In her job at Carroll University, Gert Ullsperger worked as a cashier but found her true calling as a master teacher of how to share a life of love and laughter while serving a community that embraced her as its honorary grandmother for more than five decades.
Gert passed away on January 26, just four days shy of her 96th birthday, leaving behind a legacy of memories for the thousands of lives she touched. She cherished her role at Carroll as the substitute grandmother to decades of students, who enjoyed her cheerful greetings and warm hugs each day at the entrance of the Main Dining Room, as did the university’s many faculty, staff, and alumni during visits.
Carroll named the MDR after Gert in 2018. Jon Gordon, Carroll's director of Dining Services, said many times places are named after individuals long after they have passed, and enough time has gone by for their lives to become legendary, but Gert was a legend in life.
"Gert didn’t have to wait as her legacy was built before she passed," Gordon said. He added that "Gert was a living legend whose legacy will only get bigger."
At the time of the dining room dedication, Gert's daughter Lynn Simmons reflected on her mother's long-standing impact at Carroll. Simmons noted Gert's special ways that stand true even today as the community mourns the loss.
Lynn said, “Everybody takes away from knowing her, being taught in different ways, whether it's to serve others or if it's to have faith, to be kind, to smile, to enjoy life, and to appreciate what you have.”
Lynn is one of Gert’s three children, sister to Marsha James and Russ Ullsperger, a Carroll alumnus from the Class of 1970. Marsha said after the loss of her mother, "Mom was anchored in faith and lived her life giving from her heart to family, friends and anyone she met. She had so much love to share.”
Gert last worked in the MDR in person in March of 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although she stayed home since then to stay safe, she kept in touch with her Carroll family via Zoom calls and looked forward to returning to campus. She said during an interview in January of 2021 that she had hoped to come back to work to be “with the people, to see them, to interact with them, to give them their hugs.”
Russ has said of his mother, "She's looked at the students she's interacted with all of these years kind of like extended grandchildren."
Word of the loss of Gert spread quickly throughout the Carroll community with hundreds sharing the news and commenting via social media.
“Gert hugs were a cure for whatever you needed,” wrote Stacey Grosnick on Carroll’s Facebook page.
Added Amy Herwig Ostrowski on Facebook, “She knew her kids and knew the type of day we were having by our look. She always had the right words to encourage us or show us her love.”
Gert’s tenure at Carroll spanned five food service companies and seven university presidents, the last being Dr. Cindy Gnadinger, who said of Gert, "Gert taught us how to be kind, to lead with love and to always laugh. Generations of Carroll students, faculty, staff and community members now carry the memories of her smiles, her whispered encouragements, her warmth and, yes, her wonderful hugs, with them."
Gert first came to Carroll when a neighbor asked if she could help out in the dining room after another employee did not show up for a shift. After taking on the role, Gert was offered the opportunity to stay in the job. And she stayed for the next 56 years.
A columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Jim Stingl, described Gert as "sunshine with a name tag," in an article published in 2014, and noted that her job involved welcoming 900 customers in an average day.
Stephanie Ewings Aman shared among the hundreds of Carroll University Facebook posts, “It's been 25 years since I left Carroll, and I can still see her smiling face at the end of that lunch line. She made being away from home, much easier.”
Gert was so well-known and loved by the students that she was elected three times to serve as Grand Marshall of Carroll's Homecoming Parade, including 2014 when the Board of Trustees honored her during their meeting, a hashtag #50YearsofGert hit social media, and the university celebrated Gert’s five decades at Carroll during the weekend celebration.
By then she was 88 and never did a birthday pass in her later years at Carroll without a sing-a-long with faculty, staff, and students and a sheet cake to share. While COVID kept her away from campus for her 95th birthday, she embraced the technology and the chance to connect with more than 100 well-wishers from across the country who joined her on a Zoom call in celebration in 2021.
When she was able, she returned to Carroll year-after-year, sharing love and finding her own energy for life among the students.
She once said in a 2014 interview that what kept her coming back to work at Carroll each year were “the connections with young people and they're so energetic and full of life. I felt in a way that I was like their grandma and part of their family. Some of them come such a great distance to come to Carroll. It filled my life, working with them."
Alumni and friends interested in sending a sympathy card to Gert's family may mail cards to Marsha James, 1010 Wisteria Lane, Waukesha, Wis., 53189.
Read more about Gert’s life and legacy in her obituary.