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A Deep Passion that Drives: Meet Danni Gendelman

Written by Cassie Mordini
    Tuesday, 04 June 2013
A Deep Passion that Drives: Meet Danni Gendelman

So, how does one woman raise a family, turn a business into one of Wisconsin’s largest woman-owned enterprises, form a community organization dedicated to her passion, and collaborate with local leaders and dignitaries to create one of Milwaukee’s great attractions all in the same lifetime? This same woman, now settled into retirement, is still going strong and impacting our community in positive ways. I was eager to know how she does it.

To find out, I asked one of the Urban Ecology Center’s biggest advocates and loyal supporter Danni Gendelman to join me for coffee. It was one of the first warm, sun-shiny days this year. The kind when you step outside in the morning and let the rays from above beam down and soak into your skin, filling you with energy and optimism. Of course, had the weather not been so perfect it wouldn’t have mattered, because every time I chat with Danni, her warmth and kindness penetrates and fills me with positivity and enthusiasm for life, just like the day’s sunshine.

As Danni arrived, she greeted me with a big smile. It was evident that the day’s summer-like weather had gotten to her as well. She was smiling, carefree, and beyond excited to go work on her sailboat later that afternoon.

“Danni, you and Shel are still sailing? By yourselves? Isn’t that hard work?” I asked. And in true modest Danni fashion, she replied instantly, “Oh no, not at all. I love it. I absolutely love water.”

A Love of Water – Where it All Began

Danni’s love for water began long ago. Growing up in Menomonie, Wisconsin, she lived just a block from Lake Menomin. At that time, the lake was a pristine jewel in the center of the town. Between the countless hours swimming and canoeing in the lake to riding bare back on her grandpa’s farm helping him bring the cows in, Danni recalls a childhood blessed with the freedom of simply being outside and exploring.

Taking Action – A Connection Maker

After marrying her college beau, Danni and Shel moved to Milwaukee and began a family. Danni raised her three children while working for an office furniture company, which she soon bought and turned into one of the largest woman-owned companies in Wisconsin and among the top 500 in the country.

When she moved her business from Glendale to the renovated Blatz building downtown, her commute took her along the scenic shores of Lake Michigan. During her drive, it finally struck her, “Without water there is no life. Why isn’t anyone focusing on that?”

So she did. Relying on her knowledge of freshwater, her passionate focus and her warm, inviting personality, Danni organized a group calling it Great Lakes Future. Founded in 1992, the group was committed to educating others on freshwater and the need to protect the vital resource of the Great Lakes. The connections Danni made among community members, environmentalists, scientists, educators, leaders, politicians, and other organizations led to the collaboration of Great Lakes Future with Wisconsin Lake Schooner Education Association (Denis Sullivan) and Discovery World culminating in what is now Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin. One of the fruits of Danni’s labor, the Great Lakes Future freshwater exhibit enjoys a prominent place on the first floor at Discovery World.

Coincidentally, by this time, the pristine lake of Danni’s childhood was no longer pristine. In fact, it has become one of the worst cases of phosphorus contaminated freshwater lakes in Wisconsin. Run-off from nearby farms led to the overgrowth of blue-green algae, destroying the beauty in the heart of her hometown. (Learn more about the Tainter-Menomin watershed here.) News of this tragic example of freshwater contamination has fortified Danni’s commitment to educating for awareness and environmental ethic.

A Curiosity turned Commitment

How is the Urban Ecology Center lucky enough to have Danni’s endless support and service, given her deep commitment to water?

“It’s all part of the picture,” she said. Danni saw how the educational programs and conservation efforts at the Center positively impact freshwater and its potential for growing the environmental stewards that will carry this work forward. After retiring from her business, Danni became deeply involved with the Center, at the invitation of Ken Leinbach, Executive Director and a fellow collaborator on the Great Lakes Future project. “Ken is a dreamer, a visionary with a kid-like curiosity and I was interested to see how he and the Center would evolve,” Danni explained.

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Danni’s drive to transform a vision into reality has served the Center well. For the past 8 years, Danni has been a member of the Urban Ecology Center board and continues to participate in several committees that tap her passions. From starting the Arts Committee to helping organize our annual Summer Solstice Soirée, we can count on Danni to make mutually beneficial connections with people or organizations as well as give generously of her own time, knowledge and resources. She is an integral part of the group that chooses and pairs the artists and schedules and promotes the exhibitions displayed at the Riverside Park branch quarterly. You would be hard pressed to attend an opening and not see Danni there. And every year for the Center’s annual fundraising gala, the Summer Solstice Soirée, Danni and Shel have in the past gone above and beyond by donating an afternoon of captained sailing with lunch and refreshments for the silent auction.  (Left: Danni and Shel enjoy a drink and coversation with a friend at the Summer Solstice Soirée in 2010.)

Danni’s passion has not waned with time. As a long-time member of the Rotary Club and co-chair of their Environment & Ecology Committee as well as a board member of the Urban Ecology Center, Danni’s insight has been invaluable to the collaborative Milwaukee Rotary Centennial Arboretum project. Danni has provided her expertise for the design of the entrance way and the learning circles that will be part of the newly developed public green space along the Milwaukee River. (Interested in learning how you can support the project? Find out here: Deep Roots Native Tree and Plant Sponsorship)

When asked why she chooses to give generously of her time and money to the Center year after year and why others should join her, she exclaimed,” “I love it! What they’re doing – it’s such great work, the mission, the people. I believe in it and them. Everything the Center does is well conceived, well executed and by fabulous people with the right vision.” She added, “It’s inspirational when you really find out about it. Their mission is not just for today; it’s for the future. Everyone wants to create a better future for their children, so how can you turn your back on it and say no?” And without actually saying it, Danni taught me a very simple and valuable lesson that day; to be successful, fulfilled and happy in life one must involve oneself in something for which they have deep passion.

I hope you have enjoyed learning about Danni. She truly is a gem making Milwaukee a better place for today and tomorrow.

Cassie Mordini

Cassie Mordini

Perhaps naively, Cassie thought that every child grew up playing in the woods and building forts like she did. After a move to the city had her longing for outdoor adventure, she realized that urban kids have a very different perception of nature. And something like serendipity, Cassie found the Urban Ecology Center and is delighted by her role as the Donor Relations Manager to share her passion for the outdoors with others and help the Center provide opportunities for people to discover nature in the city.

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