Mary Jo Brunner

On April 3, 2024, Mary Jo Brunner, age 88, passed away with her loving family around her and now is safe in the hands of Jesus.

Mary Jo was born on Aug. 30, 1935, in Milwaukee, to Joe and Florence Garska, the last of four children. The day before her first birthday, the family moved to Shawano where Mary Jo grew up and attended Sacred Heart School and Shawano High School, graduating in 1953. After graduation, she attended Eau Claire State University and graduated in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree in education.

On June 15, 1957, in Shawano, she was united in marriage to Duane Breitrick. They lived for one year in Appleton where Mary Jo taught second grade. They moved back to Shawano where she taught second grade at Sacred Heart School, being the first lay teacher there, teaching in the same room she went to third grade in.

She then took time off to have five children.

In 1969, she started teaching special needs children at the Advance School run by the Shawano County Special Education Board. Mary Jo taught there for 14 years, moving into the Shawano School District in 1982 where she taught severely developmentally delayed students for 12 years. After retiring from her classroom, she worked as a substitute teacher in the Shawano, Bonduel and Keshena primary schools for 15 years.

While at the Advance School in 1971, with the help of co-teacher Mary Ellen Felts, they started the Advance Special Olympic Team, which was later renamed the Shawano All Stars.

Mary Jo remained the agency manager of the All Stars for 45-plus years. She traveled as a companion to special needs travelers for eight years. Mary Jo was the founder and queen of the Velvet Violets Red Hat Group, with the group name of “Lady on the Go.” She loved flowers and vegetable gardens, having a garden in the community gardens by the M bridge for 20-plus years.

Mary Jo enjoyed sharing her produce with family and friends. Feeding and watching birds were another big joy to her.

After Duane passed away in 1982, Mary Jo met Bob Brunner whom she married on June 23, 1984, blending a family of 11 children. They were married for 37 happy years. They spent time at Fort Myers Beach each year with friends and family. Mary Jo spent many hours walking the beach picking shells that she brought back to Wisconsin and shared with everyone she could.

Mary Jo is survived by her children, Theresa “Teri” (Rick) Buth, Jeff Breitrick, Linda (Dean) Koeller and Ruth Breitrick, all of the Shawano area; eight grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; six stepdaughters, Susie, Mary, Kathy, Jenny, Bonnie and Lisa; five step-grandchildren; and one step-great-granddaughter; four sisters-in-law, Helen Garska, Barb Brunner, Karen Marsden and Sandy Buettener. She is further survived by many nieces, nephews, other relatives, friends, former students and Special Olympic athletes.

Mary Jo is preceded in death by her first husband, Duane Breitrick; second husband, Robert Brunner; son, Mike Breitrick; sisters, Phyllis (Jack) Tinsman and Delores “Dodo” (Tony) Huntington-Zahringer; brother, Ken (Helen) Garska; three brothers-in-law; and three sisters-in-law.

A funeral Mass for Mary Jo will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, April 13, at Sacred Heart Catholic Parish with Fr. Edward Looney officiating. Visitation will be held at Swedberg Funeral Home in Shawano on Friday, April 12, 2024, from 5-7 p.m., then again on Saturday at the church from 9:30 a.m. until time of service. Burial will be at Woodlawn Cemetery in Shawano following the services.

A memorial fund has been established at Sacred Heart Catholic School.

The family would like to extend a special thank you to the doctors, nurses and staff at St. Bellin first floor and Unity Hospice for their wonderful care.