Story and photo by Suzanne Zipperer
Grow where God plants you” is an adage you don’t hear much anymore. For the last generation, which grew up at a time when a house was an investment and not a home, the idea of living in one house or one neighborhood your entire life may seem self-limiting.
Rosemary Gibson grew where she was planted, right here is Riverwest. She now lives in her grandfather’s house and has lived within a few blocks of that Bremen Street home all her life. It wasn’t limiting to her at all. She grew where she was planted.
Mrs. Gibson had just gone to a Riverwest Reunion of about 400 people at Serb Hall two days before we spoke with her. She pulled out a program with a long list of names. “People come from all over. Even from out of state.” Many of them long gone are still connected to Riverwest through this group. “They keep up on things and they hear about what is going on.” They are still part of a community.
Mrs. Gibson, who is a mentally sharp and physically active 82-year-old, describes the Polish community where she grew up. “I was surrounded by family.” She points in all directions to where an aunt and uncle lived and to the south where the next two houses are stilled occupied by cousins. “It was like that for all of us. We knew everyone.”
Mrs. Gibson’s father, Joseph Casper Zak, came from Poland as a small boy and took advantage of opportunities to do business in the Polish community that was growing in Riverwest at the time. “He had a grocery store right next door, but that one became too small and he bought one on Weil. He used to have a book and when people didn’t have money, he would write it down and they would pay later. But then the Depression hit; people couldn’t pay him, so he went out of business.” Mr. Zak was an entrepreneur with seven children to support so he wasted no time moving into real estate and did well.
Mrs. Gibson describes a neighborhood filled with grocers, each with a butcher in the back, bakeries, and taverns. “There were lots of taverns,” she laughs. Her extended family owned three between Burleigh and Locust Streets. “And North Side Lumber, which is still there. At noon the men who worked there would come to the store and my mother would sit me up on the counter and make sandwiches for them.”
“We went bowling at the Polish Falcon, which is still there. And there was another bowling alley where that little park is on Locust Street where they have the market.”
Mrs. Gibson and almost all of the children she grew up with attended Catholic school at St. Mary of Czestochowa on the corner of Burleigh and Fratney. There were 200 students in her eighth grade graduating class. The Sisters of Notre Dame taught and the cost was low.
The house where the family grew up is typical of Riverwest, about 1,400 square feet with an apartment upstairs. Those seven children shared two bedrooms. “The boys all slept in that tiny room up front. There was one bed and they lay cross ways on it.” Of the seven siblings, Mrs. Gibson is the only one who has stayed on in the neighborhood.
Unlike most women who came of age in the 1950s, Mrs. Gibson did not marry young. Graduating from high school with office skills, she worked for Prudential Insurance.
“I began as a stenographer and worked my way up,” she explained. “I was the secretary to the director of all the offices in the Midwest. When they opened an office in Minneapolis, I was asked to go there, but I was the youngest and the one to stay with my mother, so I stayed here. I became the secretary to the manager and then the office manager over 20 girls. I traveled around to our offices in other towns to see that things were running well.”
At age 34 she married James Gibson. “I got pregnant right away and at that time you were not allowed to work when you were pregnant.” The couple had three children and Mrs. Gibson did go back to work, but then her husband asked her to stay home to manage the house and she complied.
Mrs. Gibson’s father died when he was in his 50s and her husband was also to pass away at 51 when her children were ages 10, 11, and 12. She soon went back to work, this time in the bursar’s office at UW-Milwaukee managing Perkins loans. She worked there for 20 years, retiring at the age of 70. Had you a Perkins loan between 1980 and 2000, you may have met with Mrs. Gibson.
That was not her last job. “The young woman next door asked me to help out at a garden center. So I transplanted and helped with customers and things,” – until she was 78.
Growing up in a community, Mrs. Gibson knows how to be part of a community. She has done her share of helping elderly people get around and currently works three mornings a week at the food pantry at St. Casimir’s Church. “The people are so nice who come in.” A few years ago, she fell there and broke a hip, but that didn’t stop her.
With one son now living upstairs and two in the village of Belgium about 45 minutes north, Mrs. Gibson is grateful for the help they can give her in taking care of the house. She also knows her neighbors. “I have two boys living next door and they are just peachy. They help me out and even shovel the sidewalk.”
“My children in Belgium tell me to move there, but I’m not going to live anywhere else. I will die here.” Mrs. Gibson is still growing, with deep roots in Riverwest.