Supervisor EJ Stark’s American Dream

Written by Katie Rosenberg

 Honor. Courage. Commitment.

Supervisor EJ Stark literally wears his values on his sleeves.

And on his chest.

And in his skin.

I first met Stark at the Grand Theater in 2016 before I was officially sworn into office. I instantly noticed his Semper Fi T-shirt and his U.S. Marine Corps–inspired tattoos. He wasted no time in telling me about the biggest issues we would face during the next Marathon County Board session, but he also offered his support in helping me understand some of the context.

His offer wasn’t just lip service, either…

Even though he wasn’t a member of the Health and Human Services Committee, he showed up to help discuss the big issues, fill in context, and teach by example how to ask good questions and craft the right kinds of policies.

Stark says he is grounded in the values that his parents instilled in him growing up as an immigrant in 1950s Milwaukee. His life’s course forever changed when his future parents escaped the Hungarian Stalinists and landed in a refugee camp in Germany. He reflected:

I come from humble beginnings. My family was forced off their farm in Hungary by the communist regime — they were forced to leave everything and moved into a dislocation camp. My brother and I were both born in there.”

TOP LEFT: EJ (baby) and his Uncle John in a refugee camp in Germany.
TOP MIDDLE: EJ as a baby dressed up in a costume.
TOP RIGHT: EJ (in his mother’s arms) and his family in front of the administration building at the camp.
BOTTOM LEFT: EJ’s Uncle John, 21, who always doted on young EJ.
BOTTOM RIGHT: EJ’s father, Joseph Jr., in his makeshift darkroom; he made extra money in the refugee camp by taking and developing photos. (Photos courtesy of EJ Stark.)

After 7 years in the camp, when he was just 2 years old, the Stark family made their way to America, following other Hungarian and German immigrants to Milwaukee to start over.

“My family went through the normal process of becoming citizens. That took 6 years. I’m a naturalized citizen. I watched my parents go through the classes — I still have some of the books. They probably know more about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and things than kids who are in school [here do].”

Stark’s parents valued education and staying informed. Once in Milwaukee, Stark’s father enrolled in night school to learn how to be an electrician.

“My parents always stressed that education was important. ‘You have to go to school. You have to learn to take advantage of those opportunities.’ My mother was a good student in Hungary. My dad was more mechanical. I remember when we’d sit around the coffee table at home when my dad was doing math, my mother would also do the math. I would hear her say the numbers in Hungarian.”

TOP LEFT: EJ’s Grandpa Josef Stark, Sr., in front of the refugee camp.
TOP RIGHT: EJ’s geat-grandfather wearing a Hungarian Army Uniform.
MIDDLE: EJ’s grandparents—Josef, Sr., and Eva Stark.
BOTTOM LEFT: German refugee camp housing.
BOTTOM RIGHT: EJ Stark and his brother Joseph during bath time. (Photos courtesy of EJ Stark.)

Even as a child, Stark’s parents encouraged him to stay up-to-date.

“My father, from the time we could read, made us read the newspaper and become politically aware of what was going on in this country. They didn’t want us to be taken by surprise like they were throughout their lifetime.”

Coupled with education, Stark’s parents pushed him…

“My family values encompass, first and foremost, hard work. Work. Work. Work. You have to be willing to work and be willing to work hard.”

By the time he graduated high school, he had decided to put his values, brains, and brawn together and he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, where he worked on aviation radio equipment.

“I served in the United States Marine Corps. I felt a need to give back to this country. I felt like I needed to serve and that was part of the beginning of my life of service. I served from 1970 to 1973 and I left the Marine Corps active duty as a Sergeant. I look at it more as a support role than a combat role, but we supported ground troops. We supported the mission. I think that the work that I did helped people save lives.”

Then-Corporal EJ Stark (bottom left) and a communications detachment during a tour overseas.  (Photo courtesy of EJ Stark.)

When he got out of the Marine Corps, Stark enrolled in the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee where he earned a degree in criminal justice, graduating magna cum laude. He intended to go to law school, but “it was one of life’s curves” that he took a job as an insurance adjuster at Wausau Insurance out of college.

“I thought I was going to start out with that job and move into something else. But I enjoyed it. I got good at it. I started basically one step above the mailroom and worked my way up to the Vice President of Claims.”

Stark worked for Wausau Insurance — now Liberty Mutual Insurance — for decades, calling on values from the U.S. Marine Corps to ensure the success of his teams and the organization. During our discussion, he came prepared with The Marine Corps Management Principles: a list of 30 directives aimed at helping managers become more effective leaders. It’s exhaustive, covering everything from problem-solving to cross-training.

TOP: EJ Stark (stooping by the water) shaving while deployed overseas with fellow air-traffic controllers.
BOTTOM LEFT & RIGHT: EJ Stark relaxing overseas with a special treat—Pabst Blue Ribbon.
(Photos courtesy of EJ Stark.)

It was after he retired that Stark once again looked to ground himself in public service. In 2014, he was elected to the Marathon County Board and has been re-elected twice since then.

“Getting into politics, I was actually encouraged by leaders in the community and by citizens. And the time was right. I thought I might be able to bring a perspective outside of the usual political sphere.”

Looking forward, Stark knows that the County Board will have a lot of work to do in the next 2 years, but he plans on approaching his term the same way.

“They elected us, but with that comes great responsibility. I go to village [of Rothschild] meetings, and I interact with people on the issues. For instance, I interacted with the Warm Water Works group before the issues with the [NCHC] pool came up. I talk with the leadership in the village, and they tell me the issues that citizens are bringing to them. And I get emails. Part of my pledge on the website is that I will return all calls and emails the same day or within 24 hours.”

Stark notes that serving on the County Board isn’t as straightforward as it seemed from the outside.

“My motives were pure, but when you get in, you find out this isn’t as easy as you thought. You’re asking, ‘Well why don’t we do this now?’ and you find out there are Federal and State controls that minimize your opportunities to do certain things. You want to fix this, but then all of a sudden there are these constraints. You come to be a lot more nuanced than you would ever expect.”

For the new members joining Stark this session, he has one last bit of advice:

Maximize this opportunity.”

Katie Rosenberg - County Board Supervisor District No. 1Katie Rosenberg

Marathon County Board Supervisor |  District 1

Katie Rosenberg is a Marathon County Board Supervisor representing District 1. She is passionate about engaging the community and is active on social media and in organizing neighborhood constituent meetings with her Wausau City Council counterpart, Alderperson Pat Peckham. In her free time, you can find Katie enjoying the outdoors with her husband on bike, on roller skates, and in trail shoes. She also enjoys attending all manner of political events, traveling the world, and cooking up a mean vegetarian soup.  Email Katie Rosenberg  

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