Most everyone in Merrill knows who Sue Kunkel is, and that’s an asset for Kunkel as she goes about her community volunteering.
Kunkel, loan processor at Park City Credit Union, is a lifelong resident of Merrill. She grew up on a farm and enjoyed participating in 4-H as a way to learn life skills such as sewing, cooking and gardening, as well as showcasing projects at the fair. The lessons of responsibility, resiliency and hard work remained with her as she grew up.
Community orientation first took the form of serving on the church council of Saint Stephens United Church of Christ, of which Kunkel has been a lifelong member. She first became involved in the late 1980s, served as vice president of the council at one point and also contributed to the social events and membership committees at church as well. Council work was serious work; the council made key decisions related to how the church used its funds such as for repair work or an addition
“It was very interesting and very important because we were running the business of the church,” Kunkel said.
It was the desire to build an expansion that required Kunkel to attend several meetings, including city meetings, as she learned what was required from a city standpoint.
“You could say that attending those meetings prepared me to get involved with the city and city government,” Kunkel said.
In April 1993, she earned a seat on the Merrill City Council and served until April 2000 when was defeated by a slim margin. She campaigned again and was elected again two years later and served until she chose not to run again in April 2010. During her time on City Council, she also served on the health and safety committee (including as chair), the historical commission and the park and recreation commission.
Altogether, the 15 or so years she served on the council made Kunkel a known name for anyone who didn’t happen to know who she was previously. She currently serves as a mayoral appointee to the transit commission.
The late 1980s also marked a return to a first love for Kunkel as she became a registered 4-H leader. She helped to create the Merrill Busy Bees 4-H Club with Jane Schulz in 1991 with nine youth. Today, membership has grown to about 60 youth. Kunkel and Schulz continue to make the program work, hosting monthly meetings from September to May and organizing and notifying youth about opportunities and deadlines for speaking contests, summer camp and the numerous other activities the 4-H offers.
By their actions, they teach 4-H members different skills in a hands-on environment; teach decision-making and critical thinking skills and encourage youth as well.
Since 1991, Kunkel has played a role in organizing several ancillary activities, such as organizing for and staffing the booth the 4-H has at the annual June Dairy Breakfast.
Kunkel’s involvement in 4-H made getting involved with the Lincoln County Fair Association board as a natural extension. She became involved in 1993 and accepted the role of secretary/treasurer in 1997, a role she continues to serve.
As an association board member, she helps to book grandstand acts and bands for the association’s tent at the fair, secures donations and sponsorships, recruits volunteers to sell and collect tickets and then wraps up the evenings by balancing the cash intakes for the shows during the five-day event.
Each January, she attends a fair convention to hire acts and a carnival and by March, she starts selling advertising for the fair booklet.
In 1993, Kunkel got involved as an ambassador for the Merrill Area Chamber of Commerce, a role that takes her to many Chamber member businesses, ribbon cuttings and Chamber events including the annual golf outing, Ribfest and annual Chamber banquet (for which she secures raffle prizes). She served as the chair for about 10 years but has passed the baton on that role, saying it’s time for someone else to accept that challenge.
In 2007, Kunkel and Ann Stoeckmann created a community event that’s now a holiday tradition: The O’Tannenbaum Tour, a festival of trees type of event. It started as a way to raise funds for the 4-H program and the 4-H endowment fund Kunkel helped to create. It has grown to such a degree that the event has provided funds to other charitable organizations as well including Meals on Wheels, DARE, Riverbend Trail, Salvation Army and many more.
“We’ve diversified a bit and it’s going very, very strong,” she said. “It started as an idea to coincide with the Chamber’s holiday parade the first weekend in December. Ann had the ideas and designs, and I knew people for getting trees and organizations to decorate trees. So, we worked really well together.”
Kunkel’s personal and professional lives have always been family-oriented, and that continues to be the case as she and her husband, Mike, volunteer at granddaughter Amara’s grade school — Kate Goodrich Elementary School —– popping corn, working at the school carnival, and with she and Mike playing Grandma Nut and King Candy, respectively, for the Candylandthemed “Let Them Be Little” school dance for several years.
“It’s important to give back to make things better for community and family,” Kunkel said. “Fortunately, I have a very supportive husband who steps up and helps me as needed as well as a very community-oriented employer.”
Kunkel and her husband have instilled that community orientation in their grown children, daughter Tricia Lazare and son William Kunkel, and grandchildren Amara, Leo and Lilly. Whether it’s serving at a the Eagles Club monthly community dinner, working a church event, cutting potatoes for Lobsterfest, or caroling or visiting Pine Crest Nursing Home at Christmas or Easter, you’ll be hard-pressed not to find Kunkel at work with many community activities. These days, you’ll find both Tricia and Schulz’s daughters serving on the O’Tannenbaum Tour committee as Kunkel envisions turning it over to them someday.
“If we do not have volunteers for these events, these events will not happen,” she said. “I’m so proud of taking a dream and making it a reality with the O’Tannenbaum Tour and that it’s still going strong. We are training Tricia and Ann’s daughter so that someday, we will turn it over to them to be successful.”