Life Story / Obituary
On January 8, 1928, John William Brunner was born in New Berlin, Wisconsin, the sixth child of Frank and Frances (nee Sanders) Brunner. John had one older brother that passed before he was born but six sisters and four brothers shared a long and loving lifetime with him.
John attended St. Mary’s Catholic School in Elm Grove as a child and was inspired in his faith by the Sisters of Notre Dame, who taught him through seventh grade. After moving to Waukesha in 1941 while in eighth grade, he attended his final year of school at St. Joseph’s Catholic School, having then to stay home to work the family farm. By that time, the ‘second litter,’ which he fondly called his youngest siblings, was well on the way! He used to joke that he DID go to high school and college—in the front door and out the back.
He was later called to the military and served as a medical corp staff sergeant in the Army Air Force in 1946-47. Over 18 months, he served at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas and Scott Field near St. Louis. An athletic man, he often joked of how he was regularly recruited for the Randolph Air Force Base track team, where he outsprinted all 300 of his base comrades.
Prior to serving in the military, John met Virginia (Jeanne) Egofske on a one-sided blind date. Anna, his sister, and Ervin, her brother (who also later married), were dating and decided to see a movie. They asked John to go along, who knew that Jeanne would be going as well. Jeanne, however, was unaware of the setup and apparently not pleased when the three arrived to pick her up. Yet, on Monday, May 30, 1949, they were married in a beautiful Memorial Day ceremony. John was a loving and devoted husband, and cared for Jeanne until she died on September 17, 2002. Together, they were blessed with and raised their two children, Bob and Sandy, in Waukesha. Both were adopted as infants and could not have been more deeply loved. John was a wonderful, kind, and adoring father. He particularly enjoyed taking his family on day trips to Ottawa Lake, Lower Nemahbin, and Minooka Park for picnicking, swimming, and fishing.
Before it became a now popular thing to do, John and Jeanne flipped four homes in the 1960’s. Also during this time, they operated a year-round home garden center, which included selling Christmas trees and delivering and laying sod. His children often accompanied him, both for helping hands but mainly to spend time with them and instill a grounded work ethic which he carried his entire life. For his entire life, John’s passion was gardening and landscaping. Through vegetables, flowers, bushes, and trees, his yards were blessed with the beauty and bounty of this love. Coupled with Jeanne’s love of cooking and canning, his harvests were enjoyed by many until the next planting season.
John worked hard for his family. Following his own father’s lead of hard work and duty, he made a wonderful career in real estate as well as civic work. Early in their marriage, John worked as a supervisor in manufacturing. His work in real estate came about after he was laid off the during the week of Christmas. He enrolled in real estate courses and passed the real estate exam before classes were completed. No one had previously done that, and for the next 40 years, he was very successful in a career that he loved. Starting out in 1964 at Parkview Realty for several years, he began working for, as it was then known, Bielinski Homes in their earliest years. There he continued for the next 38 years, working days, evenings and weekends. He often said, “I never saw anything I couldn’t sell” and retired from Bielinski Custom Homes in 2004 at the age of 76, having received numerous awards for sales and distinction during those years but always accepting with great humbleness.
From a young age, John’s desire was to serve others and follow in his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather’s legacies of civic duty. In 1955, at the age of 27, John was elected Treasurer of the Town of Waukesha and, with the tremendous assistance of Jeanne, remained in that position for 32 years through 1987. In those days, town residents often came to the house to pay taxes and purchase dog licenses, so their door was truly always open. He was then elected Waukesha Town Chairman for another eight years, working a total of 40 years in government office when he retired in 1995. His early goal to become a public official was well fulfilled.
In March of 2003, a year before retiring from real estate, John was the first resident to move into the new independent living apartments at Avalon Square in Waukesha, six months after Jeanne had passed. Retirement, though, didn’t mean slowing down. His passion for digging in the dirt remained and he immediately began helping in the gardens. Before the end of his first summer, John was fully in charge of all gardens on the grounds. Planning began annually in March and finished eight months later as he tried to have the beds cleared and readied for the next year by November 1st. John served there as the volunteer gardener for 13 years until age 88. Residents and visitors enjoyed the beautiful courtyard, entrance, and bedded areas that he meticulously maintained over the years. They may not have known his name—but they recognized him as the gardener.
In all areas of his life, John lived by the principles of honesty, integrity, and forgiveness. He was well respected by his colleagues and those he served, and genuinely cared for and devoted his life to helping others. In a grade school project completed with granddaughter, Jessica, he said, “If you worked hard, were honest, and stayed close to your Christian values, you would have a lifetime of rewards.” His family was a priority, and he and Jeanne were very committed to their faith. The early influence of the Sisters of Notre Dame promoted a deep devotion to the Blessed Mother. John designed and built an outdoor stone grotto to honor her at all three of their homes with the original statue, purchased when they were first married, moving with them to each residence. He was a member of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Waukesha since 1941 and a member of the Holy Name Society, where he also served as Secretary and Treasurer.
John was known for his sense of humor, his love of laughter, and his joy in sharing stories and songs from the earliest days of his life. Even in his final days, his memory was keen as ever as he enjoyed recalling stories from his past, including such detailed memories as the names of the Cubs players from the first professional baseball game he attended in Chicago at the age of nine with his brother-in-law, to the names and positions of the 1941 national champion UW-Wisconsin Badger basketball team! An avid baseball player in his younger days, he loved watching professional baseball, girl's college softball, and men's college basketball.
In the early 80’s, John and Jeanne welcomed a daughter-in-law and son-in-law, Linda and Bob, and from 1986-1990, were blessed with four grandchildren: Tyler, Kaitlin, Carli, and Jessica. Watching them grow up and attending their many events and celebrations was such a treat! Most recently, John was present to welcome Mike and Greg into the family through marriage to granddaughters, Kate and Jess, and in May of 2017, John was given his last and most precious title: great-grandpa. Evelyn Mills Poliak was the light of his life and called him G-Papa. He looked forward to every photo, video call, and visit with his ‘little sweetheart.’ Evie adored him, but even before her arrival, before the title, he already was a great Grandpa. He referred to all of his grandchildren as his ‘little stars’ and so often said how proud he was of them. He deeply loved being a grandfather.
John began kidney dialysis in January of 2010 and no one could have imagined that he would live well into his 10th year of treatment. His sustaining health surprised his family and friends, but especially the medical professionals who treated him. He, as many would say, was one tough German.
John died peacefully on May 4, 2019, at the age of 91. He was preceded in death by Virginia, his beloved wife of 53 years. He will be deeply missed and lovingly remembered by his children: Robert (Linda) Brunner of Waukesha and Sandra (Robert) Mills of Oconomowoc; grandchildren Tyler Brunner of Waukesha, Kaitlin (Michael) Poliak of Appleton, Carli Brunner of San Francisco, and Jessica (Greg) Guenther of Chicago; and great-granddaughter, Evelyn Mills Poliak. He is further survived by his brothers and sisters: William (Karen) Brunner, Richard (Kathy) Brunner, Barbara (Thomas) LeVan, and Ruth (Fred) Sedlacek. Six siblings and their spouses preceded him in death: Catherine (John) Gimler, Emma (George) Buse, Elizabeth (Joseph) Petrie, Anna (Ervin/Bill) Kumm, Joseph (Marlene) Brunner, Charles (Carolyn) Brunner as well as infant brother, Frank. Also survived by nieces, nephews, other family, friends and grandpuppies.
Visitation will be held on Saturday, May 11, 2019, from 9:30am until the 11:30am Funeral Mass, all at St. Mary Catholic Church, 225 S. Hartwell Avenue in Waukesha. Graveside services will follow at St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery.
Memorials are appreciated to St. Joseph Catholic Church or to The Garden Fund at Avalon Square.