by Sonya Jongsma Knauss / photo by Peter Di Antoni “Never grow weary of doing good.” –Galatians 6:9. These are the words Nancy Centz lives by. Whether she’s picking up trash between the Riverwest Co-op and her house on Booth Street or snuggling with her grandson on the couch before his parents take him back upstairs to their flat for bed, Nancy does it with an energy that is remarkable. “There’s a saying that I like,” she says, “Nobody makes a bigger mistake than he who does nothing because he can only do a little.” Every little bit adds up, she says. “Every piece of garbage I pick up makes it a nicer day for someone else.” She is truly a salt-of-the-earth type, ready to pitch in and help when work needs to be done, happy to listen when someone needs to talk, and strong in her convictions about right and wrong. Nancy co-chairs the Riverwest Neighborhood Association and is a founding member of the Riverwest Co-op, where she puts in countless volunteer hours. She spends her Sunday afternoons at the Adolescent Center on 84th and Watertown Plank Road as part of the “New Beginnings are Possible” program for teens in juvenile detention. They’re always happy to see her, especially on the days when she brings homemade brownies. “I talk to them about their problems,” she says. “Sometimes they just need someone they don’t know to talk to about things – it can be easier than hearing it from their parents.” And, in her spare time, Nancy regularly helps some of the elderly at the Holton Terrace. She’ll take them to the bank or to get groceries. If their apartment is getting dirty, she’ll clean it for them. She also cares about the earth and hates to see the way people have treated it “A little community like us can make a big difference,” she says, commenting positively on the number of young people in the neighborhood who shun materialism and actively care for the earth in the choices they make about what to wear, what to eat, and what to do with their lives. Her kids bought her a tattoo when she turned 40 — almost twenty years ago. It’s a starburst, on her left shoulder. “They told me they were getting me something I couldn’t lose or hock,” she says with a laugh. “My sister gave them the idea.” A few inches further onto her back is a bigger, more colorful one of a bird she got herself a little later. Nancy has a joyful nature, despite having gone through much pain in her life. She grew up in Menomonee Falls, moved to Nebraska where she farmed with her husband and four children, then moved back to Wisconsin after a divorce when Sara, her older daughter, came to UW-Madison for college. Sara, who with her husband River bought a duplex in Riverwest with Nancy, has watched her mother’s involvement with admiration. “Of course my mom’s a hard worker, but I also like the way she volunteers. She isn’t doing it to socialize or to look good, but she’s doing it because she really believes in loving and helping others,” Sara says. Nancy’s youngest daughter, Julie, died of cancer at age 18. While Julie was dying, Nancy moved to Riverwest and continued to work four 10-hour days at her factory job in Milwaukee. She would spend long weekends at Mayo Clinic with Julie, then crash at Vitamin Q, Sara’s retro clothing store in Madison, Sunday nights on her way back through. Soon Nancy will be spending her weekends with a sister who lives an hour away and has Hepatitis C. “It’s easy to let your heart get bitter, but you can’t do that,” she says. “I see that a lot in older people. I just try to take life as it is. Nothing can really bother me, I just deal with it, good or bad, and move on.” She loves Riverwest. “I pray every night that the angels will walk around and protect the kids that are always out walking around at night.” She prays unceasingly throughout her day. Not shy about her faith in God, Nancy prefers acting to talking. “Teach the word of God and use words only if you have to,” she says. “But if someone asks me to talk about it, I’m always happy to do that.” Her humble, down-to-earth demeanor puts her acquaintances at ease — even those who might be uncomfortable with religious talk. “God put me here in Riverwest,” she says matter-of-factly. “I didn’t want to live in Milwaukee, but he changed what I wanted. I have everything here I need.” “God is the number one, most important thing in my whole life. Everything else is secondary. People are next, and then maybe a good book or two.” She laughs. “In the end, I want to hear God say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.'” Do you know someone who lives in Riverwest or who has had a positive impact on our neighborhood? We want your suggestion for unsung heros, quirky characters, and interesting people for our “Neighbor Spotlight”. Call 265-7278. Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 9 – October 2002