(Back, from left) Bill and Jane Kowieski, Gov. Scott Walker, Elizabeth and Brad Kowieski, Brad’s brothers Mark Kowieski and Jeff Kowieski and (front, from left) Brody and Hank Kowieski stand together. The family traveled to Madison for the Dec. 4 tree-lighting ceremony. (Submitted photo)

(Back, from left) Bill and Jane Kowieski, Gov. Scott Walker, Elizabeth and Brad Kowieski, Brad’s brothers Mark Kowieski and Jeff Kowieski and (front, from left) Brody and Hank Kowieski stand together. The family traveled to Madison for the Dec. 4 tree-lighting ceremony. (Submitted photo)

Anita Draper
Catholic Herald staff

Thirty years ago, Brad Kowieski, a fourth-grader at Nativity of Our Lord Catholic School, Rhinelander, planted a tree in his parents’ backyard.

On Dec. 4, Brad watched as his sons, Brody and Hank, third- and first-graders at Nativity, flipped the switch to light that same balsam fir, now 40 feet tall, at the state Capitol Rotunda in Madison.

It’s a good Christmas story, the tale of how his mother’s diligence saved the tree from an early demise, and how a couple years ago she suggested donating the fir to the state when Brad and his wife, Elizabeth, were considering cutting it down.

But, said Brad, their story is also about changing demographics and the future of Catholic education in the Diocese of Superior. Thirty years from now, he wonders, will his sons’ children be students at Nativity?

Harvesting the tree

In 1985, a DNR forester visited Nativity of Our Lord Catholic School on Arbor Day and gave each fourth-grader a sapling.

Brad and his three brothers were students at the school; his parents had moved to Rhinelander in the mid-1970s and were members of Nativity parish.

Brad planted his sapling in the backyard overlooking Lake Creek. Somehow the balsam fir survived decades of harsh Northwoods weather, dogs and the lawnmower, the boys’ night games and their father’s premature attempts to cut it down.

After Brad’s mother, Jane, suggested donating the tree a couple of years ago, they decided to offer it to the State of Wisconsin to serve as the Capitol Christmas tree. The Kowieskis navigated the donation process, and on Nov. 5, Gov. Scott Walker’s office announced their tree had been selected.

Brad, Elizabeth, Brody, 9, and Hank, 7, as well as Brad’s parents, Jane and Bill Kowieski, invited the fourth-grade class from Nativity and Brad’s fourth-grade teacher, Patricia Guzman, to join the harvesting ceremony Nov. 17.

Students learned about logging, timber harvesting and the story of the tree. Then, the massive fir was cut with a mechanical harvester and hauled to Madison by the Great Lake Timber Professionals Association.

An ‘amazing’ experience

“It was an exciting situation for us, there’s no doubt about it,” Brad said of the family’s tree donation and all it entailed.

The excitement of the past month culminated Dec. 4 when the family saw their tree again at the lighting ceremony in Madison.

The balsam fir, which had been placed in the Rotunda and decorated with ornaments celebrating Wisconsin sports, this year’s theme, lit up when the boys, together with Gov. Walker, flipped the switch.

It’s kind of hard to describe the feeling, Brad said. “Some of it was just being there and experiencing what it was.”

Brody and Hank led the Pledge of Allegiance heard throughout the Capitol, “which was just awesome,” Brad added. “It was just a thrill watching.”

The next morning, the family walked down State Street and saw a Santa Run by the Capitol – a 5K event with runners wearing Santa hats – “which just kind of added to the festive spirit of everything.”

Walking past the Capitol on the way back to their hotel, the Kowieskis saw the crowds viewing the Christmas tree.

“It was just amazing to me how many people go to the Capital to see the tree,” he said, “to realize …what that tree is doing for Christmas in Wisconsin. My wife started crying.

“It was just cool on so many levels,” he added. “It was an experience”

Before the tree lighting ceremony, the family met Gov. Walker. Despite the thrill of the occasion, Brad didn’t forget to mention a subject dear to his heart: the future of education in Northern Wisconsin.

The governor has launched bold initiatives in the past, Brad said. What the towns north of Hwy. 64 need is a new funding model.

A passion for education

Life is full of experiences, good and bad, Brad said. His family celebrated the giving of their tree, but they, along with the rest of their parish, mourned the loss of Fr. Michael McLain, the parish’s newly appointed parochial administrator.

“That was sad,” he said. “One of the bad experiences in life. Take the moments you get and enjoy them, because they’re gone quickly,” he told his sons.

Vice chair of the parish education committee, Brad met Fr. McLain in the spring, before the priest officially moved to Rhinelander in July. The priest made pizza, and the family talked about the school, which has nearly 200 students and is one of the largest in the diocese.

A banker, Brad has an accounting degree. He has worked in public accounting, been employed by an investment advisement group and, most recently, spent 10 years in technology infrastructure.

A background in numbers, business and finance has given him a thorough understanding of the demographic trends affecting the Northland. His family’s history at Nativity has engendered a strong desire to ensure the school’s survival.

“I’m really afraid for the future,” he said.

North of Hwy. 64, public and parochial education are intertwined, he observed. Kids who start out at Catholic school will end up in public high school, so they aren’t really separate. He thinks changes to the state funding model could help Northerners keep their education systems strong despite the declining number of young families.

Brad also believes Catholic schools need to rethink their overall structure. Because each parish supports its own school, Catholic schools in the diocese aren’t pooling their communal resources.

“They all have to stand independently,” he added, “and I just look at what technology can provide.”

He said Catholic schools could use distance learning to share teachers, for example, which would help alleviate problems with finding and paying instructors in some places.

Meanwhile, the area is aging demographically, and parishes are, more and more, struggling to support their schools. Some schools are budgeting year-to-year, trying to stay alive financially without any long-term plans.

With fewer young Catholic families in the area, he added, “sustainability is a risk.”

Having students in Catholic school keeps parents coming to church, too, Fr. McLain once told him. Overall, less Catholic education could lead to fewer parishioners and more endangered parishes.

“The sustainability might be something we have to address now,” Brad said.

Historically, Catholic schools have been leaders in education in their communities, he continued. As someone with a background in technology, Brad believes they need to stay strong and maintain that position.

He also hopes education will be a priority for the new bishop, and Catholics around the diocese will open a dialogue in 2016 about how best to facilitate the sustainability, and longevity, of their schools.