Wallace John Bronner, better known as Wally, was born in Frankenmuth, Michigan to parents Herman and Ella (Hubinger) Bronner on March 9, 1927.
Pictured above is the first professional photo of the three Bronner children, Christmas 1927. Wally was the youngest of three children. Oldest brother Arnold was born in 1917 and oldest sister Helen was born in 1918.
The CHRISTmas season was always memorable for Wally, even from his earliest years. Because of his family's German ancestry, he enjoyed customs that were old world in nature. Some of Wally's favorite memories, related in his autobiography Sharing JOY 365, include memories of his family's parlor doors and windows being obscured with white sheets so Santa Claus could do his decorating in strict privacy. Wally recalled that at 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve the 'Christmas Angel' mysteriously removed the white sheets and revealed a beautifully decorated tree with brightly colored packages under its branches. Also beneath the boughs sat a colorful paper nativity scene Wally described as "the reason for the season." Wally later resurrected that paper nativity scene at age 12 for his Mother in a hand-painted frame. (Pictured hanging above the mantle)
As a Junior Walther Leaguer, Wally helped decorate St. Lorenz Lutheran Church in the early 1940's, as he would always remember it. St. Lorenz, as he described it in his autobiography, was decorated with "two, gigantic, decorated trees lighted in the dusky darkness." Christmas Eve services had worshippers singing "Stille Nacht" in German, which left a lasting impression on Wally as he later went on to replicate, at Bronner's, the original Silent Night Memorial chapel located in Oberndorf, Austria.
As a child, Wally recalls heading out into the frosty darkness to his Grandma and Grandpa Hubinger's after enjoying the St. Lorenz church's traditional Christmas Eve celebration. There, they all gathered to await the sound of a tiny trumpet from the "Christmas Angel" that signaled the old-fashioned feather tree was ready for viewing. (Wally later learned that it was Angel Grandpa who blew the tiny trumpet hanging next to the tree top angel!)
Run by three generations of the Hubinger family (Wally's mother's side), Hubinger Grocery afforded Wally the opportunity to learn an invaluable customer service skill set from a young age.
"Aunt Hattie," sister to Ella Bronner, becomes the third generation to run Hubinger Grocery. Hubinger's specialized in aged wheels of cheese and fresh baked bread. Wally's mother, Ella, would often assist her sister in baking these delicious loaves in the outdoor 'backofen' (oven). Wally delivered some of the loaves on his bicycle and used the opportunity to develop some accounting skills, as noted in his first accounting book that dates back to the 1930s where a young Wally served 31 customers.
Wally enjoyed helping his Aunt Hattie clerk the grocery store as a child, where a gigantic pack of Necco® Wafers were his reward! This tradition of appreciating and understanding customer's needs continued throughout his life-long career.
Wally remembered and appreciated, fondly, his years of education as well as his educators at St. Lorenz Lutheran School. A special memory for him was his very first day in September 1933, when both he and the school building (that his father helped to build) were 6 years old. In addition to general education, Wally's studies at St. Lorenz brought him knowledge on German language, lore, and the Lutheran faith. Recess periods and lunch hours brought sportsmanship. These formative years for Wally also budded a musical and artistic talent.
Wally was a proud part of St. Lorenz's Confirmation class on April 6, 1941. Where, thereafter, he was invited by teacher Rittmueller to attend the Junior Walther League, an organization whose purpose was to encourage Christian growth, while serving others and enjoying fellowship. His decision to join would greatly influence his life.
As Wally got older, his life increased in scope and tempo. It was just 8 months after his confirmation when "the world situation intruded, making the reality of life more vivid." December 7, 1941 sealed America's participation in the expanding World War. And working part-time in his Aunt Hattie's store meant Wally became familiar with war time rationing and calculating various points. During war-time, Wally refined his growing talent for painting, float decorating, and window trimming. Families in the Frankenmuth community brought him pictures of their loved ones serving in the military (including his brother Arnold) to display in the window of his Aunt Hattie's grocery store. Wally described these heroes as "the stars that were earning their stripes as they protected and defended our nation's freedoms."
In 1943, at the age of 16, Wally started an after-school-hours sign painting business in his parent's basement.
During his years at Arthur Hill High, Wally became active in music. He was a drum major for the marching band, and played in the concert band.
One day while walking down the hall at Arthur Hill High, Bernice Gibbs, the speech teacher, invited Wally to participate in a radio skit her class was presenting. Wally accredits this valuable experience as he later went on to give up to 250 speeches and interviews in a year during his career.
Another affinity of Wally's was photography. He was often seen throughout his life with a camera around his neck capturing memories and cataloguing his experiences.
Wally graduated from Arthur Hill High in June of 1945 and began contemplating what career path he would choose. He wanted something interesting, challenging, rewarding, and pleasing to the Lord. Shortly after graduation parties and farewells, Wally was drafted into the military. Classified for limited duty, Wally was able to return home the next day subject to call on 24-hour notice.
World War II ended, draft quotas were reduced, and brother Arnold returned home!
Between the ages of 14 and 18 Wally had occasionally helped his father Herman Bronner, a skilled stone-mason, mix concrete and haul building supplies to building sites. He helped enough to know that he wanted something different! Aunt Hattie offered Wally an outlet to tinker with his creative interests by requesting signs, posters, window displays, and float decorations for her store.
Wally's decision to seek a niche of service with graphic arts, displays, and decorations that evolved into a business was directed by wise words from respected people. Dr. Kirchgeorg, a Frankenmuth family physician, cautioned young Wally on a job selection having said he should never take a job for a job's sake. Instead the perfect job would be one Wally could work 24 hours a day, and tire of the hours, but never of the field. Wally's goal was validated at a Walther League talent festival when he heard a poem recited by Elfrieda Allmandinger Frueh. Titled "Talents", the poem read:
God gives to all some talent,
Some special work to do.
Should we not use those talents,
Though they are just a few?
If we but look around us,
We'll see jobs by the score;
So use that little talent
And God will give you more.
With that, the course was set! 1945 marked the start of Wally's career having begun humbly by preparing displays, painting signs and trucks, and decorating windows. Slowly, Wally's hobby became his profession as the Lord graciously provided!
Wally was very active in the Walther League organization. Wally’s involvement with the League, including International president from 1958-1961, took him on many travels to different conventions throughout the nation and provided an outlet for fellowship that forever changed his life.
Wally described the summer of 1945 as having a special gleam that happily remained throughout the rest of his life. Frankenmuth had hosted the 'Saginaw Valley Zone Walther League Field Day' at the St. Lorenz Churchgrove. While he was directing some of the games and contests, he took particular notice of a "lively female participant… She was attractive, jolly, vivacious, and had sparkling eyes." Immediately impressed, Wally was completely smitten and vouched for the possibilities of love at first sight.
Wally's prayer was answered when he became better acquainted with Ms. Irene Ruth Pretzer on a winter motorcoach excursion to Silver Valley, a ski and sledding attraction near Tawas, Michigan.
Wally and Irene's love quickly blossomed through their common love of music, youth work, and the Walther League; and through their deep rooted family values, faith in the Lord, and church commitment. Irene mightily inspired, encouraged, and supported Wally. After her college training in musical education she was offered a teaching job in Frankenmuth, where the Hemlock native rented an apartment and soon became acquainted with Wally's family. Wally revealed his intentions to make Irene his beautiful bride. With blessings from all the parents, Wally's official engagement proposal came during a 1950 Walther League convention in St. Joseph, Michigan, where Irene happily accepted!
Soon-to-be married Wally counted his flourishing young business a blessing as he knew he would carry the role of provider for his wife and eventually a family. Wally continued working hard, expanding to decorate commercial exhibits for the Saginaw County Fair which at the time was the second largest fair of its kind. His relationship with Irene also brought another opportunity to decorate the windows of Jennison's Hardware in nearby Bay City. One occasion at Jennison's became a "window of opportunity" when merchants from Clare, MI, came looking for decorations for the city's lampposts. While Jennison's did not stock city decorations, salesroom manager Lawrence Pressler directed the businessmen to Wally in hopes he could meet the request. Wally and his friend, and first staff member, Eddie Beyerlein, suggested custom, colorful, decorative panels that birthed the start of his commercial Christmas decorations business in the early 1950s.
On the beautiful sunny, summery evening of Saturday June 23, 1951, Wally married soul-mate and best friend Irene Ruth Pretzer at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Hemlock, Michigan. Their lifetime Christian commitment that day was unified in the Lord, making it a three-way relationship...bride, groom, and God.
Space in the Bronner family basement became limited for Wally's sign painting business. He rented the Roth Carpentry Shop to accommodate the growth.
Wally and school chum Fred Bernthal, who helped on a part-time basis as a sales rep, believed a Christmas decorations exhibit would be beneficial in establishing the new business. Invitations were sent out to mayors, city managers, directors of public works departments, chamber of commerce directors, and downtown associations. These two exhibitions proved a successful launching pad. Guests continued visiting though Wally had packed the displays in a spare garage at his parents'. Realizing he needed a place to accommodate these customers, Wally rented (and filled!) an old, vacant, two-room school house in 1952. It seemed like a perfect fit for the young business until Wally found out the school board planned to raze his rented building in order to make more playground space. At the prompting of his father Herman who believed building would be more economical then renting, Wally and Irene made the difficult decision to build...and go into debt.
Wally was glued to the drafting board and with the advice and support of his father who became a business advisor, facilitator, encourager, and enabler, built an even deeper relationship as they set out to construct the first permanent location.
In 1952, God blessed Wally and Irene with another first, their son Wayne Neal Bronner. With Wayne's arrival, Irene retired from her (second) teaching post as music educator with the Buena Vista School District in Saginaw.
January of 1954 set out to be an exciting year for Wally, Irene, and family as the time finally came to build the long-awaited permanent location he had worked so hard with his father to plan. Sadly, Wally's mother Ella passed away in February shortly after a planned surgery from an unexpected blood clot. The loss was a great adjustment for everyone, especially Wally's father Herman. Bravely and eagerly he continued on with his team and tackled the construction of Bronner's business home that Ella had so anxiously anticipated.
Before construction was complete, when the partial building shell had a portion of its 64-square-foot floor space poured, Wally's sign construction and lettering activities were already moved in and in progress! In September, Wally hosted a party in the lobby for all who labored on the project and their spouses. The meal time devotion included a tribute to his dear mother.
Wally described Irene as a "dedicated wife, exceptional homemaker, and loving mother" during the years when his time was so absorbed with the growing Christmas decorations business. In addition to making a loving home for her family and staying involved with the church, Irene also filled the gap left by the loss of Wally's mother by making sure his widowed father was cared for.
1955 brought the loving Bronner couple another blessed bundle when daughter Carla Jean was born followed by Randall Lee, born in 1957. The time came when Wally and Irene felt they had outgrown the Bronner family homestead and anticipated the building of their own home.
Wally's father, and special friend, entered his heavenly home on August 30, 1960. But Wally felt his dad would have been pleased to know they were carrying out his dreams by building their Alpine-styled home on a plot of land that was once the family's ancestral farm.
Sadly, in 1963 Wally experienced another earthly loss, when his sister Helen passed away shortly after the birth of her fourth child. Irene came to the rescue by bringing little Lori home for nurture, as well as helping care for Helen's family until her husband Clarence Rupprecht remarried.
1966, in the midst of the business' expansion, brought family growth as well when beautiful, little Maria Ann entered the Bronner family.
Wally's passion quickly spread! The first location was so well received; people poured in to the decorated showroom from all over. Expansion was desperately needed and came in 1963 when Wally hired Uncle Bill Bronner and son Ron to triple the salesroom and sign area. City Manager Herbert Keinath recognized Bronner's growth potential and suggested Wally and Irene consider purchasing a V-shaped plot of land near the Southern approach to town. After prayer and much consideration, Wally and Irene went ahead to acquire acreage over the years of 1965-1969.
Enthusiasm continued and in 1966 Wally purchased the old bank building transforming it into Bronner's Tannenbaum Shop. Then in 1971, after Aunt Hattie's passing, he added the three-generation Hubinger grocery location transforming the shop into Bronner's Bavarian Corner. Bronner's was bustling so well, that at times, doormen were employed to control the lines of people entering the stores! All three locations continued to flourish under the blessings of God, whom Wally sought to honor. Consolidation of the three sites became imminent but not without much hesitation, prayer, and guidance.
As all the details fell into place, Wally and Irene, with the help of trusted staff, saw completion of the new facilities which included a spacious building for the Christmas decorations venture which they renamed "Bronner's CHRISTmas Wonderland." The "25 Christmas Lane" location opening was held on June 8, 1977. And a new business motto was adopted: "Enjoy CHRISTmas, It's HIS Birthday; Enjoy Life, It's HIS Way."
The screen printing business, which had expanded dramatically from its early days of hand-lettering, was also relocated to a separate building on the new site. In October of 1976, employees of Bronner's Screen Printing business were completely thrilled with all the new "Space! Space! Space!" Accounts continued to grow over the years. Don Fischer, who had helped to expand the company into the developing field of membrane switches and circuitry screened in silver and copper oxide inks, expressed interest in purchasing the business, which had since been renamed Memtron Technologies, a division of Bronner Screen Printing. After studying the proposal for a year, the decision was made to sell Memtron Technologies, and focus on the Christmas store.
Over the course of years that followed, Wally and Irene were delighted as the second generation joined in building the Christmas Wonderland. Eldest daughter Carla was the first to come onboard in 1976 after graduating from Central Michigan University. Joining the company in 1983 was eldest son Wayne, after sharing 9 years with the Department of Natural Resources while acquiring his Master's degree in administration (later completing a second Bachelor's degree in Spanish); and wife Lorene Bronner, a graduate from Michigan State University with a degree in biology. Carla married Bob Spletzer, a graduate from Concordia Teachers College in Illinois. He became a part of Bronner's staff in 1988. Youngest daughter Maria graduated from Alma College with a business major and German minor. She added her skills to the Bronner operation in 1989, after working with an advertising agency for a short time. Maria's husband Christopher Sutorik, an art and design graduate from Saginaw Valley State University and mechanical engineering graduate from Mott Community College, also lent his creative talents to the Bronner's visual department in 1995. (Youngest son Randy graduated from Lawrence Institute of Technology with a degree in Electrical Engineering. He enjoys photography and lives in Arizona, far from the Michigan winters.)
More blessings enlarged the Bronner family with the arrival of 5 grandsons. Wayne and Lorene had sons Dietrich and Garrett. Carla and Bob later added three more boys with the births of their sons Ryan, Paul, and Greg. All grandchildren had taken an interest in their Grandfather's hobby-turned-career by serving alongside Bronner staff while pursuing their studies.
Bronner's continued to grow over the years. A 1991 building addition nearly doubled the size of the Christmas complex. During that busy period, gladness was mixed with sadness with the loss of Wally's brother Arnold on May 17, 1991. Before his passing, Arnold was able to visit the nearly completed expansion, proudly giving his young brother a stamp of approval! In 2000 an expansion was added to the Shipping department. In May 2002, another major expansion opened, bringing the total building size to 5.5 football fields and making Bronner's the "World's Largest Christmas Store." These additions benefited from the former Memtron Technologies location as it was incorporated into the new space.
1992 brought completion of a 16-year journey for Wally when the replica Silent Night Memorial Chapel, erected on Bronner grounds, was dedicated in thankfulness to God for His many gracious blessings over the years. Learn more about Bronner's Silent Night Chapel open for meditation and visitation daily.
In 1998 Wally and Irene transferred the leadership of the Christmas superstore to the second generation. But they were hardly retired! Wally often told people "Retirement is for people who had to go to work. I started with a hobby 55 years ago, enjoyed it, and never went to work. Who would want to retire from a hobby? I'll stay with my hobby, but only on days that end in 'y.'" And he did! Wally was even more re-fired about his passion and continued visiting with guests to the store, giving speeches, and humbly accepting the many honors bestowed upon him. Irene also continues to work, keeping their legacy alive. Her sweet voice can be heard throughout the store's PA system wishing staff and visitors a safe and blessed evening at the store's closing some days.
The 2000's brought Wally and Irene many joyful milestones. In 2001 the extraordinarily committed couple shared their 50th golden, wedding anniversary with family and friends. 2007 brought them their 80th birthdays celebrated alongside appreciative staff, which they always considered extended family throughout their years of serving the Frankenmuth community. The year 2008 also brought our loss-but Wally's gain, as he entered his heavenly home on April 1.
Wally had the privilege and honor of knowing before his passing that Dietrich Bronner, his first grandson, planned to officially join the Bronner's team. On November 3, 2008, Dietrich came on board as product development manager. Dietrich graduated in 2002 from Michigan State University, having earned a Bachelor of Science degree in finance with an emphasis in merchandising management.
Wally Bronner was one of the most genuine and humble men a person could have had the privilege of knowing. As an entrepreneur and part of the Frankenmuth Beautification Committee, he made a colossal impact on his close-knit community that thrives today. Wally leaves behind his "better-half" Irene, son Wayne and his wife Lorene, daughter Carla and her husband Bob Spletzer, son Randy and his Fiancée Deneen, daughter Maria and her husband Christopher Sutorik, and five grandsons: Dietrich and Garrett Bronner and his wife Christine; and Ryan, Paul, and Greg Spletzer. The Bronner family is proud to carry on the tradition of their mother, father, and grandfather, keeping CHRIST in CHRISTmas 361 days a year so that guests may "decorate their hearts with peace and love" as was Wally's mission. For an even deeper encounter with Wally and Bronner's, consider reading Sharing Joy 365, Wally's autobiography, the Picturesque Story of Bronner's CHRISTmas Wonderland for a look at the store's journey, awards, and well-known guests, or 111 Reflections Plus for more of Wally's memorable moments, favorite snippets of humor, and more!