Sisters Filling a Void: Jen Golem & Carey Sharpe
The once-stately building loomed two stories high, wrapped in brick and loads of dingy windows. Just one year ago the Tudor Revival Style hall stood completely vacant and looked every bit its 90 years. People who passed the aging relic on Washington Avenue in Oshkosh saw it as a hollow, run-down failure. That’s not how sisters Jenna Golem and Carey Sharpe viewed it. They saw opportunity.
Golem and Sharpe paired their leadership skills and flair for entertaining into a complete remodel of the former Eagles Club. They’ve renamed it The Howard, a posh social hub featuring live entertainment, a fresh cafe and boutique bowling. The two, along with silent partner and brother Ben Johnson, tackled the monumental task while raising and expanding their young families.
Golem stood below the arching wooden beams in the great hall chatting before an original, ornate fireplace carved with the words “Liberty, truth, justice, equality.”
“It’s funny,” she laughed while examining the antique. “This building started out as a men’s only club. We’re in a time right now where women are really powerful.”
Later, relaxing for just a moment, the sisters spoke in depth about how they view their changing and emerging roles.
When their building operated as the Eagles Club, “It was a fraternity, basically,” Sharpe said. “Women could come and attend socially, but they couldn’t become a member.” Today, they’re calling the shots: from building material choices to staffing assignments.
“It’s really unusual that we’re doing a project of this sort,” Sharpe said. “The construction guys didn’t know what to do with us at first. We’re really detail-oriented and had a very specific vision. Now that they’re seeing the finished product, they understand.”
Sharpe is a strong advocate for women’s empowerment, often citing her favorite motto: “Ladies get stuff done.”
“I think women will run the world in the not-too-distant future,” she said. “I just live by the motto of always setting goals for myself that seem a little bit too big, a little out of reach. Then I accomplish them and set the next goal even higher.” That mindset aligned perfectly with The Howard project. Women, Golem said, have a different eye for construction and renovation projects. “For us, it was equally important to make it functional and beautiful,” she said.
That’s Golem’s and Sharpe’s specialty: Seeing a need, finding a solution and pushing against resistance to achieve their goal – all with a touch of style. It’s something they learned growing up in Oshkosh with parents Jane and U.S. Senator Ron Johnson.
They’re taking that same approach as they begin the process to launch a new private school in Oshkosh. Acton Academies, with more than 100 affiliate schools worldwide that are either already in operation or preparing for launch, promote a multi-age classroom led by adult “guides,” not teachers, who provide challenges for students who work together in groups to find answers and reach goals.
The academy, which they intend to open on the city’s north side in 2020, will start out as strictly an elementary school and will expand through to grade 12 as the students grow. The sisters said the impetus for this academy grew from their desire to provide the best for their own children and a lack of faith in the current public school model.
“We would like our children to be independent and self-motivated,” Golem said.
“The way school is run puts an emphasis on answering the questions correctly,” Sharpe said. “It prevents people from being empowered to do something on their own. If we can foster that in children, that will help them to be self-driven.”
Golem and husband Chris have two young sons – Archer is 3 and Franklin was born just as The Howard renovation process started. Sharpe and husband R.J. have a 2-year-old daughter Marit and a 2-month-old son Ryder. Golem and Sharpe said they went through some growing pains as they worked on the construction project and steered their young families.
“There are certainly moments I feel a little guilty for not being able to fulfill my children’s immediate needs,” Golem said. But in instances where the sisters feel pulled in too many directions, they are thankful for their neighbors: each other.
The entire family – all three siblings and their parents – live within walking distance of one another. Their parents remain in their childhood home and the siblings were able to buy homes nearby. With that built-in support system, they can rely on each other for big or small favors. But even in a family so interconnected, the renovation of The Howard was more challenging than Golem had expected.
“People often ask what was the most difficult, but really it hasn’t been any particular thing. It’s the sheer number of decisions that need to be made every day,” she said. Making that many decisions with a sibling for a partner can be a recipe for disaster. Thankfully for Golem and Sharpe, they’ve had a lifetime of practice in conflict resolution.
“We can scream at each other and two seconds later laugh about it,” Golem said. “We have that comfort level with each other. Any disagreement is no big deal.” Sharpe laughed in agreement.
“Most of the time, whoever cares more about it wins the argument.”
Growing up, the two sisters observed their father, who helped launch what is now a multi-million dollar plastic manufacturing company, Pacur, and they have drawn a lot of personal and professional inspiration from his work ethic. Before becoming a U.S. Senator, he worked tirelessly to grow the family business, which he ran with his brother-in-law Patrick Curler (the namesake of Pacur).
“My dad is the most hardworking person I know, and his quiet acts of giving – both large and small – always really inspire me,” Sharpe said. “He once said something like, ‘Whenever you see a door open, you always walk through it,’ meaning when you see an opportunity to help someone, you always do.”
The three siblings were grown when Johnson made the leap into the national spotlight by deciding to run for a Senate seat.
“He made the decision to run when we were in Hawaii for my wedding,” Golem said. “I’m thankful we were adults. It’s difficult enough as adults to hear people criticize your parents.”
Both sisters attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison and followed separate paths.
Sharpe – the older sister – earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing, moved to Chicago and spent six years as a neonatal ICU nurse while earning her master’s degree in nursing. She worked another five years as a pediatric nurse practitioner in the ICU of the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. She also earned her master’s degree in public health before returning to Oshkosh three years ago to start her family with husband R.J.
She said her background in nursing has helped ease her into leadership at The Howard.
“Taking care of others inspires me,” Sharpe said. “In a way, moving into the hospitality business is also a good fit because at the heart of it, hospitality is simply taking care of your customers.”
Golem, younger by two years, returned to Oshkosh after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in fine/studio arts. She worked as a graphic artist for Pacur. After a few years, she left the company to focus on her creative pursuits: fine arts, in particular oil painting, and renovating an old pole barn into an art studio and gallery.
Before children, Golem loved to spend time with her mother in Washington, D.C. “It’s impossible to get away right now,” Golem said. “But I loved to go hang out with my mom and walk from monument to monument with her.” Now, she’s charting the future of her very own monument: The Howard was officially listed on the National and State Register of Historic Places earlier this year. w