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Vince Zehren at his home in Green Bay

Alumni Profile/The Business of Learning

Vince Zehren ’48 suggests that his memory is fading, but a guided tour of the upper level of his home proves otherwise. Framed photos, certificates, awards and honors cover a vast amount of wall space. Zehren offers names, places, anecdotes or tidbits for each. A photograph of his late wife, Virginia, causes him to pause. A smile follows. “She was so smart. I can’t figure out to this day the connection, what she saw in me,” he says with a laugh.

Zehren understates his academic prowess. After majoring in chemistry as an undergraduate, he earned a master’s in dairy industry and a Ph.D. in food science and biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin. In 1952, he became one of the school’s first Fulbright Scholars. That scholarship supported a year of study in New Zealand. And, in 1997, well into his seventies, Zehren added a master’s in business administration from Western Kentucky University. It was an education that supported his vocation: Zehren was born to be a cheesemaker.

“I was born in the living quarters of a Wisconsin cheese factory in Shawano County,” he explains. “My dad was a pioneer Wisconsin cheesemaker, my uncles, my grandfathers, cousins, myself and my brother. The cheese industry was our industry.” 

The oldest of seven children, Zehren began working in his father’s cheese factory at age 13 and earned his cheesemaker’s license at age 18. The family moved to a number of factories during his youth. His father made his final career stop at a cheese factory located between Bonduel and Cecil, which indirectly led Zehren to St. Norbert.

“Camp Tivoli, which was run by the Norbertines, was nearby on Shawano Lake,” he explains. “The Norbertine priests said Mass at St. Martin Church in Cecil. I remember Fr. (Patrick) Butler (O.Praem.).” 

While in graduate school, Zehren met Virginia, who was also a student in the food science program. “She had her degree in pharmacy, but when she graduated, she was only 20 years old, so they wouldn’t give her a license,” he explains. “She got a job with Kraft through the war and then moved on to Madison.”

Zehren returned to the cheese industry in 1954 when he began a long career at Schreiber Foods in Green Bay. “My first role was quality control and making new products in the laboratory,” he says. “I would make a lot of visits to other cheese factories. I never worked in the sales department, but if there was a complaint, that was my job to take care of it.”

In 1962, Zehren became one of a group of employee-owners. He later served as director of manufacturing and, during his last four years, prior to retirement in 1989, he was vice president of industrial affairs. In 1986, Schreiber Foods established the Vincent L. Zehren Award of Excellence in Applied Technology. He was the first recipient.  

“When I was born, there were 2,300 cheese factories in Wisconsin. Now there are 130 to 140, so the industry has completely changed. In Shawano Country, there were 120 cheese factories. Now I believe there is only one left.”

At age 90, Zehren still stays on top of the industry. He receives a daily report from Schreiber and reads “Cheese Report,” a weekly publication. 

Nov. 13, 2014