Stritch Magazine

In memory of: Mildred Tryba, '52

Friday, January 24, 2014 4:35:00 PM

Memorial service for Mildred (Stachowski) Tryba
Saturday, June 21, 2014, at 11 a.m.
St. Francis of Assisi Chapel, Cardinal Stritch University
Brunch to follow
R.S.V.P by June 11 to Ellen Tryba Chen at

Mildred Tryba (1)

In memory of: Mildred Tryba, '52
by Ellen Tryba Chen, '75

It is hard to imagine that there is anyone who has been connected to Cardinal Stritch University in more ways than was my beloved, extraordinary, and supremely self-effacing mother, Mili.

She spent her high school years at Saint Mary’s Academy, which shared a campus with Cardinal Stritch College until 1962. She did her undergraduate degree in art at Stritch (followed by a master’s at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee). Her high school and college mentor, the visionary artist Sister Thomasita Fessler, O.S.F., introduced Mom to her future husband, John Tryba, who was in graduate school with Sister Thomasita at the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 1940s. For well over three decades, Mom served as a member of the Stritch art department faculty. (Dad also was a longtime member of the Stritch art faculty, but that’s another tale…) And my sister, Anne, and I kept the Stritch family connection going: I graduated with a B.Mus. in piano in 1975, and Anne obtained her B.F.A. in art the following year.

Born Mildred Therese Stachowski on Sept. 28, 1927, to Joseph and Josephine Stachowski on Milwaukee’s south side, Mom grew up in a working-class environment in which, loving though it was, girls were expected to marry and start a family as soon as possible after high school graduation, and any college aspirations were left to boys. (To give my wonderful grandparents credit where it is more than due, once they saw that their daughter was successfully launched into her college experience and was determined to follow through on it, they proudly supported her in any way they could.)

Despite the initial old-fashioned attitude of her parents, academic fortune smiled on young Mili in the form of two maiden aunts who doted on her, and an astute, caring Felician sister who was her eighth grade teacher at Saint Helen’s School. These three women not only recognized her exceptional intelligence but also celebrated her youthful passion and talent for drawing. With their encouragement and aid in the nuts and bolts of applying to St. Mary’s, teenage Mili became a scholarship student there. During her years at St. Mary’s, her artistic abilities were nurtured and developed under Sister Thomasita’s guidance, and her love of learning flourished under the tutelage of the Sisters of Saint Francis. Both were crucial in getting her started on the path that would take her to Stritch, first as a student and then as a faculty member.

After graduating from high school, Mom worked as a dental assistant at an office located in Milwaukee’s industrial valley under the 16th Street viaduct with the goal of saving enough to get herself on the financial road to her dreamed-of college education.

Mildred Tryba

“When I turned 20, some of my aunts and cousins started teasing me about becoming an old maid!” she told my sisters and me.

She didn’t have to endure their teasing forever: by June 1951, between her junior and senior years at Stritch, she tied the knot with “Johnny” at Blessed Sacrament Parish.  And in June 1952, just one month before I was born, she graduated from Stritch at the “ripe old age” of 25.

“How I made it through my senior year or managed to put up my senior exhibit, I can’t say…I certainly must’ve dozed through more than a few of my classes!” she told us on more than one occasion.

How, indeed? My sisters and I continue to marvel at her determination and quiet perseverance.  (And I find myself wondering if there’s any other Stritch graduate who “walked” across the stage in utero before walking across it years later to receive her own diploma!)

During the rest of the 1950s, when we lived in Bay View and Dad taught art at Notre Dame High, or the early 1960s when we moved to Greeley, Colo., for six years after Dad was offered a position at what was then Colorado State College, Mom was a stay-at-home mom. But that didn’t mean she was not applying her education or her creativity to our daily lives or contributing to the family income. Buy Christmas cards? Not a chance – they had to be newly designed each year and silkscreened by hand. Pick a wallpaper pattern out of a book? Nope – you guessed it: design and print it yourself. Hang store-bought curtains? Never – too “chintzy.” Better to sew them yourself, and, while you’re at it, print your own design on the fabric. In our Bay View house, she took drawings that Anne and I (ages 3 and 5) made and used them as patterns to silkscreen onto fabric she used to sew curtains and bedspreads, and onto matching wallpaper for our bedroom. (I still have some!)

While some of the impetus for her creativity arose from a desire to be economical, much of it was because my parents were devoted to the idea that living in aesthetically inspiring surroundings was possible no matter what one’s budget was. "Creativity” was akin to a second religion around our house. In fact, each of our three houses, including the fixer-upper Shorewood house my parents bought after joining the Stritch faculty in 1966, was featured in the Sunday Homes section of the newspaper.

All through those early family years, before joining the Stritch faculty, Mom also did illustrations for “Hi Time,” a monthly Catholic educational magazine used in high school C.C.D. classes all over the country. I remember getting up for school on many a morning to find her still at her desk, putting the finishing touches on an illustration that needed to be sent off that day to the publisher.

Still, she always seemed to manage to make us pancakes or French toast for breakfast and well-balanced bag lunches to take to school. (Truth be told, though, after Mom started teaching at Stritch we did graduate to cold breakfast cereal and the occasional frozen dinner...) But she was definitely an adventurous cook. Though we kids often clamored for tuna casserole and mac ’n cheese, Mom loved trying out recipes from all over the world. In Greeley, my parents joined the faculty international dinner group, and there’s no doubt that the openness of her daughters to dishes to which many kids would turn up their noses was a direct result of our being the guinea pigs for recipes being tested before their monthly get-togethers.

Later, in Shorewood, the international-themed dinner parties continued in the form of follow-up reunions of people who had joined Sister Thomasita and my dad on their yearly art department summer trips all over the world. My sisters and I were pressed into service as vegetable choppers, table-setters, servers, and providers of musical entertainment. It went without saying that between dinner and dessert there were slides -- endless, endless slides -- of whatever countries had been visited that year, accompanied by "oohs" and "aahs" and anecdotes from the reminiscers.

Mom was the one who always kept the home fires burning, and all the while she continued encouraging us girls to spread our wings. How I wish I still had the gorgeous Vogue pattern outfits she sewed for me to take to Nicaragua when I was invited to spend my 16th summer in Managua as the guest of the Cardenal family, who sent four of their five daughters to Stritch in the 1960s. Anne had a 16th summer adventure of her own as a drawing coach and companion to the granddaughters of one of Dad’s adult students as she introduced them to England and France.

Once in college, since Stritch had no study abroad program in those days, I arranged one for myself, and off I went to the Conservatorio de Música in Barcelona. Years later, when I had kids of my own and the conversation frequently turned to parenting issues, Mom talked one day about how she’d been forbidden to do things like ride a bike because she might “hurt herself,” and how determined she was that we wouldn’t have our wings clipped by well-meaning but restrictive parental fears as she did (don’t get me wrong: she was strict!).

“How in the world did you manage to let me go to Spain on my own for a whole year?” the parent-me asked, incredulously.

These days it’s hard to imagine a past (it was 1973) in which there was no email, Skype or cell phone texting.

“You have no idea how much sleep I lost as I lay awake worrying about you that year!” was her reply. Still, she encouraged me go.

As far as I can tell (and Anne, who, as an art major, had her as a teacher and vouches for this), Mom applied the same diligent preparation, loving strictness, and patient determination to her teaching as she did to her parenting, systematically equipping her students to the point where they could be pushed out of the nest to find their own artistic voices and visions. Between the three of us girls (though she didn’t attend Stritch, our much-younger sister, Mary Jo, was still at home for several years after Anne and I had married and moved away), we remember Mom teaching quite an array of courses: Basic Design, Advanced Design, Lettering and Layout, Calligraphy, Aesthetics, Textile Design, and Color Theory – and we’ve probably left something out.

The 1980s and early ’90s saw a rise in the number of non-traditional students in the Stritch population, many of them working mothers with a lot on their to-do lists besides getting their schoolwork done. Mom often spoke of her admiration for them, and how it sometimes seemed like the students in her classes with the most on their plates were the ones whose assignments were always excellently done and turned in on time. To this my sisters and I look back say, “It takes one to know one!”

Mom retired from Stritch in May of 1994, with enough energy to take on a second career selling annuities, which she enjoyed doing for several years, and to devote more time to her beloved Jane Austen Society. And she traveled to visit her grandkids on both coasts and in Japan and Singapore in the 1990s when my husband’s job took us to various countries in Asia for a decade.

In 2002, for her 75th birthday, Anne and I took her to Barcelona to see the sights and visit friends from my student days there. Sadly, it was then that we began noticing that Mom wasn’t quite the energetic Mili she’d always been. By then she was living with Mary Jo in Connecticut, but a few years later we helped Mom make the transition to an assisted living community in Pasadena, near Anne. For years I flew down from San Jose nearly every month, and Mary Jo and her husband came from Connecticut as often as they could, and we had many happy moments during those visits.

But as anyone who has witnessed the decline of a loved one into the haze of dementia will attest, the challenges of such a descent are huge and often painful, and the biggest one was faced by Mom. True to her character, she struggled as long as she could to remain cheerful and not be “trouble” to anyone. When her body finally gave up its spirit, she looked very much to be at peace, and Anne, MJ and I are quite sure that no one was more ready for her to join that angelic art department in the sky than she was herself.

Following her death in July, a few close colleagues and admirers of Mildred Tryba recalled fond memories of her:

From Barbara Schinneller, former colleague: "Long, long ago there were three little boys who had an adventure with art. They were my little boys, and the wonder of this is that Mili provided the start of lifetimes of love for the urge to create in whatever they chanced to do. She opened their eyes to new visions and forms, and her teaching inspired my crew. Now my sons are artists – all three! Brian designs for industrial needs. Jeff paints for pleasure and to brighten his day. And Erik, a cartoonist of sorts, uses humor to embellish notes to his mom, and his creativity informs his job in sales. They are but three of the students Mili taught during all those fruitful years. I hope she knew how much respect she earned from her peers, and was able to take pride in the legacy she left to those who learned from her the joys and the hard work of art. She made such a strong mark on so many students as she gave them their start."


From Maureen Kilmurry, daughter of the late Irene Kilmurry, a member Stritch art faculty for over 40 years: "I remember watching Mili block printing some fabric (for a drape, I believe); it was a lovely kind of organic leaf form. She worked with such focus, aligning everything so perfectly and with real care, and loving what she was doing. Little by little, block by block, this greater design appeared and it was fascinating to watch her. And I loved it that she didn't mind my watching. "The other thing I keep thinking of is her voice and laugh. There was such a lovely soft edge to her voice and lilt to her laugh. I picture and hear her laughing with Sistie (Sister Thomasita) and my mom, and seeing the joy in that camaraderie. The three of them were friends for so long and enjoyed working together over so many years."


From Jean Fredricks (née Marek), former student: "As a graduate of Cardinal Stritch University’s fine arts program, as well as a St. Mary’s Academy alumna, I can say Mildred Tryba has had a life-long impact on my creativity. Her enthusiastic smile and ever-patient guidance will always be appreciated. She possessed a true gift for teaching calligraphy; from a simple embellishment on a greeting card envelope to a framed piece of work, her calligraphic influence continues to play a role in my daily life. In addition to teaching, Ms. Tryba was one of the founding members of the Cream City Calligraphy Guild, of which I am a current member. Her kind, gentle spirit will live on through the wonderful creative thinking she has instilled in so many of us, her former students. She will always be fondly remembered."