Jim Kalscheur’s day job was selling steaks, hamburger and racks of ribs. In large quantities.
His UW Provision Co., built from a small butcher shop in Madison, is now a $100 million a year meat wholesale company that sells to restaurants, grocery stores and institutions and is one of the largest companies of its kind in the Midwest.
Generosity was Kalscheur’s other calling and his work in that arena almost overshadows his vast business accomplishments.
There were major gifts to the University of Wisconsin Athletic Department, contributions to build a history museum in Mount Horeb, and a community center in the town of Cross Plains. He supported youth baseball, built an addition onto his church and hosted outings at his farm where children with developmental disabilities fished for rainbow trout in his well-stocked pond.
Kalscheur, business leader and philanthropist extraordinaire, died Thursday April 10, 2020 at his Pine Bluff home. He was 91.
“He grew up in a rural community and everybody kind of helped each other,” Steve Kalscheur, his son, said Monday. “He always told me, ‘The only people you need to get even with are the people that have helped you. Don’t go after the guy who (ticked) you off. Keep watering the plant that’s growing.’”
Kalscheur said his father, who had been undergoing kidney dialysis for some time, had stopped coming into work on a daily basis only in October. Jim Kalscheur’s health gradually declined, but about 25 family members and friends gathered on Jan. 15 to celebrate his 91st birthday. Services for Kalscheur will be held at a later date due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Kalscheur leaves behind his wife, Joyce, to whom he was married for 62 years, three children and eight grandchildren.
He was always very fair. He wanted to make sure that whatever you’re doing in business, everyone had to get their piece of the pie,” Steve Kalscheur said. “He had 90 good years.”
In 2019 Jim was inducted into the UW-Madison Athletic Hall of Fame.
When the Badgers baseball program was scuttled in 1991, the team held its final post-season awards ceremony at Kalscheur’s farm. When the Badgers football team went to the Rose Bowl following the 1993 season, he was among those who headed west and took part in a massive pep rally the day before head coach Barry Alvarez led the team to a historic win against UCLA.
For over 20 years, Kalscheur hosted with Ron Krantz a steak fry that over the years raised $6 million for UW Athletics. Kalscheur’s contributions support three endowed scholarships for UW Athletics, and in 2004 he was named an honorary member of the National W Club. Alvarez has known Kalscheur for nearly 30 years and met the booster when he was hired as head coach in 1989. On Monday, Alvarez, now the university’s athletic director, called Kalscheur generous, loyal and “a great friend” to the football program and other athletic programs at the university.
“His support of UW Athletics and the university as a whole positively affected the lives of countless people,” Alvarez said in a statement. “He loved all of our sports programs and, in particular, was a supporter of many of our less publicized sports. Jimmy never sought recognition, but I am so glad we were able to induct him into the UW Athletics Hall of Fame last year. That was a well-deserved honor.”
Kalscheur and his family have maintained that humbleness over the past 30 years when giving to the Wisconsin State Journal’s Empty Stocking Club, a charity that provides toys at Christmas for those in need. The annual $10,000 donation, Kalscheur had said, is in lieu of providing trinkets to his company’s customers.
“Kalscheur never asks for anything in return, not even publicity,” State Journal columnist Bill Wineke wrote in 2003. “His check just arrives in the mail.”
Jim Kalscheur was born in the midst of the Great Depression on a farm in Pine Bluff, west of Madison and between Cross Plains and Mount Horeb. According to a 2005 biography when he was inducted into the Wisconsin Meat Industry Hall of Fame, his first job in the food industry came at Ortman Grocery in Pine Bluff when he was in grade school and high school, followed after graduation with a 10-year stint at Esser’s Wholesale Market in Madison.
But his life would forever change in 1958 when he bought a small meat market on University Avenue near the UW-Madison Campus. The shop, then known as the UW Meat Market, had just six employees. Kalschuer changed the name of the business in 1962 to UW Provision Co. and later moved the operation to Madison’s South Side. He moved the business to Middleton in 1972. Kalscheur also helped revive a a local ski hill. From 1986 to 2018 Kalscheur was a co-owner of Tyrol Basin Ski & Snowboard Area.
Steve Kalscheur took over the UW Provision Co. operation from his father in 2009, and the company, at 2315 Pleasant View Road, now has a more than 100,000-square-foot plant. In 2011, the company opened a 19,000-square-foot addition that includes 10,500 square feet of additional cooler and freezer storage space. It also increased its retail presence with a 6,600-square-foot store that offers up meat, cheese, grilling supplies, spices and packages of onion rings, french fries and other sides often found in restaurants.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, UW Provision Co. was selling over 1 million pounds of product a week with a fleet of trucks making hundreds of deliveries a day.
“I’m a high school graduate, but I got my real education from my parents,’’ Jim Kalscheur told the State Journal in 1993. “I can still hear my dad telling me that sometimes poor people leave the most valuable inheritance — kindness and love. They gave me plenty of that. I’m just passing it on to the next generation.’’