Dr. Charlene and John Dwyer

Married Couple Both Find Success In Life, Named Waubonsee “Fab 40” Alumni

Dr. Charlene and John Dwyer, seen here outside their Brookfield, Wis., home, have found success in the business world and through helping others. Waubonsee Community College has named them “Fabulous 40” alumni.
Sugar Grove — With their humble demeanor, John and Dr. Charlene Dwyer might not appear to be a “power couple,” but in reality their combined positive influence on the business world and the larger community is hard to top. Dr. Charlene (Bolly) Dwyer has positively impacted thousands of lives in her career as a college counselor, nonprofit executive director and in her current role as administrator of the Wisconsin Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. John Dwyer, senior vice president of Operations with Markel American Insurance Company, has had a long and successful career in the insurance industry. Waubonsee Community College is proud to honor them both as “Fabulous 40” alumni.

As part of the college’s yearlong 40th anniversary celebration, Waubonsee is honoring 40 alumni and students who embody the mission, vision and values of the college. These individuals represent the diversity of Waubonsee’s students and the college district, as well as the diversity of the college’s mission as a comprehensive community college.

Born and raised in Aurora, John graduated from West Aurora High School in 1965. An average student, he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. He enlisted with the Air Force and spent four years working as an explosives ordinance disposal technician, serving on a base in Vietnam. He left the service with the rank of sergeant and enrolled at Waubonsee in January 1970 when he returned home.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he said. “I went the Waubonsee route because I had no clue what I was going to do. I didn’t know if I was college material and had the skill to make it.”

John found a core group of other veterans who were able to relate to one another through their shared experiences. This helped ease the transition back to an academic environment.

“Waubonsee was in its infancy. There was a good group of people,” he said. “The similar profile of the students made us closer. It definitely had a hometown feel. The staff was approachable, friendly and down-to-earth. I always got good solid basic support from every instructor I had. All my teachers were very engaged and supportive. I didn’t find school to be threatening. It was a comfortable environment to be in. With the smaller class sizes, you knew everybody. It was very close-knit, like a family.”

Waubonsee provided the foundation for John’s future success.

“I’m proud of my Waubonsee experience and the fact that I did well,” he said. “Waubonsee was like a gateway to a whole new life. It was the right thing for me at the right place at the right time. I have really emphasized that opportunity I was given and am a big supporter of community colleges. It really was a springboard. It gave me the confidence to succeed.”

John met his wife, Charlene, in Sandy Cunningham’s Intro to Sociology class in fall 1970. Charlene also grew up in Aurora. Her family had a farm off of Randall Road and Sullivan Road. A 1970 graduate of Rosary High School, Charlene enrolled at Waubonsee that fall, even though her twin sister started at Northern Illinois University (NIU).

“Waubonsee made for a nice transition from Rosary,” she said. “I would have been lost at a large four-year school. I would have been swallowed up.”

Waubonsee’s $8 per credit hour tuition helped make Charlene’s decision easier.

“I was able to graduate with my bachelor’s degree with no loans and no debt,” she said. “I stayed really focused on my studies by living at home. I had a fabulous two years of education.”

The small class sizes were a big plus for Charlene.

“The teachers knew your name,” she said. “I had smaller classes and never had a TA (teacher’s assistant). It was like going to a small liberal arts college. You really knew everybody. There was a real sense of community.”

At Waubonsee, Charlene went to her first opera, honed her Spanish skills, and was an active student, participating in the school play.

“Waubonsee jumpstarted my academic career and my professional success,” she said. “I developed a lifelong love of learning that carried me forward. Because I did so well, it made me realize that I could raise the bar and succeed.”

Charlene and John both transferred to NIU to complete their bachelor’s degrees, marrying in 1974. John earned his degree in business with a marketing emphasis. He would go on to earn Chartered Property Casualty Underwriter (CPCU) and Certified Insurance Counselor (CIC) trade certificates.

Charlene earned her degree in communication disorders. However, education would truly be a constant in her life. She would go on to earn a master’s degree in counseling, focusing on communication disorders, and a doctorate in education with a focus on counselor education — all at NIU. She worked in counseling at Harper College and then came to Waubonsee as a counselor for deaf students, working with fellow “Fab 40” member Fran Preston until 1984.

Meanwhile, John’s career path in the insurance industry had grown from a chance interview with Prudential Property and Casualty Insurance to his becoming one of the company’s youngest regional managers. Instead of taking a promotion at Prudential that would have taken the family to Newark, N.J., he took a position with Northwestern National Insurance Company that brought the family to Wisconsin, where they have lived ever since.

With the move to Wisconsin, Charlene worked as an instructor and job development specialist with PC Learning College and then with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Interpreter Training Program. From 1990 to 1993, she was assistant director with the nonprofit group IndependenceFirst in Milwaukee. From 1993 to 2001, she led two nonprofit organizations as executive director — first the Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearning, then EBTIDE, a homeownership coalition based in Madison.

In 2001, Charlene became administrator of the Wisconsin Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. The agency she heads provides vocational and career counseling for people with disabilities. More than 38,000 residents are served each year.

“We help people not have to go on disability benefits and be more self-sufficient,” she said. “There’s a huge payback for the taxpayers.”

John worked at Northwestern until 1990, when he took a position with Markel American Insurance Company, part of a much larger Markel Corporation, which offers specialty insurance products. Markel American specializes in insuring boats, yachts, all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, motorcycles and classic automobiles. In other words, “we insure big toys for big boys,” he said.

Many of Markel’s clients are the rich and famous. At one point, Dwyer insured Dennis Rodman’s high performance powerboat. From when he started 18 years ago, Markel has grown from $7 million to $190 million. His job takes him everywhere from high-end boat shows to Sturgis, S.D., for Bike Week.

John and Charlene live in Brookfield, Wis., and have three grown children, Kevin, Anne and Brian.