Jim Stecker did not pause when asked if there was something of which he was most proud of during his many years of service to the New Holstein area—and it is a long list from which to choose.
He first cited his role in creating the Veterans Memorial in Kiwanis Park, then added his contributions to Zion Lutheran Church in New Holstein.
Since being the co-chair of the committee which oversaw fundraising and construction of the Veterans Memorial in 2008, Stecker has spent many an hour at the memorial keeping it in tip-top shape. He often meets or sees people stopping at the memorial to take a closer look. “It’s the people coming through town,” he said with a sense of pride. “They can’t believe what we did in this small town.”
Stecker’s lifelong willingness to pitch in on many projects and with many organizations is why he was selected as Distinguished Person of the Year for 2020 by the New Holstein Area Chamber of Commerce.
Stecker was born in 1931 to Al and Eula Stecker. Al was from Hilbert but in 1929 bought a small cheese factory just outside New Holstein (the land and buildings later became Halbach Mink Ranch). Eula was originally from Shiocton.
Jim said one of his earliest recollections of childhood was how hot the summer of 1936 was and how he would run around with just shorts on, helping to pick potatoes from the big garden they had.
He was probably 8 years old when he was put to work at the family cheese factory, washing out milk cans. He would walk 1-1/2 miles one way to Seton School each day until it closed after his seventh grade year. Starting in eighth grade he attended school in New Holstein and rode on one of the two buses the schools operated.
At the age of 14 he had his driver’s license and drove around to pick up the milk cans.
Stecker attended New Holstein High School and graduated with the Class of 1949. He recalls scoring one touchdown while playing with the high school football team, that coming in a game at Valders. New Holstein switched from six-man to 11-man football while he was in high school, but leather helmets were still worn with no facemasks.
He also remembers being part of the school’s FFA vocal quartet which won the state championship, qualifying them to sing in front of 25,000 people at the national convention in Kansas City. Local businesses financed the cost of the trip.
While in high school Stecker also began to work for Wally Bartel’s dairy as his father had closed his cheese factory by this time. Stecker learned the milk route in the city and drove a horse and wagon from house to house—although, truth be told, Stecker said the horse had done the route so many times that it knew the way all by itself. “Wally Bartel could sleep standing up in that wagon,” Stecker said with a laugh.
After high school, Stecker moved to Sheboygan Falls to work at a creamery. He made deliveries to places in Kohler, Plymouth, Waldo, Adell, and elsewhere.
While a junior in high school, Stecker caught the chickenpox. He had to go to the doctor’s office to get a slip to return to school, and at the doctor’s office met a receptionist named Ruth who was two years older than Jim. A couple years later, the two got married just two weeks before Jim headed off to basic training. Jim was only 19 so his mother had to sign the marriage license for him.
Stecker was drafted during the Korean War era but was never sent overseas. He did his basic training at Fort Sheridan in Illinois, then was sent to Arkansas. Stecker was injured by a flying fragment during hand grenade training. He spent two years in the Army and was trained in infantry and artillery with the 5th Armored Division.
(For more on this story please see the Jan. 14 issue of the Tri-County News.)