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Tom Beno ’43 during undergraduate days at St. Norbert.

A Summer to Celebrate for St. Norbert College’s Oldest Alum

This July, Dr. Tom Beno ’43 celebrates his 100th birthday. As the physician approaches his century, he will see the second of his granddaughters graduate from his alma mater. Three very different St. Norbert journeys, three very different St. Norbert success stories contribute to this family legacy tale.

The history between the Beno family and St. Norbert College spans more than eight decades: Tom Beno entered SNC as a freshman in 1939; 78 years later, his granddaughter Kristen ’19 graduated from the college, to be followed this year by her sister Grace ’21. Here – along with their father, Dr. Tom’s son, Chris – Grace and Kristen share memories from their grandfather's full life and of their own SNC journeys.

A boy from Green Bay
Born in 1921, Dr. Tom Beno is Green Bay-raised, having attended Central Catholic and East High School in the city. His father, John, was a local plumber and founder of Beno Plumbing: “Plumbing that pleases since 1926. The family business is now led by the fourth generation of Benos. But, growing up, Tom Beno did not seek to follow in his brothers’ footsteps and pursue plumbing as a career.

“He was a serious kid,” says Chris. “I think he knew what he wanted to do. He didn’t want to be a plumber; he wanted to be a doctor. I think he knew that in high school. So he just followed that path. In town, St. Norbert was a really good opportunity for him.”

“It was no question for Grandpa to come to St. Norbert, the way he talked about it,” says Grace. “He really loves and values the school. He’s always really appreciated it here.” She also recalls that the Catholic aspect of the college was a draw. “He’s still very faithful in his old age. I’m pretty sure he still watches Masses virtually and on TV.”

Student life for the young scientist
“Dad sincerely enjoyed his time at St. Norbert,” says Chris, who tells tales of his father working many different jobs as a chemistry student while still managing to carry a good grade point average. “There’s one picture where he’s in the library on campus, studying away; it must have been some friend who took that. Then about an hour later his friend came back – and Dad was sleeping! He had fallen asleep on the desk in the exact same place, and there’s a picture of that, too. Together, those pictures are really funny.”

Chris also shares a story from his father’s senior year, when he was asked to teach a course due to an unexpected faculty absence. Upon graduating, the college offered him the position – which he declined, as he had just gained admission to medical school.

Mission: Madison medical
Dr. Beno and long-time high school friend Clarence Rothe ’43 graduated together from St. Norbert and both went on to attend medical school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “They didn’t have standardized tests in 1943,” explains Chris. “You needed really good recommendations from professors, and you had to have the grades. 

“They were pretty much on their own. Dad told me they combined their resources and sold everything they had that was worth any value at all – including a car. He said at one point they hitchhiked to Madison (I don’t know if that’s a true story!), found a place to rent and figured out how to join the Navy to get tuition remission.”

Chris explains that, at that time, the Navy paid for students to attend medical school. “They were trying to fast-track doctors because there was such a need in the war effort. Dad even had to wear the dress Navy uniform to classes. But by the time of graduation, WWII was over, and Dad ended up going to Korea later instead.” Dr. Beno returned home from that war as one of the doctors attending a prisoner exchange.

Making a difference
Dr. Beno dedicated his entire career to the medical profession. From Madison he completed his internship in Marshfield, Wis., his residency in Milwaukee, worked for a while in Indiana and, in the late 1950s moved back to Green Bay, where he began a private practice with several partners.

“He did a lot in this town, and I think saved a lot of people’s lives,” says Chris. “He was chief of surgery at St. Vincent Hospital for a few years, and just a really, really good surgeon: general surgery, thoracic (chest) surgery, cancer surgery … and he would assist the heart surgeons, because he thought it was interesting. He’d go in and scrub with them.”

Grace shares: “Whenever we take him out and about, to dinner or church, quite a few people recognize and talk to him, because he was the local surgeon and doctor and worked with so many people, and their parents. He just had a huge impact on the community; so many people know who he is.”

Revisiting the war effort
“In the 1960s there was a program for civilian surgeons to serve a voluntary three-month stint in Vietnam during the war,” explains Chris. “He was already an established surgeon in Green Bay by that point, and I was just a kid. But I remember him coming to my brother and I (because my sisters were out of the house, I think, by then), telling us that he was going to go over to Vietnam and do surgery as a goodwill gesture. It’s really true, what they say about the Greatest Generation. Those guys did a lot.”

Family ties
As a young adult, Chris moved to the Seattle area, where he met his wife and settled for several years, starting a family and raising Kristen and Grace.

“After my grandma passed away, we moved here to take care of Grandpa,” says Kristen. “It’s been really nice – a totally different experience than the West coast, but I have no complaints!”

Grace adds: “We thought it was just going to be for a few years, but it turned into 15 years. When my sister went off to college at St. Norbert, and then when it came time for me to go to college, I knew that I still wanted to go somewhere in town, and I was already familiar with the campus. It was kind of a no-brainer for me to go here, and it worked out pretty well.”

Since the sisters became SNC students, Dr. Beno’s involvement in their higher education journey has been a special way for them to connect. “He’d always call us to see how we were doing,” says Grace. “We’d talk about our liberal arts philosophy and theology classes … He’s pretty proud that I just got into a three-year graduate program at my dream school: the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.”

From the beginning, Grace knew that she wanted to be a (studio) art major, focused on illustration, printmaking and painting. But initially she planned to attend St. Norbert only for a year or two. “I was strongly considering transferring, but then as I finished sophomore year, I realized this was the best place for me to be at the time. I was forming closer relationships with the art faculty and theatre professors, and that was honestly a big push in helping me get into graduate school. They helped me do research, wrote letters of recommendation … I think it definitely was an excellent idea to stay, because while the art program is smaller here, there are more opportunities for you to stand out.”

Earlier this month Grace’s work was on display in the Baer and Godschalx galleries on campus as part of the 2021 Senior Art Exhibition, the capstone project for all art majors. Last year she also participated in SNC’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program. “I was able to make a traditionally illustrated black and white graphic novel, or ‘zine,’ called HOUND, in which a deceased dog traverses an underworld-like landscape. That project ended up being a huge part of my portfolio, and honestly I think a big reason why Chicago was interested in me,” she says.

Since graduating two years ago, Kristen enjoys coming back to SNC, attending events whenever she gets the chance. Currently working as a volunteer at nearby Heritage Hill State Park in De Pere, she is in the process of applying to attend the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay for graduate studies in environmental sciences this fall. For her, St. Norbert was not only close to home and convenient as a commuter student, but also a fit with her general interests.

“Grandpa did a lot of really cool stuff and told many stories,” she says. “While I never gravitated toward a health or medical focus, I always kept it in mind and have been interested in what he did – the science part, in general.”

Supportive relationships with SNC faculty were a driving factor toward Kristen’s successful undergraduate experience. “I got to know the professors, and together we figured out what they could do for me and what I could do for them. That helped me a lot.”

Kristen cites a philosophy course where she struggled with logic. “But I worked with the professor, Dr. John Holder; he was wonderful, and I appreciated him a lot for all his kindness and generosity. … Little things like that really helped me get through. You have to learn what your strengths and weaknesses are, and where you have weaknesses you can work with the faculty and professors.”

As a psychology major Kristen selected a range of electives in the areas of biology, ecology, animal behavior and natural sciences. “The psychology and biology departments were really wonderful, she says. “Dr. David Bailey was my advisor, and I still regularly talk to him because he helped guide me through. Dr. Carrie Kissman was really wonderful to work with and meet with, and I still like keeping in touch with her. I’ve had wonderful experiences and would definitely recommend their courses to any newcomers.”

Across the generations
Especially during the 1970s, 80s and 90s, Dr. Beno and his wife remained highly connected and actively involved in the college community, enjoying Dudley Birder productions, attending dinners and reconnecting with fellow alumni at football games. Throughout the years Dr. Beno also donated regularly the college, received an Alma Mater alumni award in 1968 and served as a college trustee 1986-1996, during the presidency of Thomas Manion.

“He was just so happy that both girls went to St. Norbert,” says Chris. “It just keeps going across the generations; there’s always a connection back to that school somehow.”

Dr. Beno’s grandson, Nick, is an avid hockey player and currently a freshman at Notre Dame de la Baie Academy in Green Bay. Kristen says: “He’s at that age where it’s hard to tell what his academic interests are, but he’s very sports-oriented. It would be cool to see him get into the St. Norbert hockey program if he ever wanted to do that – but right now, we’re just going to wait and see!”

May 13, 2021