Dr. John Mielke, whose thoughtful leadership and philanthropy left an enduring mark on the Fox Cities, died Wednesday at age 87.
“If there was a Mount Rushmore for the Fox Cities, he would be up there,” said Jon Stellmacher, a retired former high-ranking executive of Thrivent who worked closely with Mielke on a variety of community and educational endeavors.
Mielke grew up in Appleton and graduated from Appleton High School. He earned his bachelor’s and medical degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Upon completion of his medical training, he returned to his hometown and worked as a cardiologist.
He served as a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps in Ireland in 1961 and in Vietnam in 1962.
Mielke was instrumental in changing the medical landscape in Appleton from one based entirely on family practice, to a destination for medical specialties, said Dr. Gilbert Mueller, a longtime friend and colleague. In a 2017 interview, Mueller told The Post-Crescent that Mielke helped improve radiology and lab work. He also pushed to get an intensive care unit at the hospital, Mueller said.
Mielke’s wife, Sally, was his partner in all endeavors. They focused much of their philanthropy on health care and education. With the help of ThedaCare, the Mielkes started Community Health Action Teams focused on a variety of issues.
They also helped establish the Appleton Education Foundation, a nonprofit that provides grants to teachers in the Appleton Area School District.
The Mielke Family Foundation, which was founded by Mielke’s parents and aunts, has sponsored awards for Educators of the Year in the Appleton. The awards are presented annually at the school district’s all-staff assembly on their first day back. Quite often, Mielke met the recipients backstage to personally thank them for their hard work and dedication.
“Education was so near and dear to his heart,” Stellmacher said. “He saw unlimited potential in every individual.”
Stellmacher said Mielke worked tirelessly on establishing the Community Early Learning Center and was a strong advocate for early learning programs in the schools.
“He was a non-stop source of new ideas,” said Stellmacher, who was the senior vice president and chief of staff at Thrivent when he retired. “He was ahead of his time on many issues.”
Mielke’s contributions to local health care, including the establishment of a heart surgery program, were significant, he said.
“He knew how to get things done,” Stellmacher said.
Mielke spent 26 years on the Appleton Area School District Board of Education. He resigned in 2017 at the age of 84.
The district’s Association of School Administrators recognized Mielke and fellow school board member Sharon Fenlon with the Friend of Education Award in 2017. As Mielke accepted the award in his signature green blazer, nearly 2,000 educators in the Appleton West auditorium gave him a standing ovation.
After stepping down from the school board, Mielke remained active in other community activities. Most recently, he served on the boards of directors for AEF, the Mielke Family Foundation and the Building for Kids. He was also a trustee for the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center.
Appleton schools Superintendent Judy Baseman said today that Mielke will be greatly missed.
“We were so sorry to hear about Dr. Mielke’s death,” she said. “He was such a positive leader for our district and for our community.”
Mielke strongly supported extracurricular activities and programming to enhance programming for children beyond academics, she said. He also identified a need to offer support to children from birth to age 5.
“He really kept that focus on the whole child,” Baseman said.
“He has wonderful, creative ideas,” she said. “He would work behind the scenes. He was really skilled at pulling people together to get things accomplished.”
She was sad to see him leave the school board, but noted that he remained involved in the Appleton Education Foundation.
“He was a mentor to many of us through the years and we are really saddened at his loss.”
The Mielke Family Foundation took an interest in early childhood education over the past several years, providing $2.5 million for Lawrence University students to become certified teachers for grades K-4 and helping establish the Community Early Learning Center.
The Mielkes were also instrumental in starting the annual Celebrating Volunteers gala. After their friends Paul and Elaine Groth were killed in a tragic car crash, the Mielkes and other friends of the couple decided to start the awards program as a way to honor the Groths’ dedication to philanthropy and community service. The Mielke Family Foundation sponsored an award since the gala’s inception.
“He is one of the pillars upon which this community and its quality of life has been built. His vision and passion for children and education were his priorities in later years after he practiced medicine for decades sparking innovations and great progress. He will be deeply missed but his legacy will carry on,” Curt Detjen, president and CEO of the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region said today.
Stellmacher said Mielke was “a super humble guy; he never wanted any attention or credit.”
“He was an amazing man.”