© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
What’s got you scratching your head about Milwaukee and the region? Bubbler Talk is a series that puts your curiosity front and center.

How Enderis Park neighborhood's namesake, Dorothy Enderis, shaped Milwaukee Recreation

A woman standing by a sign outside
Audrey Nowakowski
WUWM's Lauri Jones by the sign marking the Enderis Playfield in the Enderis Park neighborhood. Jones lives in Enderis Park and submitted a question to Bubbler Talk to find out more about Dorothy Enderis, who the park is named after.

Editor's Note: Scroll down to listen to OnMilwaukee's Bobby Tanzilo talk about the history of Enderis Playfield.

For this week’s Bubbler Talk, our question comes from right within the station from Lauri Jones — Here & Now host and operations director at WUWM.

What have you always wanted to know about the Milwaukee area that you'd like WUWM to explore?

"I live in Milwaukee’s Enderis Park neighborhood. I wrote to Bubbler Talk because I would like to know more about Dorothy Enderis, who the neighborhood is named after," Jones shares.

Dorothy Enderis & Milwaukee Recreation

Enderis was born in 1880 to Swiss immigrant parents in Elmhurst, Illinois, and the family moved to Milwaukee the next year. After graduating from the Milwaukee Normal School in 1901, Enderis worked as the school’s assistant librarian for eight years, then taught 4th grade at the Fifth District School. There she stood out for making exercise a part of her student’s daily routine.

Dorothy Enderis
Courtesy of Milwaukee Recreations
Dorothy Enderis

However, it's Enderis’ next job as a key leader in building our recreation program that truly makes her stand out in Milwaukee’s history. To add some perspective, historian John Gurda explains how recreation stemmed from Milwaukee’s Socialist roots during a time of reform in City Hall and beyond under Mayor Emil Seidel.

“One thing [the Socialists] began very early was a study of recreation in Milwaukee and they did a survey. They found 91 bowling alleys and 24 pool halls and not much for the kids," Gurda explains. "So there was an obvious need for recreation, and you have all these buildings and an extensive large city school system and they put two and two together and say, 'Why don't we light up these schoolhouses and use them for recreation centers when school hours are over?'”
The state Legislature issued an official charter — Chapter 509 of the Wisconsin Laws of 1911— that made Milwaukee the first school system in the country to take responsibility for public recreation, making it a pioneering program. This law recognized recreation as a key component of human development and the formation of a city's culture. First known as “the Extension Department,” the Division of Recreation and Community Services remains under Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) to this day. Now, we simply refer to it as Milwaukee Recreation.

Utilizing the vast public school system facilities that were already in place throughout the city for recreation programs is how Milwaukee became known nationally as the “City of the Lighted Schoolhouse.” The first recreation sites were called social centers, and early programs included everything from naturalization classes for new citizens, athletics, music, drama, bathing, dressmaking, swimming lessons and much more.

Harold Berg was the first to lead this new department, and in 1911, he offered Dorothy Enderis the position of assistant for girls’ recreation. Together, they shaped the key principles and activities offered — centering it on a neighborhood system.

“Harold Berg was certainly the pioneer, the founder. But Dorothy Enderis, her fingerprints are really on the system as it exists today even,” Gurda says.

Enderis became the director of recreation in 1920, and her mission was to make life richer for every person in the city — no matter their age or background.

"During working hours, we make a living. During leisure hours, we make a life."
Dorothy Enderis

“The quote that was associated with her most often was, ‘During working hours, we make a living and during leisure hours, we make a life,’ and that’s pretty profound when you think about it,” Gurda adds.

Under Enderis’ guidance, Milwaukee became a national model for playground and social center programs, and the department expanded significantly during her 28-year tenure. The system went from 11 social centers when she began to 40, and staff playgrounds that primarily served children grew from 20 to 72.

Listen to the extended version of this Bubbler Talk

Gurda says that Dorothy Enderis was an adept politician, even if you wouldn't necessarily associate recreation workers with that word. She worked with the Common Council, had a great deal of personal charm and could quickly switch from speaking German to English.

"She was someone who was very adept at kind of the retail politics and someone who could translate her passion for her mission into political support," he says. "You look at her picture, you know she's a pretty joyous woman, somebody [who] really had a kind of a bright outlook on life and somebody who was, you would guess, a perennial optimist — as you have to be if you were in in the public sphere."

Throughout her career in recreation, Dorothy Enderis received many honors and awards for her work to provide opportunities for the local community to learn, play, and engage in a diverse setting.
Image courtesy of Milwaukee Recreation
Throughout her career in recreation, Dorothy Enderis received many honors and awards for her work to provide opportunities for the local community to learn, play, and engage in a diverse setting.

Enderis certainly left a permanent impact on Milwaukee Recreation, even as it has evolved over the decades. Lynn Greb, current director of Milwaukee Recreation, says Enderis’ vision is still a guiding principle today.

"[Enderis] was a hard worker and she expected a lot from her staff, and I think when you see the quality of programming that we've continued to offer throughout the past 100 plus years, you'll see a lot of her legacy continuing," says Greb.

"It's an honor to follow in the footsteps of all the people that came before, and especially Miss Enderis is so well known in our community that it's big shoes to fill," she adds. "But I think from the foundation that was built back in the early 1900s, ... a lot of that history has endured and been carried through."

Milwaukee Recreation became a part of less than 2% of park and recreation agencies to earn accreditation through the Commission for Accreditation of Park and Recreation Agencies (CAPRA) and the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) in 2021. The department serves tens of thousands of city residents every year — from youth, teens, adults, seniors and families — with more than 100 locations programmed on an annual basis. The citywide network includes 52 playfields plus community centers and schools that host programming for childcare camps, youth sports, special events and more.

Enderis Park Playfield & Neighborhood

Lake Effect's Audrey Nowakowski speaks with OnMilwaukee's Bobby Tanzilo about the history of Enderis Playfield

The playfield in the Enderis Park Neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side is of course also a nod to Enderis' legacy. Bobby Tanzilo of OnMilwaukee researched the history of the playfield and is also a resident of the neighborhood. He says before there was a playfield, the land that the park sits on was farmland owned by a man named Erastus Smith in the town of Wauwatosa.

"Then in the '20s … developers started to kind of move west of the city as demand grew, as population grew, and they plotted out a whole neighborhood here, which was called Gale Crest Park. And it's basically the street layout you see today, although there are some minor changes," notes Tanzilo.

By 1927, the City of Milwaukee annexed the land to become a part of the city and reserved some of the land for a park. The whole park land was bought in 1931 and was fully developed under the Works Progress Administration under the New Deal.

"They referred to it as the park at 72nd and Chambers more often than anything else," Tanzilo explains. "So it didn't really seem to have an identity in terms of a name until it's renamed for Dorothy Enderis."

Enderis retired in 1948 and the park was dedicated in her honor two years later.

A piece of the program dedication in 1950 when the City of Milwaukee gave the park over to Milwaukee Rec to operate and dedicated to Dorothy Enderis.
Milwaukee Rec OR "Milwaukee Public Schools Division of Recreation and Community Services"
A piece of the program dedication in 1950 when the City of Milwaukee gave the park over to Milwaukee Rec to operate and dedicated to Dorothy Enderis.

"[In] 1950 is when the city officially hands this park over to MPS for Milwaukee [Recreation] to manage, and at that same ceremony is when they named it in her honor. Fortunately she was alive and could be there for it and enjoy it — it didn't happen after she was gone," he says.

Tanzilo says this New Deal-era gem park has something for everyone — there's a baseball diamond, splash pad, playground, tennis and pickle ball courts, farmers markets, seasonal events and more.

"It really is a place that serves what is a much more diverse neighborhood than I think people might expect," he notes. "If you just sort of drive through it, you might think it's all single-family homes. But actually, there are single-family homes, there are some duplexes, there’s a quite a few multi-family rentals. So it's economically diverse, it's racially diverse and everyone uses the park. ... I can't imagine what the neighborhood would be like without it. It's almost like a you know, a European main square in a way."

Lauri Jones has lived in Enderis Park for 20 years, and she says the best thing about it is that real neighborhood feeling it encapsulates.

"We’re in the middle of Milwaukee, we’ve got busy streets: Center, 76th, Burleigh. But once you get in the neighborhood, it’s just a quiet, very walkable neighborhood with very friendly people and I mean a great park right in the middle of it, so what’s not to love?”

Lauri’s neighbor Joe Donald has lived in Enderis Park for 33 years, which he affectionately calls “the park.” He says in addition to the activities in the park, he loves the sense of community he feels.

"I often say you can buy a nice house but you can’t buy your neighbors and that’s one of the things that I really am very proud of in Enderis Park is the sense of community. … People will do things for you without hesitation,” says Donald.

Mary Mooney has lived in Enderis Park since 2000, and she says she loves walking in the neighborhood to meet others and look at the different styles of houses.

“I had a friend who lived down the street and I used to visit her and sit in her backyard and hang out and talk and I was like, ‘This is exactly the neighborhood I want to live in.’ So this is the only place I looked for a house," she notes.

“When I first moved here and we walked up to the park, myself and my parents, and my mom told me a story that when she was younger, she used to come up to Enderis Park and she used to use those Lannon Stone pillars as a stage. So it’s kind of interesting, that here I am living blocks away from where my mother played and not at all where I thought I’d be [but loving it]," Mooney adds.

When Dorothy Enderis died in 1952 her ashes were spread at Hawthorn Glen, an abandoned quarry that remains a part of Milwaukee Recreation's in-town nature center. In addition to Enderis Playfield, her name is also lives on at UW-Milwaukee, where Enderis Hall houses the School of Education and the School of Social Welfare.

Dorothy Enderis (second from left) circa 1930s at a breakfast event held at a social center on Oklahoma Avenue in Milwaukee, Wis.
Image courtesy of Milwaukee Recreation
Dorothy Enderis (second from left) circa 1930s at a breakfast event held at a social center on Oklahoma Avenue in Milwaukee, Wis.

So whether you live in Enderis Park, walk past Enderis Hall, or have ever looked through a Milwaukee Recreation activity guide and benefitted from a program, take a moment to think of and thank Dorothy Enderis — our “Lady of the Lighted Schoolhouse.”


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Related Content