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Lorraine Jacobs

by Peter Schmidtke

A Dalmatian, a file chock-full of Urban Ecology Center materials, a formidable pile of sociology books, and several hardwood shelves laden with scrap booking paraphernalia. These are what catches the eye as Lorraine Jacobs sits at her dining room table in her light-green, walk-up home on the 2400 block of Dousman and talks about her life after retiring this past September. She worked a combined 30 years with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) and Milwaukee Public Schools. “I can’t believe I’m retired,” she says with a laugh, pulling her neck-length hair over the back of her paisley scarf. “One day, I’m going to wake up and say, ‘Oh yeah.'” Jacobs earned her education degree at UWM and taught for three years before returning to UWM to earn her Master’s degree in counseling. She says she never intended to stay at the university past graduation, but a temporary job at the financial office ended up turning into a full-time career as both a financial and academic counselor. “My ability to retire when I was younger–I’m 52–has been truly a gift to me, and I want to make the best use of that time,” she says. With her 13-year-old Dalmatian shifting between napping and comfortable tail-wagging, Jacobs sips her coffee and talks about her decision to start volunteering at the Urban Ecology Center. “I decided a while ago that I was getting too upset about everything that was going on in the world and I thought, ‘I can’t do anything but within my own area.'” A newsletter from the Center at the Fuel Cafe caught her eye shortly thereafter, and she began vacuuming their classrooms and working on membership drives. That was 13 years ago, and since her retirement Jacobs is spending 15-20 hours a week researching possible fundraisers for the Center. “I don’t do any grant writing, but I look stuff up on the computer, and I make phone calls and keep track of what’s happening,” Jacobs says of her fundraising work while she gives a tour of her “office,” a room set off from the dining room complete with a phone, computer with internet connection, and several files of donor information. For seven years on and off, Jacobs has also served on the board of directors at the Center; she is currently the vice president. When questioned about other possible future volunteering avenues at the Center, Jacobs says she doesn’t feel comfortable teaching visitors. “I know a daisy and a pine tree when I see them–but I’m not a naturalist. I just don’t feel comfortable teaching things I don’t know anything about.” Jacobs adjusts her glasses and stops herself. It’s obvious that she has thought about this question before and exactly why it is that she has volunteered there for so many years. She enjoys biking down by the lake and occasionally going on the weekly morning walk that Urban Ecology Center Executive Director Ken Leinbach organizes, but Jacobs says that when it comes down to it, her decision to join the Center had more to do with her belief in the Center’s goals. “I just really love their mission of providing a way for urban families to appreciate nature.” In addition to the Urban Ecology Center, Jacobs also serves as secretary on the Board of Directors for the Riverwest Neighborhood Association (RNA). But she protests when asked about the time requirement for the RNA. “It’s maybe five hours a week, and it’s something that I started with when I was at a meeting and someone asked if I could take notes.” In response to the stack of books next to a nearby window, Jacobs mentions the informal reading group that she participates in that Milwaukee activist Tom Spellman pulled together. It’s a group of long-time Milwaukee residents, and they discuss issues related to social justice and violence. As an offshoot of this topic, she also mentions the Institute for Healing of Racism discussions she has been attending at UWM. “One of the most important things I’ve learned is that it’s important to listen to people, not to assume that you understand them or know them,” Jacobs says, reflecting on why she chooses to delve further into difficult topics after a long career in education. On a lighter note, but still on the topic of her life post-retirement, she also points out the numerous scrapbooks and scrap booking materials that form the basis of her business, Creative Memories, which she started six years ago. “The business is teaching people how to create personal scrapbooks and providing them with the materials.” To demonstrate her work, Jacobs opens up a meticulously organized, four-inch-thick album of her journey to California two years ago that she took with her late husband Jay Sadowski who was, among many things, an artist, teacher and inventor. The acid-free pages are replete with tokens of the trip west, including pay stubs and journal entries to wacky museums and roadside attractions. “It’s really about getting together and telling stories,” she says of her business and the people who come to her home. And as the photos of Jacobs and her friends at Locust Street Festival and Gordon Park show, it’s also about Riverwest.