Estate gift brings opportunities
Local officials share their hopes
By Angie Landsverk
and Scott Bellile
New London and Fremont officials say they are excited for the opportunities a multi-million-dollar estate gift could bring to their communities.
Marilynn Taylor, the late president of the New London-based cheese company Wohlt Creamery – now Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery – died in 2017 at the age of 71.
The Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region announced Dec. 17 that Taylor willed her cheese plant to the CFFVR.
The sale of the cheese plant to Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery and Taylor’s other assets are expected to net the CFFVR around $8.3 million.
The Marilynn W. Taylor/Wohlt Cheese Fund will begin distributing two categories of grants in July 2019.
The first category is scholarships for students attending Taylor’s alma mater, Lawrence University in Appleton. This will be a regional scholarship, but priority will be given to applicants from New London, Weyauwega and Fremont.
In three years when the endowment has matured, the scholarship fund should have $120,000 per year available for distribution, according to CFFVR President and CEO Curt Detjen.
The second category of grants is for community improvements throughout New London, Fremont and adjacent municipalities. Taylor’s will did not specify which neighboring communities those include.
Once the endowment has matured, there should be $250,000 per year available for community improvements, Detjen said.
“We don’t want to get too narrow or specific, but (community improvements) could include grants to nonprofits that serve these communities, nonprofits for capital improvements, private-public partnerships to improve the area, such as parks and trails,” Detjen said. “Marilynn’s gift was initially broad and provides us with latitude to be responsive to the communities’ needs and how they change. We are grateful for that. This allows us, and the communities, to dream.”
Gift shocks village president
Before last week, Fremont Village President Dan Sambs heard rumors there would be some money made available in the area.
“What surprised me was the size of the estate,” he said. “That was probably the biggest surprise to me.”
Sambs knew Taylor.
“She was extremely busy. Just go, go all the time, very businesslike,” he said. “I don’t think she had many social connections in Fremont that I know of in her later years. When I did talk to her about village issues, she was always cooperative.”
Wohlt Cheese was founded in Fremont in 1941 by Taylor’s parents, Edwin and Sarah Wohlt.
The company expanded to Weyauwega before closing those two facilities and moving to a newly built, consolidated plant in New London in 2001.
Sambs grew up in Hortonville and has lived in Fremont for decades.
Sambs has heard many retirees and younger generations comment on how they once worked there.
“They were great for the community. There were an awful lot of people who worked for them,” Sambs said.
“That’s really great they were able to sell the business and keep it operating,” he added.
Sambs said Detjen told him the funds are to benefit the community and could be used for capital improvement projects.
It is a large area, and there will be lots of ideas, Sambs said.
City’s ‘greatest gift’
New London Mayor Gary Henke said the city’s spending is currently tight.
“We haven’t had the funds to do many of the ‘extra things’ that many communities enjoy,” Henke said. “This is perhaps the greatest gift to the city that has ever happened. I think the entire city should be thanking Marilynn for her overwhelming generosity. The timing of the announcement is really appropriate as it reminds us that the greatest thing about Christmas is giving to those less fortunate than us.”
Henke helped Taylor in 2001 when he was a city alderman and she was relocating Wohlt Creamery to New London’s newly developed industrial park.
“She was very dedicated to her business, cared a great deal about her employees and the city of New London,” Henke said.
City Administrator Kent Hager added, “She was a very kind woman with a calm personality.”
Hager said the city council will learn from the CFFVR how the money can be used and in the future discuss the possibilities with the New London City Council.
“Personally I would like to see the funds used for things that will further enhance the quality of life for the citizens of New London,” Henke said. “Perhaps enhancements to trails, parks, recreation, library, museum, there are so many more and I’m sure the rest of City Council will have a lot of ideas.”
Hager said the funds could help check off items on the city’s 10-year capital equipment and projects plan. Repairing city roads also remains a priority.
“Most certainly, our budget is much, much more constrained than in the past,” Hager said. “The statewide limitation on tax growth is actually reducing our ability to meet community needs rather than just limiting our growth. We have been slowly going backwards. I know these funds will help our community.”
Weyauwega-Fremont School District students are among those who will be given preference for the Lawrence University scholarship being established in Taylor’s name.
“We’re very appreciative that our district was thought of as a recipient of the endowment,” said W-F District Administrator Scott Bleck.
Several W-F graduates are currently attending Lawrence University.
Bleck said the school district has not yet received the scholarship’s parameters.
When it does, the district will share that information with its students and their families.
Bleck did not know Taylor.
“I knew of her, that she was a very prominent business owner in the Weyauwega-Fremont and New London area,” he said. “We’re very honored and appreciative of the opportunity to be recognized with an endowment opportunity for our students.”
With the endowment also going toward community needs, Bleck is interested in learning whether the school district will be able to seek those funds.
It would be another opportunity to build a future for the students, he said.
“If the district, as a whole, or the communities of Weyauwega and Fremont have an opportunity, we will look at that as well,” Bleck said.
He called the news of the gift “exciting” and said, “It really does create an opportunity for us to create long-standing programs.”
What is most exciting is the fact the gift will result in opportunities for those who are not even students yet, he said.
Taylor was thinking long term, Bleck said.
Generations will benefit from the “efforts of her and her family’s hard work,” he said.