Latent Emissions, Chakaia Booker
The Spretnjak Family
RIGHT PLACE. RIGHT TIME.
A “FRIENDS OF THE SNITE” FOUNDING FAMILY’S STORY.
Helen and Steve 1988
Being in the right place at the right time ─ on several occasions ─ seems to be the best way to describe how Helen and Steve Spretnjak’s lives came together long ago and continue to positively impact the world they touched.
Helen Jean Sieron and Steve A. Spretnjak were both born and raised in immigrant Catholic families from Europe. As individuals, both Helen’s and Steve’s family backgrounds, steadfast values and unique interests culminated in many significant involvements over their time together, and accomplishments that continue as a result of their union. Today we share about their joint excitement for the Snite Museum of Art and its enduring future, and the ongoing development of the fine arts at the University of Notre Dame. With a passionate interest in arts, and a calling toward philanthropy and service, in the 1970s Helen and Steve very naturally responded to the opportunity to join the newly founded “Friends of the Snite” organization. Their involvement since that time continues to bring significant impact and support to the community at large.
Steve’s parents came from Croatia and Slovenia, and had four children, Steve being the only son. Steve’s father worked in the steel mills on the south side of Chicago, and the children shared a tri-lingual household: Croatian, Slovenian and English. As a child, Steve learned figurative drawing, and his sister, Margaret, was an award-winning amateur photographer. The three sisters spent much of their free time throughout their lives creating traditional folk arts and crafts to be sold at benefits run by the Slovenian Women’s Union. It was a household that valued the arts.
Helen’s parents were both born in South Bend, Indiana, and Helen was the oldest of 5 children. She spent her early childhood among her Hungarian grandparents and extended family. Her grandfather, Julius Muszik, ran several small businesses including a music store and a tavern that showcased musicians and dancers directly from Hungary. Immersed in this ethnic family culture during her most formative years, Helen spoke fluent Hungarian and English, and she developed interests in the arts of music and dance.
Helen also enjoyed strong connections to the University of Notre Dame. Her father, August T. Sieron, ND ’30, was just one of many family members who graduated from Notre Dame. Helen’s uncle and aunt, Charlie and Babe Easterday, installed tile and mosaic work on campus in the South Dining Hall. Helen’s parents always made time to explore the ND campus, pointing out details in the art and design, explaining Latin inscriptions, and teaching their children the importance of having a Catholic education.
Helen’s father, as an in-demand chemical engineer, often uprooted the family throughout the Midwest. As a young girl in Chicago, Helen first met Steve in their shared kindergarten class there. Years later they met again, also in Chicago, during their time at St Francis High School. Helen then became the first woman in her extended family to graduate from college, a place where her appreciation for fine arts expanded as she immersed herself in the liberal and fine arts. Steve still treasures her small collection of written poetry, letters and drawings from her college years.
Steve’s college studies were interrupted by service in the Army, but he eventually became the first member of his family to graduate from college, and where he transferred his figurative drawing skills to drafting and design as he completed his degree in mechanical engineering. His first engineering job was to design window frames for automobiles, trucks, and recreational vehicles in Elkhart, which was not far from South Bend Central High School where Helen was teaching French and English.
This next reunion of their lives resulted in their marriage, from which five children graced their lives: Gail, Stephen, Gwen, Gregory, and Michael. As a wife and mother and husband and father, respectively, Helen and Steve encouraged art and music to be a regular part of family life. Helen embroidered Steve’s old white shirts to make art smocks for all the children, and Stephen remembers when as a child his father taught him how to draw horses, first shaping an ellipse. All five children took private music lessons, learning piano and at least one other instrument.
In the greater community, Helen and Steve helped initiate programs at the Elkhart Public Library for lending art and recorded books and music. In their home, there were always different paintings hanging over the fireplace or TV set, and different kinds of music or spoken literature to enjoying listening and learning together.
Like Helen’s parents, Helen and Steve often brought their children to the ND campus, being sure that the children noticed and understood the meaning of the details of the art and design. No detail was too small: the significance of a single Latin word over an entrance or the usually unnoticed mosaic styling of the tile floor beneath the murals on the walls and ceilings.
Helen and Steve highly valued Catholic education and each of their children had the opportunity from elementary level until college at Notre Dame or Saint Mary’s to attend Catholic schools, each with art and music programs.
As an art student at ND, Stephen fired ceramics in the Old Fieldhouse, created sculptures in the Mestrovic Studio, and curated exhibitions at the ISIS Gallery. Stephen has many interesting stories about Helen and Steve’s visits to ND and his experiences during that critical time for the arts on campus. These formative experiences at ND still influence Stephen’s art and gave Helen and Steve a very unique vantage point into the arts at ND.
Michael, the youngest child, has numerous recollections of the many outings to performances and exhibitions at ND with Helen and Steve, where he enjoyed wandering about the galleries and art studios at ND and talking to students and faculty and watching their creative process.
Helen often toured the Snite Museum. Even prior the opening of the Snite Museum, she and Steve attended all of the exhibitions and gallery openings. Helen would always chat about the art with Fr. Hesburgh, the featured artists, friends, faculty, and staff. Steve liked asking practical questions about the “life of an artist” so he could counsel their Notre Dame artistic student, Stephen, about his future. Helen also loved coming to Mass at ND when their adult sons played sacred music with the brass ensemble amidst the beauty of the art within Sacred Heart Basilica.
Helen with Fr. Ted
It was simply natural that Helen and Steve became founding members of the Friends of the Snite. Their interest and involvement in the arts at Notre Dame developed from their own lifelong love for the arts, their understanding of the importance of the arts in a well-balanced Catholic education, family connections with Notre Dame, the presence of Mestrovic on campus, and their son Stephen’s art-focused studies.
Helen and Steve always enjoyed socializing at the annual Snite Museum of Art Christmas Benefit. After Helen passed away, Steve continued to attend each year, only ever missing once, because of a blizzard. In more recent years, the benefit has become a family affair where Steve and the five children and their spouses join together and celebrate their love of the arts, Helen’s memory, and Steve’s November birthday.
The entire family has continued to support the Snite Museum since the time of Helen’s passing and in honor of her. Helen’s children fondly remember how she passed along her love for the arts, and the children endeavor to pass along that value and legacy to the next generation of the family. During the 2018 Snite Museum of Art Christmas Benefit, three generations of the Spretnjak family were in attendance.
The Spretnjak family recognizes that the Snite Museum of Art is an integral part of a well-balanced Catholic educational experience at Notre Dame. The Fine Arts have an unmatched impact upon students: stimulating their minds to higher levels of discovery, comprehension, critical thinking and creativity. The highest level of education must include the Fine Arts, and so the Snite Museum is not only a critical resource for all the students, staff and faculty at Notre Dame, but also for the surrounding colleges, schools and communities.
We thank our members for their faith and foresight in establishing the Friends of the Snite Museum. 1979 - 2019
Juliane Morris - Board of Directors