Tom Niccolai and Jean Grueter
From medicine to music, this couple wears lots of hats.
When you hear the term "multi-tasking," you might envision a person talking on the phone, doing laundry, paying bills and checking e-mail all at the same time. When Tom Niccolai ('75 biological sciences) and Jean Grueter ('76 biological sciences) speak of multi-tasking, their version is a bit more extreme. For the couple that found romance at UW-Parkside in the mid '70s, multi-tasking involves raising a family, performing surgery, administering anesthesia, helping to run a restaurant, and assisting the startup of a community center.
Niccolai is an orthopedic surgeon with Aurora Health Care in Burlington, Wis., while Grueter is an anesthesiologist at Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare in Racine. Niccolai and Grueter first met at Kenosha's Bradford High School, but reconnected while pre-health students at Parkside. Professor Emeritus Dr. Anna Maria Williams remembers catching them "necking behind their biology textbooks" in a carrel on the third floor of the library when they should have been studying.
Niccolai thought he might want to pursue a career in nursing, but a part-time job at the former St. Catherine's Hospital in Kenosha piqued his interest in becoming a doctor. His original plan called for two years at Parkside and then a transfer to UW-Madison. "It didn't take me long to realize that the pre-health program at Parkside was every bit as effective as any place else in getting you into medical school," Niccolai said. Between living at home and working at St. Catherine's he was able to save enough money to pay for school himself.
"Parkside was a place that gave me the opportunity to do what I wanted - it opened up a completely different life for me," he said
Grueter was an excellent student, winning the Harlow B. Mills academic science scholarship her junior year. She wasn't sure which career path to take, but knew that she enjoyed the sciences. "There were some incredible teachers here in the science department, they made it really fun," she said. "Dr. Williams grabbed me one day and basically told me, 'You're going into medicine.'"
Grueter, a first-generation college graduate, is the oldest of five siblings. Brothers John and Richard, and sister Sharon all followed in her footsteps as Parkside graduates. "It was Parkside or nothing," Grueter said. "It was just an incredible opportunity. I wouldn't have been going to college anywhere else because I wouldn't have been able to afford the living expenses."
Niccolai and Grueter were both accepted at the Medical College of Wisconsin via early decision. They felt well prepared for their rigorous courses, primarily due to professors Chong-maw Chen, Eugene Goodman, Ben Greenebaum and Williams. "I remember thinking to myself that it seemed like they had stacked this place," Niccolai said. "I couldn't believe these guys were teaching me, as opposed to some teaching assistant. The fact that you could go sit in their offices and work directly with them was amazing."
After two years of medical school, the high cost of tuition was becoming a burden. Niccolai had previously toyed with accepting a Navy scholarship, and was now anxious to take advantage of the tuition reimbursement opportunity offered in exchange for a two-year commitment of service. Grueter joined as well, and they were married during their third year of medical school.
The old TV ad proclaimed: Join the Navy, see the world. Following medical school, Niccolai and Grueter did just that. They spent six years training and working in hospitals in Oakland, Calif., and Bethesda, Md. In between they spent two years as general medical officers in Sardinia, Italy. Their first son was born in Italy, and their second in Bethesda. Niccolai enjoyed the Navy and the prospect of international travel. However, when he asked Grueter about a long-term commitment, she said: "If you want to stay by yourself you're more than welcome to!"
In 1989, as they were pondering their next move, they received a letter advertising an orthopedic practice in a "nice little town" in Wisconsin. The town turned out to be Burlington, the birthplace of Grueter's father. The timing was right, and the appeal of returning to an area filled with friends and family was stronger than the draw of the exciting yet frenzied pace of life in the Washington, D.C., area. Luckily, they enticed Niccolai's mother into living with them to assist in raising their three sons.
Once in Burlington, and with an established practice, Niccolai parlayed his passion for cooking into a partnership in a cafe. He can sometimes be found at 4 a.m. helping out in the kitchen at Veronico's preparing his famous cinnamon buns for breakfast.
Another opportunity arrived in the form of a Burlington community center. The CATHE (Community, Art, Technology Health and Education, Inc.) Center was created when a friend approached Niccolai to partner in the purchase and renovation of the old United Methodist Church. The center has become an incubator for small artistic ventures, including studios for piano, voice, cheerleading, judo taekwondo, and sewing. In addition, the center houses a Montessori school and 100-seat performance hall. The center recently hosted a production of "Les Miserables, School Edition," produced by none other than Niccolai himself.
When the couple was asked where Niccolai's diverse interests come from, Grueter jokingly answers, "He bounces from one activity to another." Niccolai adds, "I'm a dabbler, and I'm fascinated by creative people. I'm not very creative myself, but I do like to act and sing." He performs with a local choir and with The Haylofters acting troupe.
Grueter's self-reported strength lies in "holding it all together," this in addition to her career as an anesthesiologist. She gives an example of the frenetic life they lead by telling the story of a past holiday party. Niccolai had invited the operating room staff from his hospital to their home for their annual holiday party. That year, however, he was not only covering the surgical call for his own practice but had volunteered to fill in for a fellow orthopedic surgeon who had returned to active duty in Iraq. Just as the guests were walking in the door, Niccolai was on his way out to the hospital for an emergency surgery. Grueter stepped in without skipping a beat as the gracious solo host, accustomed as she is to her husband having too much on his plate.
She quickly follows with a second story, where Niccolai had volunteered to help a friend in the Racine Chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America with their annual pasty sale during the Green Bay Packer-Chicago Bears game. His role for the sale, which benefits the Racine food pantry, was to make all the dough for the 500 pasties. After only two-thirds of the batches were prepared, he again was called in for an emergency. Grueter was left to finish the job. "She does that all the time," Niccolai said.
"Yeah," Grueter replies with a laugh, "I bail him out from his ideas."
Niccolai concurs. "What can I say? We're fortunate to live in such a great place, and it's hard not to pitch in and make it better. Luckily, I met someone who feels the same way."