A stranger to none and a friend to all, Winnie Zembrowski was the heartbeat of wherever she was. She was genuine in her love and concern for those around her, and her faith was the cornerstone in her life. Although Winnie loved being a mother, she just may have argued that being a grandmother was her sweetest reward. She was blessed with the gift of hospitality, and her home was a haven for all who entered as the door was always open to everyone. Winnie leaves behind a brilliantly colored mosaic of memories that will be treasured for generations to come.
Although the 1920s were primarily prosperous years, the 1930s were a much different story as the entire decade was cloaked in the hardship of the Great Depression. The unemployment rate soared, and things only became more stressed when an unrelenting drought crippled the heartland of our nation for nearly two years, adding more strain to an already crippled agricultural industry. Despite the challenges around them, a young family from Alma Center in Jackson County, Wisconsin, was delighted with the birth of a healthy baby girl on March 2, 1938. Winifred L. was the youngest of 10 children born to, Leo and Anna (Sichler) Gilles, and she was raised in the family home alongside her siblings, Dorothy, Millie, Joseph, Eunice, Howard, Virginia, George, Jon, and Richard. Her parents were both teachers, but they left the education field to work as farmers. They were successful dairy farmers whose success was due in part to her “Pa’s” willingness to try the latest farming innovations.
Despite the challenges of the Great Depression, Winnie and her siblings were not aware of the hardship as they had no trouble finding fun and there was always plenty on the table. They also had their fair share of farm chores such as milking the cows. Winnie attended a one-room schoolhouse along with all of her siblings. Often there were as many as 5 Gilles’ in school at the same time.
As a young woman Winnie went on to secretarial school in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and after graduating she moved to Chicago where she worked as a switchboard operator for Proctor and Gamble, a job she loved and remembered all of her life. She lived with three friends there, and enjoyed everything about her big city adventure. With both inner and outer beauty, Winnie was named Queen of the Strawberry Festival in Alma Center, Wisconsin, in 1955.
It was while home visiting the farm that Winnie’s life was forever changed. Her brother, Howard, invited his Army buddy over with the intention of introducing him to Winnie. The young soldier’s name was Leo Zembrowski, and from the moment he set eyes on Winnie after she came in from milking the cows wearing work clothes and a white bandana around her head he was smitten. They all attended a dance in Hatfield that weekend, which was all it took for Leo to declare that he would marry that girl someday!
Leo was right as Winnie became his bride on April 23, 1960, at Immaculate Conception Church in Alma Center, Wisconsin. The newlyweds settled in Milwaukee where they started their family with the birth of their daughter, Julie, in 1960. Julie was followed by Thomas in 1961, Peter in 1962, and John in 1964. As a mother Winnie was an active part in her children’s lives in everything they did. She instilled strong Catholic principles into the lives of her children as they certainly knew better than to miss Mass!
Winnie’s focus throughout her life was on her family, her faith, and her community. Her home was welcoming and available to all her and Leo’s extended family, her children’s friends, or neighborhood kids. She and Leo were the “King and Queen” of Land Place and she was always on the watch for happenings on the block. She was the ultimate recycler as everything could be reused or repurposed and no one left home empty-handed. Winnie was active in her parish, St. Hedwig, where she was home and school president of the parish school and taught gym class there for a time. Winnie became the first woman usher and was the first female member of the St. Vincent DePaul Society for the parish. She enjoyed volunteering, which included at St. Mary’s Hospital Hospice for several years – a job she felt was her true calling. It was only when she was needed at home to care for her beloved Leo during his struggle with lung cancer that she stopped volunteering. They enjoyed taking bus trips to casinos around the state and in Michigan together when they could. Winnie was deeply saddened with Leo’s death in 2012.
Grandchildren brought Winnie immeasurable joy. She was known to make her grandchildren special snacks and crafted special presents using many of her recycled items. Every day they would play “school”, which they all loved and the grandkids credit her for their success in school. As they grew older Winnie liked to remain aware of what was going on in every aspect of their lives, and she was always there to support and encourage them in everything they did. She was convinced that one of her grandchildren would do something that would change the world. Winnie made them each feel so uniquely loved. Each grandchild got to choose a special Elder Hostel trip to different parts of the country that they got to go on alone with her. These trips were so special to both her and the grandkids and created many special memories.
After Leo’s death Winnie kept busy doing projects around the house such as gardening and feeding the birds in her yard. She still enjoyed visiting the casino and it was usually quite clear when Winnie did well there. She was a collector of many things and so enjoyed going to rummages to see what she could find.
A longtime smoker, Winnie developed COPD. She was hospitalized after becoming short of breath as a result of shoveling snow.
A woman who was truly beautiful on the inside and out, Winnie Zembrowski was a blessing to all who were within her reach. She never hesitated to help someone else, and her devotion to her family was unmatched. Although her life was not without times of trial, Winnie was a gracious woman whose faith and love for her family gave her the strength she needed to face whatever came her way. Life will never be the same without her here, but her timeless legacy will be carried on by those who follow her.
Winifred L. “Winnie” Zembrowski passed away peacefully on January 17, 2014 surrounded by her loving family. Winnie was preceded in death by her beloved husband Leo Zembrowski. Winnie’s family includes her children, Julie (Andrew) Burish, Thomas, Peter, and John Zembrowski; grandchildren, Lauren, Rachael, Andrew, Kathryn, and Jenna. Her surrogate children, nephews Dan and Jack (Judie) and their children Katie and Kevin Brown. Dear sister of the late Dorothy Schnur, the late Millie (the late Swede) Olson, the late Joseph (the late Liz) Gilles, the late Eunice (Lowell) Sieler, the late Howard (Betty) Gilles, Virginia (the late Bubs) Mabie, George (Sonja) Gilles, the late Jon (Shirley) Gilles and Richard (Katie) Gilles. She was a special aunt to many nieces, nephews and is further survived by other relatives and friends. It was Winnie’s wishes that her body be donated to the Medical College of Wisconsin. Family and friends will gather to celebrate Winnie’s life Thursday, January 23 at the Funeral Home from 4:00-7:30 p.m. and Friday, January 24 at Three Holy Women Parish – St. Hedwig Church from 10 a.m. until time of the Memorial Mass at 11:00 a.m. In lieu of flowers memorials to American Lung Association or Catholic East Elementary School
Arrangements provided by Suminski LifeStory Funeral Homes, Suminski / Weiss, 1901 N. Farwell Ave (414) 276-5122.
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