ANTIGO — In a rapidly changing financial climate which has mangled the livelihoods of thousands of families across the nation, Paul Grinde has a single goal: Provide warm, safe, affordable housing to all.
“In the farm crisis of the 1980s, I learned that people in difficult situations can do amazing things if given achievable goals,” said Grinde, a member of St. John the Evangelist Parish. “To those people, there was not a separation from their job and family, they were both intertwined. If I could help the farm succeed, it would help strengthen the family.”
Born a “Norwegian Lutheran,” Grinde grew up on a dairy and tobacco farm north of Madison and learned the importance of community at a young age.
“We depended on friends and neighbors to help with planting and harvest,” Grinde said. “It was just understood that we helped back.”
His mother always provided big meals, including fish and meatless options for Catholic friends on Fridays, and his father led by example.
“I remember especially one day when we had hay to put in the barn, dad stopped everything to take a blind neighbor shopping,” Grinde said. “I never really understood the importance of that until after he died and mom continued to live on the farm, even though she didn’t drive. Friends, neighbors and people I didn’t even know showed up to check on her, taking her shopping, bringing food and just visiting. That allowed her to stay there for many years.”
Grinde and his brother, Ralph, attended a one-room schoolhouse, with 13 students spread across eight grades.
“We only had one teacher so the older students had to help the younger ones with their lessons,” he recalled. “We even had to clean the school at the end of the day.”
Grinde moved on to high school and college at UW-Platteville, graduating with a degree in agricultural economics and a job with Production Credit Association.
In quick succession he experienced several life-changing events.
The first was meeting his future wife, Marlene, “on a blind date I didn’t want to go on,” he admitted.
“Throughout our marriage we have tried to do most things together,” Grinde said. “You will seldom see us apart today. She has provided counsel, encouragement and support for 47 years. I cannot do what I do without her.”
Marlene was a Catholic, and Grinde thought it was important for the couple to attend the same church in order to set an example for their children. He began quietly meeting with a priest in Plymouth and found he could accept the teachings of the church since it promoted the values he already had.
“As a convert, I do not just blindly accept everything,” he said. “I question. I have to think it through.”
The words of one priest have remained with him for decades.
“He told me that he would rather see me as a good Lutheran than a poor Catholic,” Grinde said.
Following a series of mergers and downsizing throughout the industry, Grinde moved into traditional banking, and in 1995 found himself in Antigo working for what was then known as Antigo Co-op Credit Union, a mid-level credit union serving a largely rural population.
“They did things I had not seen before in the financial industries,” he said. “They tried to find ways to make loans to help families.” Housing was key, he felt.
“Safe, warm affordable housing seemed to me a way to add stability to the families who had been so good to help the credit union’s success,” he said. “Listening to the credit union board and president, it often sounded more like I was in church than a financial institution. How does it affect the families? Is it the right thing to do? Is it fair?”
As executive vice president, he worked with staff members to develop and promote innovative ways to help members in good times and — as the Great Recession of 2008 loomed — in bad.
In 2009, Grinde led the effort to designate the now renamed CoVantage Credit Union as a Community Development Financial Institution, allowing it to access federal grants that it used to make an additional $34.5 million in loans to people who would not otherwise be eligible.
“Those loans allowed 108 families who were in foreclosure or danger of foreclosure with other lenders to refinance and get affordable payments and 205 families to purchase homes with as little as 3 percent down, targeting blighted homes in our communities,” Grinde says. “The credit union also helped 29 businesses to save or create 258 jobs.”
Grinde retired in 2012, intent on pursuing volunteer work for his church and involvement in Habitat for Humanity, another housing success story. But he remains on a part-time basis to guide and support the credit union’s community development efforts.
Grinde is an active member of a variety of local business, educational and civic groups. Through all his positions, years in business and civic engagement, he says he remembers those lessons he learned on the family farm and in that one-room schoolhouse.
“The lines between home, church, work, community and neighbors are not clear. They are all intermingled,” he said. “They are all an important part of our life. Education has not ended either. We must continue to learn each day.”