Alumni Profile: Barb Bombaci, '80

Wednesday, December 19, 2012 10:15:00 PM

Educator discovers a passion for law

Looking back, alumna Barb Bombaci, ’80, remembers nursing and teaching were the dominant industries for women at the time she was choosing her career path in the 1970s.

Barb Bombaci

“I didn’t like blood, so teaching it was,” said Bombaci,  whose high school guidance counselor convinced her that, if she was going into education, Stritch was the place she needed to be.

During her senior year at Milwaukee’s Madison High School, Bombaci knew she was going to have to finance her college education entirely on her own, so her initial plans focused on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee without giving other schools much consideration.

“There was too much sticker shock when it came to private schools,” said Bombaci, who never heard of Stritch before her guidance counselor mentioned it.

With her financial fears allayed thanks to a scholarship from Stritch, she enrolled. To this day, Bombaci said she feels grateful to that guidance counselor for leading her to that decision.

“Going to Stritch had one of the biggest effects on my life,” Bombaci said.

For Bombaci, who was a shy high school student, Stritch provided opportunities to grow, try new things and be adventurous.

“College really brought me out of my shell and forced me to become more social,” said Bombaci, who became very active in the Student Government Association and as a resident assistant (R.A.) in Clare Hall.

For Bombaci, who originally planned to live at home and commute, she loved the social atmosphere.

“I made many life-long friends,” Bombaci said. “Those were some of the most fun times of my life.”

She especially loved the wing dinners.

“The wing dinners we used to have were phenomenal. We women were always impressed with the guys’ wing, who always outdid themselves,” said Bombaci, noting there was only one wing of male residents at the time.

Most of all, Bombaci said Stritch opened her eyes to the outside world.

“I learned there was much more that existed beyond my small corner of reality,” Bombaci said. “I’m a big believer in getting to know many different types of people (cultures, languages, etc.). There is all this other life outside of our little circles; Stritch taught me that.”

Stritch also taught her that you don’t have to follow the “usual” path in life. Bombaci experienced that life lesson throughout her career. Her initial career path upon graduating from Stritch focused on becoming a Spanish teacher.

“I interviewed for a paid internship teaching Spanish at St. Mary’s Academy in Milwaukee,” Bombaci said. And, after the head of the school learned she also played tennis, Bombaci secured the internship position.

“The principal told me they needed a JV (junior varsity) tennis coach and I told her, ‘Sure I could do that!’” said Bombaci, who admits she had no idea what she was signing herself up for.

“I was thrown right in and I LOVED it,” Bombaci said.

Teaching jobs were hard to come by at the time, so this unique internship opportunity was one she couldn’t turn down.

“The great thing was that I also could do my student teaching I needed,” said Bombaci. “I taught Spanish in the morning and English in the afternoon.”

She went on to teach for three years, forming close relationships with her colleagues and students. In fact, she maintains contact with some of them today and even chose some to be her son’s godparents.

After getting engaged and knowing that she eventually wanted to have children, she had to come to terms with the fact that a teacher’s salary at a private, Catholic school in 1982 fell short of what she would need to raise a family.

“As much as I loved teaching, I knew I had to make a career change,” Bombaci said.

When looking at what she could do to build off the degree she already had, she decided to go into law after landing a job as a secretary in a law firm.

“I liked the logic of law,” said Bombaci, who went on to earn a law degree.

With the degree in hand, her family decided to return toMilwaukee after they had relocated to Minnesota for law school. Bombaci beganinterviewing at firms in the city.

“When interviewing at Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek S.C., I went in with a strong interest in litigation. But, at the time, they needed someone who could do estate planning,” Bombaci said.

And, just like the opportunity at St. Mary’s, Bombaci said, “Sure, I can do that!”

She spent the next 15 years with the firm on their estate planning team, eventually becoming partner.

“There was this obsession with perfection that I loved,”said Bombaci of the firm.

She said she took great pride in her work and in mentoring and training young attorneys.

In 2002, Bombaci embraced a new opportunity, which allowed her to combine her love for teaching with her passion for law at one of Milwaukee’s top-ranked companies: Northwestern Mutual. She remains there today.

In her role, Bombaci teaches business and estate planning to Northwestern Mutual financial representatives. Her job is to walk the representatives through the tax and legal aspects of their clients’ needs.

“Our team provides counsel and support to our financial representatives so that they have the right tools to advise their clients,” Bombaci said. The team, consisting of 13 attorneys, consults with the financial representatives mostly via phone – in fact, the phone consultations total more than 30,000 calls per year.

“What is great about this job is that you are required to know a wide range of topics and, since every client’s needs are very different, although we may be asked the same types of questions, the answer always varies based on the specific needs,” Bombaci said.

In addition to the advising and the publications Bombaci and her team produce, she is responsible for overseeing the organization’s Advanced Planning Seminar.

“Every two years, we develop a two-day seminar that covers a variety of topics via presentations and classes related to estate and tax laws,” Bombaci said.

The seminar is held in 40 different cities across the U.S.and is open to all financial representatives in Northwestern Mutual’s network.

“I like the development of the seminar – it’s like being back in the classroom getting to plan what new topics we are going to cover or areas we want to further educate our reps on,” Bombaci said.

More than anything, Bombaci likes the collaborative environment at Northwestern Mutual.

“There is this great teamwork spirit among the attorneys,”Bombaci said.

Also important to Bombaci is service, a concept introduced to her when she was a student at Stritch. And whether it was managing her sons’ hockey teams, serving as president of the Pius XI High School Parent’s Association for four years or lending her professional expertise in doing volunteer work for Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, service has always remained a staple of Bombaci’s life since graduating from Stritch.

“Now that my two sons are raised and out of the house, I am looking forward to getting more involved once again with volunteer roles in the community,” Bombaci said.

And today, with both of her sons finished with college and starting their careers, Bombaci proudly said, “For the first time in 35 years, I’m finally tuition free!”