ANTIGO — Julie Sprague remembers watching her father, a strapping dairy farmer, on his knees in the cellar praying as summertime thunderstorms swept across the Antigo Flats.
“He was praying for safety for his family and friends and the farm,” Sprague said. “I knew right then, that if that big strong man felt he should hit his knees in prayer, it must work.”
Sprague is administrator for the Antigo Unified School District, a job she has held since July 2018. It’s familiar surroundings. She grew up on the plains surrounding the community, known as the “Antigo Flats,” attended the rural Spring Valley Elementary School a handful of miles from the family’s “Lonely Elms” dairy farm and graduated from Antigo High School in 1985.
“I was so excited to be coming back to my home school district,” Sprague said. “I really want to spend the rest of my career here and place my mark on this school district.”
That mark — a mix of the values of hard work and a love of community — was developed at the knee of her father and mother, Norbert and the late Rosemary Schroepfer, with her three older sisters and a younger brother at that small dairy farm northeast of Antigo. “Even by the standards of the day, it was not a large operation,” she said. “We milked about 40 cows and my father always stressed quality over quantity.”
It was, she said, a small and successful operation.
“As much as I didn’t like the hard work growing up on a dairy farm, that’s where I learned my work ethic,” she said.
In addition to expressions of faith throughout the week, there was also regular attendance at St. Hyacinth Church in Antigo.
“We had catechism classes on Saturday mornings and in the afternoons I would go bowling with Tombstone pizza and Mountain Dew,” she said. “We never missed Mass on Sunday. I remember in the winter, my dad would drive our whole carload home from church and do donuts in the driveway. My mom would scold him to stop and we would squeal with delight.”
At Spring Valley Elementary School, “I knew I was going to get the best education ever,” she said. “I knew that I had the best cooks, and best teachers and the absolute best bus driver. That’s what we all believed and that’s what I want your students in all our schools to believe in today.”
By fifth grade, Sprague had decided she wanted to be an educator and throughout her studies at Antigo High School, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and doctoral work at Edgewood College in Madison, she never wavered.
“I knew I would be the first in my family to go to college and I really felt empowered by that. I wanted to make everybody proud,” she said. “There was a group of us who came down from Antigo together to Madison.”
The Antigo students kept together as a small, close-knit community and remain friends to this day. “That’s saying a lot about family, friends and community support,” she said. “It shows you can take it with you.”
She climbed the ladder as a professional educator, but never forgot those early lessons of family and community. “I never felt anything came that easy for me,” she said. “When I was earning my doctorate, I thought, ‘How am I ever going to do this?’ But as I continued and it became attainable, I could see it happening. It just created an overwhelming feeling of ‘how did this happen?’”
She answered her own question.
“It was by God’s grace,” she said.
Prior to her current position, Sprague served as director of curriculum and education for the Wausau School District, certainly a career-making job, and she was initially passed over as Antigo administrator.
But, true to her faith and roots, she did not quit and was ready when the opportunity arose again short of a year later.
“My patron saint is St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers,” she said, “because I believe my life’s journey has brought me back to my roots.”
She returned to a district that she admitted had gone adrift, with a revolving door of administrators and instructors, budget deficits and test scores that had become far from ideal. The district was constricting, closing its rural elementary schools as enrollments fell and in an effort to equalize educational opportunities.
One of her hardest jobs was speaking at the closing of her beloved Spring Valley Elementary School. Amid tears, she turned the occasion into an opportunity to applaud the community and look ahead toward the opportunities to come.
“This is a community I am proud to be a part of,” she said. “Collectively, it is within us to improve. We just have to weather the storm.”
Sprague said she is where she is today because of family, community, perseverance and faith.
“With privilege comes responsibility and you can’t take anything for granted,” she said. “I love what I am doing, I really do. I’m always thinking, ‘What can I give back to the community?’ I hope that can someday be my legacy.”