RACINE — Educators Credit Union President and CEO Gene Szymczak will be remembered by many as a successful businessman, humble boss, long-time community supporter and Frank Lloyd Wright preservationist.
Szymczak died suddenly and unexpectedly in his sleep Sunday morning at home, according to ECU. He was 67.
The credit union said plans for a celebration of Szymczak’s life and “extensive contribution to the community” will be finalized and announced in the coming days.
ECU Board Chairwoman Mary Lueneburg issued the following statement Sunday: “It is with profound sadness that we announce the passing of our friend and colleague, Gene Szymczak. He was, first and foremost, a generous, selfless human being, as well as an inspiring leader.
“Gene considered everyone in the Educators organization an extension of his family. He made it a point to know the first name of those who work here, and took great pleasure in interacting with our members. He will be deeply missed. His drive to service, excellence and doing what is right will be hallmarks that we will carry forward with us.”
Szymczak joined ECU as a teller straight out of college with a business degree, according to Educators Chief Administration Officer Jim Henderson. He said Szymczak had attended St. Catherine’s High School and then the University of Wisconsin, where he had an Evans Scholarship that paid three years of his college tuition.
Szymczak joined ECU when it had just a single branch office, upstairs at 1603 Washington Ave. in Uptown. He rose through the organization to become president and CEO in June 1994, succeeding Harold Kaeding.
Today, Educators is among the five largest credit unions in the state with 19 branches in seven counties, more than $1.6 billion in assets and 142,000 members, Henderson said.
ECU’s board of directors met Sunday afternoon to discuss the plan for succession and appointed Chief Operations Officer Linda Hoover interim CEO. Senior managers and managers also called all 420 ECU employees, Henderson said, to tell them of Szymczak’s death.
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News of Szymczak’s death appeared to spread quickly through the Racine area Sunday.
Retired SC Johnson executive Greg Anderegg, a long-time community activist, posted this on Facebook: “So sad to hear about the passing last night of Gene Szymczak. Gene was a great advocate for and supporter of Racine and was a great friend. He will be missed in so many ways. Godspeed, Gene.”
Szymczak’s death also elicited an outpouring of grief on ECU’s Facebook page. As an example, Susan Heule O’Brien wrote: “Met him last spring at the ECU Scholarship Awards dinner when my daughter was a recipient. He was so kind and interested in all the kids. A genuine person. My sympathies.”
Among Szymczak’s community activities, Henderson said, was work on the Racine Community Foundation board of directors, Racine County Opportunities Center board, Racine YMCA board and chairmanship of a United Way of Racine County fund drive the first time such an effort surpassed $5 million giving.
He was also an honored Frank Lloyd Wright architecture preservationist. In September 2012, Szymczak bought and then restored the Wright-designed Hardy House at 1319 Main St. For that effort and expense, he was honored with a Wright Spirit Award from the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy
“He saved the house for another 100 years with a loving rehabilitation of it,” said local Wright scholar and author Mark Hertzberg (also a former Journal Times director of photography), who brokered the sale to Szymczak. Had the historic home been put on the open market, there was no guarantee it would be saved, he said.
And after its restoration, Hertzberg said, Szymczak was generous in opening it for Wright associations and school groups, something that hadn’t happened for decades.
Hertzberg recalled when he first took Szymczak through the Hardy House, which needed a significant amount of work, including a new roof, and he made a telling remark.
“And this is something you never forget,” Hertzberg said. “Gene said, ‘I don’t have any children, but this is something I can do for the community of Racine.’ ”