Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Wally Bronner, Just a Great Michigander

It's a sad day. The founder of Bronner's Christmas Wonderland, located in the magical town of Frankenmuth, Mich. has died of cancer at the age of 81.

So many Michiganders (and others) have had wonderful experiences at that store.

I remember shopping there when I was seven years old. My mom told me I could pick out one ornament for our eyes lit up. Do you have any idea how HUGE that store is? Especially when you're seven?!?

I had a ball walking up and down each aisle before settling on a white and mint green ornament with Bambi on it. Man, that thing was my pride and joy. And it still dons my tree to this day, bringing back memories of walking those aisles and see that huge store through the eyes of a child.

I didn't know too much about Wally Bronner himself until I read about him today. I think I have a new hero! I only took some snippets from a story posted on Crain's Detroit Business' Web site.

Bronner, founder of Christmas-themed empire in Mich., dies at 81
By James Prichard -- Associated Press Writer

Wally Bronner, whose Christmas retail empire made Frankenmuth one of Michigan's most popular tourist destinations but who strove to keep the focus on the Nativity and Christian tradition, has died. He was 81.

Bronner died Tuesday at his home. His relatives notified employees of Bronner's Christmas Wonderland last week that he had inoperable cancer.

Shoppers from all over the country have come for years to Bronner's to take in what is touted as the world's largest Christmas store. The store, about 20 miles north of Flint, is open seven days a week except New Year's Day, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

"You want to know the truth?" he asked a Detroit Free Press reporter in 2004. "The truth is no decorations are needed at all at Christmas. What's really needed at Christmas is that we decorate our hearts. We get so busy with all of our preparations that we forget that this is such an important time of year to stop and take time to reflect on our lives, our faith, our world. What matters most to me? Helping people to decorate their hearts with peace and love."

Son Wayne was named president and chief executive of Bronner's Christmas Wonderland in 1998, and daughters Carla Spletzer and Maria Sutorik were named vice presidents. Bronner stayed on as an ambassador, devoting his time to meeting customers, responding to media requests and answering phone calls, e-mails or letters. At the top of an organization chart kept in Bronner's office simply was a Christian cross.

"Our rule is that everything we do will focus on — or at least not detract from — the Christ whose birth we are celebrating," Bronner told the Free Press. "My hobby of signs, displays and decorations developed into a full-time business, and I never went to work," Bronner was quoted as saying in his official biography.

"Since I never went to work, I don't have to think of retirement, and I'll continue the hobby, God-willing, but only on days that end in 'y'."

Wallace "Wally" Bronner was born in Frankenmuth on March 9, 1927, the youngest of Herman and Ella Bronner's three children. He started a sign-painting business in his parents' basement in 1943 and expanded it to include decorating parade floats and fair booths and designing window displays.In 1951, Bronner met several merchants from Clare who were looking for Christmas decorations for lampposts in their city. Aided by his first full-time employee, Eddie Beyerlein, Bronner designed and produced Christmas panels for them. He married Irene Pretzer of Hemlock the same year.Bronner learned that other cities in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Ontario also were interested in commercial decorations. He held his first decorations exhibit in the spring of 1952 in Frankenmuth's Township Hall.

Two years later, he and his wife constructed their first permanent building in the middle of Frankenmuth — half of it dedicated to the sign painting business, the other half accommodating the Christmas decorations.The store offered decorations for cities and shopping centers as well as gifts and trims for the home in religious, traditional and toyland themes. Another building was acquired in 1966 and a third in 1971.

According to the company history on the Bronner's Web site, the three stores became so congested by the early 1970s that Bronner had to hire doormen on fall weekends to control the lines of people waiting to enter. In 1977, the business was consolidated into one location on 45 acres of land on Frankenmuth's south side. A 1991 building addition nearly doubled the size of the store, and the shipping department was expanded in 2000. Another major expansion completed in May 2002 brought the building's size to the equivalent of more than five football fields.

Bronner's employed hundreds of people and supplied Christmas decorations for movies. Bronner founded the Walter and Irene Bronner and Family Foundation, which in 2000 donated $1 million for a 500-seat auditorium at Frankenmuth High School. When he received a philanthropic award from the Saginaw Community Foundation in 1996, he returned the $5,000 prize and had the foundation start a fund to buy equipment for volunteers to use to clean up Saginaw.

What a guy. You'll be missed, Mr. Christmas. I mean, Mr. Bronner.


Ginger said...

Wally was a very special man and touched so many lives. Read my tribute for more.

Shellmo said...

A timely post! We go there every year to get a new ornament - what a great tradition he started.

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