted she dearly misses Pete; her mother; and her sister, Helen.

In regard to her career path, Toni thought she would be an airplane stewardess, but that was not in the cards.  Instead, she had her dream job as a medical secretary in the Patient Education Department at Marshfield Clinic in Marshfield.  "I learned something new every day, and the job was varied so much that I learned from it.  At times I worked with doctors and nurses who were writing booklets or pamphlets about some disease process or medication."  Toni would type it, have it proofed, work with the Graphic Arts Department, and have it sent to the print shop.  The finished product would come back to the department, and it would be sent out to the satellite clinics.  "I filled orders for educational items that the different departments ordered, answered phones, taught BSE, and checked out blood pressure cuffs.  My boss, Donna Bauman, R.N., and I catalogued all of the patient education items and put them on library shelves in alphabetical order.  No day was like the other, and I liked that very much.  Eventually, I got an assistant and that was helpful because she began filling orders and that freed me up to type up new materials."

While that was her reality, she revealed a possible dream "job" when asked who she would be for a day.  "I would be Queen Elizabeth.  I would travel Europe.  I would blend in with the common people and learn of their thoughts about the Monarchy."  While she wouldn't mind being queen for a day, she said she would never want the job of a United States president.  "You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  If I had the misfortune to find myself in that spot, I would ask one of the legislators to introduce a bill to put limits on campaign donations.  Everyone the same.  And I would do away with the crazy idea that a president can pardon people from jail time once they are incarcerated UNLESS they were found innocent of a crime."

Toni feels politics is the biggest issue of our time.  "How awful it has become.  What has happened to civility and respect for others, and what has happened to the definition of 'public service?'  It’s become overwhelmingly terrible!  Lies, deceit, corruption, under the guise of religion, in some cases.  How can it be made better?  Perhaps it is naive to think it could be made better when we consider the people we are dealing with, but if we don’t get back to basic honesty, integrity, and respect of others, I do not know what will become of us as a nation.  I don’t think people realize how close we are to a dictatorship, and they won’t be happy when and if it happens," Toni shared.

Keeping the focus more local, Toni founded the Phillips Czechoslovakian Community Festival.  She chaired or co-chaired the festival for its first 23 years and then handed it off to Bill Moravek, though Toni remains involved with organization of the annual festival.  She also helped reincarnate the annual service for the Lidice Memorial.  "I don’t recall for how long I chaired the Lidice Memorial services, but Laddie Zellinger chaired the first one in 1984, and Therese Trojak chaired several of them, also.  Other than that, I still chair the hour-long memorial service that we have now at the Baptist Church each year."  To add to her local contributions, and by request of John Fiala and Doris Ourecky, who created and chaired the national Miss Czech Slovak USA pageant in Wilber, Nebraska, Toni brought the Miss Czech Slovak State Pageant to Wisconsin.  She directed the pageant for 12 years before Vernette Moravek took the reins.

Given her work with the Miss Czech/Slovak State Queen Pageant, she was awarded a key to the City of Montgomery in Minnesota in the 1990’s.  This honor was to recognize her work done to promote the Czech/Slovak heritages and for helping to keep the memory of the small village of Lidice, Czechoslovakia alive.  "Phillips has one of two memorials to the village in the USA.  Thanks to Therese Trojak’s work, it was recognized as a World War II monument and accepted on both the National Registry of WWII Monuments and the State of Wisconsin Registry.  2022 marks the 80th year since the tragedy of Lidice befell its inhabitants."

Along with the key to the city honor, "being chosen Citizen of the Year would tie with the first honor," she said, adding that she was taught, by example, to be community-minded.  That example is likely what led her to be the first woman to serve on the City of Phillips Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, as well.  She also served on the committee that planned some of the activities after the county took over Pop Schmidt’s Rock Garden, now known as Fred Smith's Wisconsin Concrete Park.

Additional work by Toni has included the publication of her books, "Slovak American Touches," "Lidice Remembered Around the World," and "Slovak Recipes."

All her projects needed a lot of energy, and Toni wishes she had the same energy she had even twenty years ago.  Knowing that young people have that energy, she advised, "Never give up, never give in.  Keep your eye on the prize!"

One prize, she believes, is Phillips and Price County as a whole.  "It is a wonderland of lakes, streams, and rivers, lush green forests, wildlife, and is surrounded by small communities where one might consider living....If attracted to an environment where “the great outdoors,” fishing, hunting, trapping, and winter and summer sports are “lures,” there is much more to come!"  She stated the attributes are many, including current job opportunities, many churches of various denominations, the theater group, pool leagues, volleyball tournaments, baseball and softball leagues, Bingo, card tournaments, snowmobile and cross country trails, quilters’ and craft groups, an indoor swimming pool, genealogy group, the Price County Fair, rodeos, plus 4-H clubs and Cub & Boy Scouts.  "The county courthouse is in the center of town in Phillips and easy to get to.  All of these attributes, activities, and events, the churches, business areas, schools, recreational opportunities, exist in Price County.  A vibrant, progressive, county invites young people to settle within, and a friendly populace will welcome them!"

Toni realizes there are some things that can be improved in Price County, as well.  "Top of my head, I would like to see the drug problems eradicated in Price County.  Top of my heart, I would like to see a progressive, younger group of people become more community-minded, like those who put the splash pad in Elk Lake Park.  I hope that hard-working group doesn’t stop improving the community with that one accomplishment under their belts.  That kind of dedication and hard work, we need more of!  Also, the dedication and never-say-die attitude the three women showed when they followed the the bank clock, saved it from the junk yard, and began the long road to restoration, and those who traveled that road with them.  Both of those groups are to be commended for the “heart” they showed and for being unwilling to meet failure and for being people to look up to in Price County!"

While Toni has been busy making a difference in Price County over the years, she also enjoys a myriad of hobbies at home.  "I like making greeting cards, making jewelry, and also baking some of the Slovak sweets that my kids like."  She enjoys cooking shows, too.  "I like to cook and like to see what is new, and I also like to see and hear about the ethnic dishes they sometimes make."  Toni's favorite sport to watch is either basketball, because her son and brother excelled at it, or hockey, because three of her grandsons played.  On a broader scale, she likes to travel.  "Vienna, Austria, plus Illiasovce, Smizany, and Spisska Nova Ves, Slovakia, were places I visited."

Traveling with Toni in life are her guiding lights.  When asked who they are, she shared, "As I grow older I try to live up to the teachings of Jesus."  She added that she hopes young people return to God and his teachings.  "If lies, deceit, and chicanery become the ways of the world, at some point, all will be lost."  For those who guided her as a younger person, she said she looked to my mother and Evelyn Haas, her mother-in-law, who both helped her raise her children "to be the wonderful adults they came to be....These two women exemplified the highest standards of decency, understanding, kindness, warmth, and love.  If I could snatch only a piece of who they were and what they stood for, I would be grateful, but self-examination tells me I fall short."  However Toni's friends may not feel she falls short as a number of them have told her she is thoughtful.  She added, "I hope I am.  I want to be."

If you are interested in seeing some of Toni's thoughtful community service in action, the hour-long Lidice Memorial services will be held on Friday, June 17, 2022 at 7 p.m. at the First Baptist Church in Phillips.  Doug Moquin will be emceeing the program.  The Consulate General from Czech Republic, based in Chicago, will be the guest speaker.

Written By:  Lynne Bohn, My Price County

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(This post was last modified: 06-15-2022, 12:50 PM by My Northern Wisconsin.)