Sy Kreilein, a long-time member of the Hessen-Wisconsin Society, was awarded the Wisconsin German American of the Year for 2023. The award is in recognition for significant contributions to preserver, promote, and support German heritage, culture, and language in Wisconsin.
He shared some of his thoughts with us.
How far back can you trace your German ancestry?
I can trace the Kreilein family back to 1606 in communities north of Würzburg to a town called Untererthal. My great, great grandfather, Valentin Kreilein, and my great, great grandmother, Anna Maria Niebling, were married in 1831. Along with one son they emigrated to Cincinnati in 1836. Six more children were born in Cincinnati but only one, John, survived a cholera epidemic.
Before Valentin died in 1848, he purchased land in Dubois County/Jasper Indiana. Following his death, Anna Maria and her only son moved to Jasper where I was born and raised. An interesting coincidence is that John Martin Henni, the pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Cincinnati, where my ancestors were members, became the first bishop of Milwaukee in 1844. Bishop Henni was responsible for bringing to Milwaukee a number of religious orders including the Jesuits who established Marquette Academy/College at 10th and State Street. In 1907 Marquette University was established a few blocks away. In 1927 Marquette University High School was constructed at 35th and Wisconsin where I taught German for 45 years. My son also graduated from Marquette University High School.
How did you learn German?
My parents were 3rd generation Germans/Swiss, and like many of the farming community in that area, spoke a Bavarian/Frankish/Swabian dialect. I have a treasured recording of my father speaking a traditional New Year’s greeting in the dialect.
I studied German while at St. Meinrad College, a seminary in southern Indiana. After college, my bishop sent me to his alma mater in Innsbruck, Austria to study Theology. Among the faculty was the illustrious Jesuit Theologian, Karl Rahner, who at that time worked with Josef Ratzinger, who would later go on to become Pope Benedict XVI.
Initially I understood very little from the lectures. Within two months I could understand an entire lecture and by the Summer 1962 I served as a simultaneous translator in Brussels for a European Catholic Youth Workers Conference.
A highlight of my time in Innsbruck was directing the liturgical music in the Innsbruck Wilten Basilica for the opening of the 1964 Winter World Olympics.
I was exposed to multiple European countries and cultures by motorcycling 9,000 miles from Austria, East and West Germany, Spain, Denmark, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, to Turkey, Greece, and Italy over the course of three years. After three years of study at Innsbruck, I terminated my theology studies and returned to the United States.
What brought you to Wisconsin?
While back in southern Indiana a friend suggested that I take some educational credits at Marquette University in Milwaukee. As I was completing my Masters in German in 1968, I heard that Marquette University High School had an opening in German and I joined the faculty there. In addition to teaching German, I served as choir director, orchestra director for musicals, and eventually theater director of seven Senior Fall plays.
While teaching at Marquette University High School, I took one course a semester at UW-Milwaukee for three years. Those credits transferred to UW-Madison’s German doctoral program. In 1989 I defended my dissertation. Later I was informed that I had become the first full-time high school teacher to ever achieve a German Doctorate at the UW-Madison’s campus.
In the meantime, I got married, had a son, and spent half a year in the Aachen area when my wife studied harpsichord in Amsterdam and Cologne. In the 1980s my wife initiated the Historical Keyboard Society with concerts focusing on Bach and his contemporaries. Their compositions were played on original instruments. I schleppt her harpsichords for many concerts over the years and presented pre-concert lectures on the composers and their period.
In the 1990s I coordinated a school exchange with Christoph Scheiner Gymnasium in Ingolstadt in Bavaria. While I was employed at Marquette High there were 25 school exchanges. One memory does stands out: In 1990, the summer after the opening of the Berlin Wall, the exchange group visited Berlin. On June 13, we chanced to be present at the Bernauer Street to celebrate the official demolition of the Wall. Government officials from East and West Berlin were there as well as TV and Newspaper correspondents. I had visited the Wall in 1962 and now was helping to demolition the Wall by chipping away at it.
Your efforts promoting German language and culture are not limited to a high school setting. With what other German organizations have you been involved?
Music has long been an important part of my life. One of my fondest memories is playing trumpet with Austria’s famous trumpet player Oskar Klein at the 1st Innsbruck International Jazz Festival and also playing and singing with Germany’s famous jazz trombonist, Albert Mangelsdorff.
In 1991 I received a grant to study Mozart’s operas in Vienna. In 1994 I convinced the curator of the Vienna Museum to send Joseph Willibrord Mahler’s 1804 portrait of a young Beethoven to Marquette University’s Haggerty Museum for the Historical Keyboard Society’s huge Beethoven Extravaganza. It was only the second time that the painting had ever left Vienna. A highlight was the recreation of Beethoven’s 1808 Akademie 4-hour concert at Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater. I like to think that my fluency in German helped make that possible.
In 2006, while the Milwaukee Art Museum was producing an extraordinary Biedermeier exhibit, my wife and I were involved in Hausmusik as part of the period. I had lectured the Milwaukee Art Museum docents on the Biedermeier politics, fashion, design, art, and music. Over seven weekends we hosted 14 events at our home with Lieder, instrumental music on guitar, harp, and forte piano by Schubert. The Hauskonzete started late in the afternoon with Sachertorte, peach schnaps, and coffee. Great combination.
Around 1995 I became involved with Goethe House Wisconsin in Milwaukee, the cultural arm of the German American societies. Goethe House offers classes in German, German language films, lectures with the Max Kade Institute in Madison, and seminars for German teachers. I am currently the President of the Goethe House Wisconsin. During that period, I was involved with Milwaukee’s annual German Fest and helped organize the 1st Computer Quiz contest at the Fest.
I joined the Hessen-Wisconsin Society in 2001 and currently serve as Treasurer having served as Secretary in the past.
The Hessen-Wisconsin Society is proud and honored to have Sy as a member and part of its board of directors. Congratulations to him on the recognition! The awards committee scores candidates on nine different criteria:
1) Preserving the culture and heritage of German immigrants to Wisconsin
2) Preserving the German language in Wisconsin
3) Founding or reviving German American organizations
4) Significantly supporting existing German American organizations
5) Actively volunteering/supporting the German American community
6) Educating the general public on the impact of German immigrants and/or
Germany in Wisconsin
7) Promoting economic exchanges between Germany and Wisconsin
8) Promoting educational exchanges between Germany and Wisconsin
9) Promoting cultural exchanges between Germany and Wisconsin
Other awards which Sy has received include:
2004-“National Recognition of Merit Award” from the National American Association of Teachers of German with the Goethe Institut Internationes.
The City of Milwaukee (Mayor Barrett) proclaimed November 20, 2004 as “Dr. Sylvester Kreilein Day.”
2007-Wisconsin German teachers and Colleagues recognized Sy as “Distinguished German Teacher of 2009.”
2011-The Wisconsin Association of Foreign Language Teachers (WAFLT) singled Sy out from all Wisconsin world language teachers as the “Distinguished Foreign Language Teacher of the Year.”
2017-Marquette University High School presented Sy with the “Spirit of St. Ignatius Award.”
“The icing on the cake” took place when Phil Fritsche, President of the German American Societies, awarded Sy with the “Wisconsin German American for the year 2023.”