Jerry Viste | Wausau, WI
The school had a small library which consisted of one small bookshelf. One day when I was in the fifth grade, I was sitting quietly at my desk, not doing anything, and that bothered my teacher. She said, ‘Jerry, why don’t you do your homework?’ I said, ‘I’ve done it.’ She said, ‘Well why don’t you do tomorrow’s homework?’ I told her that I had done it already. So she said, ‘Well go to the library and get a book.’ I said, ‘I’ve read them all.’ Her response was, ‘Well, then go read the encyclopedia.’ So, I did and I’ve enjoyed reading the encyclopedia throughout my whole life.
Books have always been important to me. When I was growing up people didn’t have money to buy books. The concern was to put enough food on the table. We were lucky as a family—we lived on a farm. My mother was a great gardener and preserved produce from her three-acre garden. She not only supplied us with produce but probably half of our neighborhood too. Many farm children in the 1930s did not go to high school. My parents insisted that we all go to school, and some of us went on to college.
In my senior year of high school, the principal called me in and told me that I should apply to Harvard College. I had never heard of Harvard, but apparently, I had done well enough in High School that my teachers thought that I should apply. I had an interview with a dean from Harvard in Minneapolis, about 75 miles from the farm. I was accepted and received a scholarship, which along with student waiter responsibilities, enabled me to attend.
After two years of college at Harvard, I enlisted in the Army Air Force in 1942. I spent three and a half years in the military, where I was stationed in England as a B-17 pilot. After finishing twenty-eight missions I came home in June of 1945, was discharged in November, returned to college, and graduated in 1947. In 1946 I met Marion Churchill Muller (known to everyone as Barney) and we were married in 1947. Shortly afterward, I joined Employers Mutual of Wausau, later known as Wausau Insurance. Several years later I attended Harvard Business School, received my MBA, and returned to Wausau and rejoined Employers Mutual.
When I entered college, I intended to become a biochemist. My advisor was Professor George Kistiakowsky who later became the science advisor to President Eisenhower. Professor Kistiakowsky met with his group of advisees about twice a month for lunch. He was a physical chemist and had been trained in Germany. These lunches were much broader than just technical sessions about chemistry. His conversations with us involved the political and world environment and the rise of the Nazis in Germany. This was a very vivid experience for me, learning from someone who was at the center of science, yet still had a mindset that was very broad.
At college, I was exposed to a lot of people who were interested in the various humanities, such as English, History, and Literature. At the business school, in particular, some of the most important courses dealt with the human aspect of life. I remember that we covered all of accounting in about six weeks, but we had a full-year course that dealt with human relationships in the business environment.
My military experience and education opened my eyes and opened my mind to a broader vision than just the technical side of work that I later became involved in. From 1954 through the early 1960’s I was head of Research at Employers. I was very involved in the early period of computers and spent a lot of time mastering the very early room-sized computers—which were far different from the ones we have today.
Some of us who were involved early on in computers had a sense of the way that the computer would impact society. We were increasingly aware that we needed to modify the impact, so that got us involved in the humanities. As far as I’m concerned, life would be incomplete without the humanities.
So I got involved with the Wisconsin Historical Society, the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts and Letters, and Northern College. Each of those experiences further opened my mind to the humanities, so much so that in 1972 I helped to found the Wisconsin Humanities Council as was one of their first board members. The idea of state humanities councils is to strengthen the civic, cultural, and social fabric of society by fostering understanding and promoting an engaged citizenry. Being from a rural area, my early role was to make sure that rural Wisconsin was part of this effort. And this work tied right into the Wisconsin Idea, which has long been part of our state philosophy. The idea that education should influence people’s lives beyond what happens in a classroom.
Jerry Viste was a founding board member of Wisconsin Humanities. His story is part of our 2022 series celebrating Wisconsin Humanities’ 50th anniversary.
On Sept. 29, 1965, President Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 into law. The act called for the creation of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
You can listen to this podcast episode from Humanities Kansas to learn how the Cold War and rising fears of technology led to the creation of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1965 and how a network of state humanities councils helped make the connection between the humanities and the “wisdom and vision” needed for American democracy to work.