Some of Tom Wenzel’s early memories of growing up in Marshfield was spending Sundays with his father, Frederick “Fritz” Wenzel, in the lab or talking with other researchers getting in some extra work on the weekend. While that isn’t a typical way to spend a Sunday for most people, it’s an example that demonstrates the importance of research to the Wenzel family.
The link between the Wenzel Family and research has been cemented with the recent $1 million donation from Tom Wenzel to name Marshfield Clinic Research Institute’s Fritz Wenzel Center for Clinical Research in honor of his father. The donation and the Clinical Research Center’s new name were formally announced during Wenzel Legacy Research Event held April 5 at Laird Center for Medical Research in Marshfield.
“All I can say is that I’m humbled and grateful; Grateful for this evening that each and every one of you who turned out tonight,” Fritz Wenzel said in his remarks that culminated nearly two hours highlighting MCRI’s work and Wenzel Family’s impact on research. “I wish I had the opportunity to shake the hand of every man and hug every lady out here.”
Honoring a legacy
Fritz’s dedication to the Health system stretches 70 years, and among his many roles, he served as executive director of the Health System from 1976 to 1993 and was instrumental to the growth and success of our organization. He continues today to serve on the Health System board of directors.
The Wenzel family has a long history of supporting the Health System, establishing the Fritz Wenzel Science Conference and providing funding for pediatric projects including waiting room murals and a pediatric cancer treatment room in memory of Fritz's wife, Mary Ann. Fritz, along with Tom, also made a $250,000 donation to establish the Mary Ann Wenzel Nursing Scholar Award.
Chief Philanthropy Officer Teri Wilczek has worked with the Wenzel Family throughout her career in the Health System. She first worked with Tom more than 10 years ago, and more closely in the past year when he approached her with his wish to honor his father in a more long-lasting way.
“Tom reminisced about his childhood and told me about his Sunday routine as a kid,” Wilczek said. “The family would go to church on Sunday mornings and then following church Tom would go with his Dad to the Research Building. Tom was often present in that research space. It was there Tom witnessed the collegiality of colleagues and how important that was to the success of research work. The Wenzel family grew understanding the importance of a career that valued culture and collaboration.”
The result was this milestone $1 million gift to research from Tom will be used to create an endowment that expands MCRI’s applied and translational research programs, expanding access to research for patients across the Health System and improving health in our rural communities. When the gift was announced Dec. 9, Fritz also announced a $250,000 donation to add to his son's support.
“The thing I really appreciate the most of this process, and how I intended the philanthropic goals, was the true appreciation for what Dad meant to Marshfield Clinic and the health care community at large, nationwide,” Tom Wenzel said. “Most importantly, the impact on the community of Marshfield. We can’t underestimate the impact he’s had on the community.”
A long list of “congrats”
The Wenzel Family Legacy Event was held live in Marshfield with more than 75 people in attendance and many more watching a live recording. It was a tremendous opportunity for current researchers, Wenzel family members and former colleagues to gather – many for the first time since before the COVID-19 pandemic – and talk about research, work and recent events.
Here’s who spoke and a snapshot of what they shared:
Marshfield Clinic Health System CEO Susan Turney, M.D. – “(Fritz) always understood the value of medical research in pushing the frontier of medicine forward. His vision was one of the key forces in helping solidify medical research as a true pillar of our Health System. Fritz, we can never thank you enough for all you have meant to us here.
“Tom, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for this incredibly generous gift. These funds are going to make a major difference in our research efforts and the lives we are able to impact. Naming this center for your dad was such a perfect way to honor his legacy, and truly, the legacy of our Health System.
“The history of our organization is really the history of passionate people who are dedicated to helping others. And when I think of folks who meet that criteria, Fritz and his family are at the top of the list.”
Marshfield Clinic Health System Board of Directors Chairman Mark Bugher – “On behalf of all 24 of our board members, Fritz is an inspiration to each and every one of us. Your example of service above self, it’s fair to say, all of us hope to emulate the example you’ve laid out for us for your commitment of service to MCHS over the course of your career …
System Board Member and former UW-Stevens Point Chancellor Bernie Paterson – “At a commencement pinning ceremony, it’s led by two alumni usually. We give him a script to work from. In 2013 that changed when we asked Wenzel, Class of 1956, and Tom Nikolai, Class of 1952, to lead it. First thing Fritz did was throw out script. By the end of the ceremony he had 4,500 people in attendance rolling laughter. It was beyond description. It’s the only time I remember the faculty getting a standing ovation at a pinning ceremony.”
Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson – “Fritz is a very special individual and friend. I remember working with Mel Laird, Bob Froehlke and the leaders of Marshfield Clinic … It was Fritz who always stood out among all those individuals. When he talked, everybody listened. When Fritz Wenzel said something everyone stopped. He had common sense, dedication and passion to make things happen. You’re a hell of a guy, a great friend and wonderful person.”
An evening about science
Marshfield Clinic Research Institute received its first National Institutes of Health grant in 1960 to study farmer’s lung disease, a debilitating and sometimes fatal disease among farm workers. The research led to the development of a blood test to detect exposure to the microbes that cause the disease and ultimately helped thousands of farmers.
Since then, the Research institute has been at the forefront of research in genetics, agriculture medicine and safety, population health, epidemiology and dozens of other areas. Fritz Wenzel has been part of it all when he was the first executive director of Marshfield Clinic Foundation for Medical Research and Education. He even served a stint in recent years as MCRI’s interim executive director.
Current interim MCRI Executive Director Jennifer Meece, Ph.D., worked closely with Fritz, spending many hours in his office. She described him as one of her most influential mentors as he provided guidance and counsel.
“Fritz is a tireless advocate for the belief that research makes us better health care system,” Meece said.
Several MCRI staff members gave an overview of the examples of research that takes place as a result of the foresight by Fritz Wenzel and others.
- Ed Belongia, M.D., epidemiologist and former Director of Clinical Epidemiology and Population Health – “A brief History of vaccine research at MCRI”
- Scott Hebbring, Ph.D., research scientist at Center for Precision Medicine Research – “All of Us program: A legacy to Fritz Wenzel”
- Casper Bendixsen, Ph.D., National Farm Medicine Director – “Farmers lung to the Wisconsin Infant Study Cohort: Mucking around with medicine”
The Wenzel family offered effusive praise for the research that continues today at the Research Institute. While it “technically” started with Fritz, family members gave much credit to his late wife, Mary Ann.
“His trust and respect for our mother was complete … he stood on the shoulders of a giant,” said Ann Wenzel, the family’s eldest daughter. “She was indeed the spirit of giving. She was the leader.”
Fritz joked that he has stood at this podium countless times, and that tonight was the first time he was “almost speechless. Almost, but not quite,” evoking laughs from the crowd. He thanked many of those who were in attendance and some of his fellow leaders in research and health care who have passed on. As a man who is considered a health care industry giant, a prolific author, and enjoyed past times in mountain climbing and sailing, he chose to highlight another of his interests – poetry—in his closing remarks, reading the last stanza of “The Last Leaf” by Oliver Wendell Holmes.
And if I should live to be
The last leaf upon the tree
In the spring,
Let them smile, as I do now,
At the old forsaken bough
Where I cling.