He’s great with numbers and he loves music. These two aspects of Tom Winquist have been developed and nurtured since his birth and schooling in Rhinelander, and he’s used those talents to give back to the Northwoods.
“I’m a product of the Rhinelander school system” he says. “I graduated from high school here in 1950. I worked for the State of Wisconsin for 44 years, retiring as the purchasing agent for the district Department of Natural Resources. When I retired, I wanted to volunteer in areas of my own interest to benefit the community.”
Looking closely at his volunteer resume – working with the Northwoods Concert Association, Northern Arts Council, Men’s Chorus and the First Congregational Church for the past 30 years – it seems he didn’t quite wait until retirement to begin.
“It’s a cliché, I know,” he says, “but I’m one of those people who looks back and wonders how I had time to go to the office.”
Tom is also in his 16th year volunteering with the AARP Tax Aid program, offering help to area seniors. “The TCE program, or Tax Counseling for the Elderly, is really worthwhile,” he explains. “There seems to be a whole generation out there who have problems with government forms.
“Our service is free, and we help all kinds of people, retired or semi-retired, or couples where one person is retired and the other still working. Our site is at the Oneida County Senior Center and appointments are accepted from February first through April first.”
Just back from three days of training and recertification, Tom says the biggest change in tax law this year has to do with the Affordable Care Act. “It will be impacting people,” he says. “We have to ask some questions about health care coverage and Social Security issues. People do tend to procrastinate and are waiting to see if things change. So far they haven’t, so we have to address this.”
Paperwork is nothing new to Tom. He’s acted as treasurer of the Northern Arts Council, a group he joined in 1960, for the past 17 years. “We are a 501(c)(3) organization, so there are reports to file, donations to collect and grants to distribute,” he says. “NAC helps area arts-related organizations like ArtStart, the Community Band, Male Chorus and Choraliers, and others.”
Music is integral to Tom’s life. During his school years, he played in the band and the orchestra, and sang in the choir. “I am an ensemble player,” he says. “I don’t want to stand out, but I enjoy contributing to a group effort.”
After the school district cut orchestra from the curriculum in the 1970s, Tom was part of a group that formed Woodland Strings, in which he played the cello. “The original idea was to travel to the different schools and introduce kids to the stringed instruments,” he explains. “In two years, we made it to all of them, performing lyceum programs.”
Bringing the gift of music to children is still close to his heart. Tom joined the Northwoods Concert Association as treasurer in 1960. “The present high school was built in 1959,” he says, “and we finally had a nice hall to host concerts. That continued for years, bringing various professional musical acts to the area.”
Although no longer presenting a series of concerts, Tom and the group still work hard to bring the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra to Rhinelander every autumn. “With the help of grant money, we are able to offer tickets at roughly half the cost,” he says. “And when we’ve been able to arrange it, we have a free concert in the afternoon for school children. I feel it’s so important to expose kids to this quality performance. We had a great concert this year and plan to do it next year and the following year, as long as we have the donations to subsidize it.”
Music has brought joy to Tom’s life and kept him very busy. He sings with the Nicolet Male Chorus, originally a group he joined while still in high school. He’s also helped organize this group through its various sponsorships, including Rhinelander Vocational School, back before Nicolet College was built. (The male chorus is now sponsored by Nicolet College.) “At this point I’ve been through all the offices more than once,” he says. “We are currently planning the Big Sing, an event that draws male choruses from around the state that we’re hosting this spring. We will have about a hundred men all singing together at the end. Everybody enjoys it and I hope we have a big audience.”
He brings out one of his two cellos to join the ranks of the Woodland Strings ensemble, based in Three Lakes, which plays for events and concerts throughout the year.
He also spends many, many hours volunteering at the First Congregational Church, where he has served as treasurer for the past 30 years as well as singing in the senior choir and playing in two different handbell choirs.
“Handbells are a unique musical experience,” Tom says. “It started in 1975 when the church organist, Gladys Eckman, bought the first bells for the church. She and I took some short courses and attended conventions in various places to learn the craft. Over the years we’ve bought additional bells and chimes and lots of music.”
Tom now directs the G.E.M. Handbell Choir, named after Gladys, who passed away some years ago. “I’ve heard people say that bells are the most challenging thing they’ve done, musically,” he says. “It’s a true ensemble experience. You are responsible for your own ‘notes’ and must fit your part in perfectly with the group.”
The challenges of playing music with other volunteers is something that Tom embraces. “Attendance varies, of course,” he explains, “You don’t always get what you hope for, but you prepare as best you can and you either triumph or you’re happy with a minor triumph. Every presentation is unique and rewarding.”
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander. Her articles also appear in Northwoods Commerce and Living on the Lake magazines.