|New Faces at ICHC Will Keep Center Moving
By Elizabeth Altman
This year marks a new era of leadership for the Irish Community and
Heritage Center in the form of recently appointed director Kristine Carrigg
Pluskota and board president Karen Prendergast.
Seeking to continue the center’s long-standing tradition of community
service, as begun and developed under former director John Maher and longtime
board president Tom Wiseman, Pluskota and Prendergast are working to build
upon the foundation of their predecessors. Active members within the Milwaukee
Irish community, both women have long involved themselves in the creation
and leadership of the ICHC.
Kristine Pluskota, former sergeant -at-arms and vice-president of the
45- year-old Shamrock Club, has been with the non-profit social, educational,
and cultural group since 1991. Employing her college background for Shamrock
Club events —- Pluskota has an associate degree in restaurant hotel management
from MATC - she joined the group as her son Bobby entered his senior year
in high school. Ten years ago, one could find her at work with the club
manning food preparation and distribution at its multiple fundraisers to
help secure the ICHC building.
Recognized for her work as this past year’s Shamrock Club Irish Rose,
Pluskota clarified that the title came as a "a thank-you honor, not a beauty
pageant;" some unsuspecting fan had previously mistook her dedication to
the Irish community as an extension into the realm of the swimsuit competition.
Pluskota has also volunteered yearly at Irish Fest, originally working
with her mother, grandmother, and son, baby-sitting for discarded bagpipes
and kilts, as their owners and wearers enjoyed time out on the grounds.
She counts that among her total 26 years of service within the community.
"I’m Irish through and through, don’t let that Polish name confuse you
…We come from a town called Ballyvaughan," which is in Co. Clare. My grandmother
and mother were very proud of our heritage," she offered.
Pluskota, after all her years of service, comes to her appointment with
a new vision to maintain the ICHC while concurrently moving it forward.
"We’ll be doing some grant writing for major improvements," she said
in reference to the heavy construction work that the ICHC hopes to get
underway. "We purchased the building for a $1 ten years ago," and laughing,
continued to explain why the former Grand Avenue Congregational Church
may have let it go at such a deal.
"It’s slowly getting renovated. We had to put on a roof. That’s huge,
and now that the roof is on, now we can start doing repairs of plaster.
We need to bring the plumbing up to code, we need to bring in all brand
new bathrooms that are handicapped accessible, we need to update the electricity.
We need to get all new windows; our windows are falling apart…We don’t
technically have a functioning kitchen, we would like to get a kitchen
going again," she said, almost breathless.
Banking on Pluskota’s restaurant management background, the ICHC staff
hopes to help the center begin running more lucratively and garner the
income necessary for such heavy renovations. With plans for bringing back
large fundraisers such as "Half-way to St. Patrick’s Day" and grant writing
for major improvements underway, facility is also investigating organizing
its own feis, a large dance competition.
Pluskota hopes that any such event would include participants from Michigan,
Indiana, and Illinois, as well as Wisconsin. In addition, the ICHC is considering
a pub/sessions night to showcase local entertainers, Pluskota said the
ICHC entertainment committee has already "done a fantastic job with booking
bands for concerts," named Schooner Fare, which will perform a fundraising
concert on Nov. 18.
Pluskota is also heartened by recent economic growth in the neighborhood,
noting the newly renovated Ambassador Hotel and 2040 Lofts for Marquette
student apartments. "This part of the avenue is getting more visibility,"
said Pluskota. "People tend to come up over the bridge more than they used
to, once the bridge is back up," she said, referring to the construction
of the Marquette Interchange which involved rebuilding the Wisconsin Avenue
bridge linking downtown with the university.
As the only paid employee within a sea of volunteers, Pluskota continues
to look to a future of similar progress for the ICHC, hoping to maintain
the open atmosphere to which volunteers may flock. She also recognizes
the drawbacks of a system where maintenance, library work, and even bartending
depends on the willingness of the community to help out.
"We’re at the mercy of volunteers. So, if you need repairs done, you
need to wait for your volunteers to come forward," Pluskota said. "So that
sometimes can be a hindrance in getting things done, but at the same difference,
much more pride goes into the job being accomplished. It’s very heartwarming
to hear someone say, ‘Oh my goodness, look at what they’ve done, look at,
you know, the changes.’"
Pluskota’s specific duties at the ICHC include acting as the building’s
booking agent for those seeking to rent it for events or meetings. She
also oversees upkeep and the dispensing of concert tickets. And there’s
the alcohol distribution. Acting as the building’s agent, Pluskota is also
the one to see about keeping hearty pours of malt beverage flowing. Married
four years ago, all this certainly keeps her busy.
Equally integral in the ICHC’s success, although not perhaps the keeper
of its bar tab, Karen Prendergast has been involved since joining the board
in 1996 as the Cashel Dennehy School of Irish Dance representative. The
board recently appointed this mother of four and grandmother of two as
their new president in the January officers’ elections, held annually.
Prendergast, who works as a middle school English teacher in Whitefish
Bay, chalks her appointment up to experience. She previously served as
secretary and then vice president of the facility. She says she has long
been in love with all things Irish.
"Maybe it’s because my birthday is in March," she laughed, continuing,
"People think I do [have an Irish background]. This is gonna be the big
unveiling…which is interesting because I’m sure nobody even knows this,
but, um no, my heritage is probably, it’s half German, half English, but…I’ve
always just, I’ve loved all things Irish. You know, when I was little and
in geography it’s like, ‘I want to go to Ireland."… I was fortunate enough
to marry an Irish man." A number of gasps and giggles delightedly punctuated
Prendergast, a member of the four-person search committee that sought
out and eventually hired Pluskota as ICHC director, found it "fortunate
in that we found someone who has a passion as much as John (Maher). For
working with the Irish community and for our mission and everything that
it represents and stands for, I think she’s pretty committed. We were worried
about finding anyone to fill those shoes. And, say, who wants to work that
Both women share a similar vision for the ICHC and the roadblocks it
must overcome. Along with Pluskota who considered the building a "kind
of a secret," Prendergast herself is aware that, "from day one we’ve probably
had an identity problem, mainly because with the Irish community, Irish
Fest is very much in the forefront of what the Irish does in Milwaukee.
And it’s a wonderful festival and everybody knows of that, and I think
when you say the Irish Community Center, they kind of just think right
away of, you know, the festival."
Prendergast hopes the community becomes more aware of the ICHC and all
its resources, from the many varied group meetings held in the building,
to crafts schools, to the large concert hall that can host weddings and
to one of the most complete collections of Irish genealogy in the state.
The building is "there for their use," said Prendergast, echoing Pluskota’s
sentiments in an unconscious show of solidarity across the lines of board
and director. Obviously, under her direction, the center’s board will ensure
that the ICHC will be much more than merely be a well-kept secret.
Acknowledging the dedicated work of past ICHC director John Maher and
former president Tom Wiseman, along with all the early participants who
Prendergast said kept the building running from day to day when "there
were a lot of people who thought, ‘oh geez, within a couple years we’d
have to let go of it,’" the new president also sees a future more heavily
dependent on funding.
In addition to the fundraising and grant writing for those windows and
bathrooms, Prendergast considers bringing in revenue from such means as
annual community sponsorships or paid memberships that would include a
subscription to the An Gael Talk newsletter, although, she, like
Pluskota, also seeks to continue the ICHC’s tradition of volunteerism.
Considering the uniqueness of the ICHC’s volunteer force, which both president
and director say they can always use more of, Prendergast discussed Irish
Milwaukee’s difference from that of other cities.
"You know, maybe that’s it, because with our center, I mean I don’t
know how the other centers might work, but because we really are totally
volunteer based it’s amazing that people will keep doing it year after
year, I guess, you know just because they believe so much in the center
and what goes on there." The board will further discuss fundraising ideas
at their upcoming meetings, which occur on the fourth Wednesday of every
As far as her specific role as president and her new affiliation with
the board, Prendergast said, "I don’t feel like I have to do anything different,
because a lot of the board members have been there a long time. But we
all just kind of work together."
She does, however, seek to guide the board as it embarks upon amore
fiscally conscious path. "I think the biggest thing for me, this year,
is just trying to get a real long-range plan going. It seems like we’ve
been living day-to-day for quite a while just to make sure the center is
open and that people have something to do."
She said the board will be working on a dream list and needs to figure
out how to accomplish these goals.
Both Pluskota and Prendergast come to their positions at a time of building,
from increasing the numbers of Milwaukee Irish involved in the center to
building awareness of the ICHC. Both share a vision of 2133 W. Wisconsin
Ave. that might seem surprisingly in tune with the past. But that’s fine.
In a structure founded by abolitionists across different church lines,
where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once addressed the city, Pluskota and
Prendergast hope to maintain the Irish Cultural and Heritage Center’s similar
accepting atmosphere and its drive to give back to Milwaukee.
Along with their entire battalion of Irish supporters, both leaders
will continue to work to live up to the weight of the past and the promise
of a shamrock-green future.