Family trees fortify nursing bonds for two Badger families
By Cheyanne Carter
There is an old saying, “Like branches on a tree, we all grow in different directions, yet our roots remain as one.” For graduates of the UW–Madison School of Nursing, they become a branch on a great big family tree that anchors itself with roots that were established when the first 11 graduates of the School earned their degrees in 1927.
Those roots ground a tree with a trunk that, if cut in half, would display almost 100 years of growth rings—each ring marking a Badger nurse graduating class that has entered into the workforce to change lives. That trunk fortifies a foundation that strengthens a network of Badger nurses and extends to all corners of the globe.
Family trees are more than just a collection of names and dates. They are a means of understanding the legacy of our past. They root us to the history that came before and ground us as we look ahead to what is to come.
They are intricate maps that allow us to reflect on where we came from, and better understand how our legacy has grown over time. They offer a unique window into our own individual narratives, giving us a sense of belonging and reaffirming our place in the larger network that surrounds us.
For some Badger nurses, they are one branch extending from the trunk of those who came before. Their limb extends from the main trunk and reaches to the sky without forking. For others, that branch extends further, reaching out from its primary bough. These branches of the Badger nurse network are grown from multi-generational Badger nurse families.
The legacies that these families carry forward are rooted not just in the 100-year history of the UW–Madison School of Nursing, but in the strength of their own family bond on the Badger nurse family tree.
A legacy is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past.” A generational inheritance of higher education is arguably one of the most esteemed gifts one could receive. Sharing an experience, knowledge, and a sense of pride are all offerings of a Badger bloodline. The Bizjak and Steele families share this gift and more, both comprised of Badger nurses.
“Our Badger nurse legacy is what we do every day; the care we provide, the people we interact with, and the communities we uplift define who we are and how we will be remembered,” said Kathlyn Steele ’75.
While every experience is unique, each family’s lineage has unified them beyond their genetics. They share the same culture; to lead and change lives.
Kimberley Bizjak ’93 was the first Badger nurse of the family, an experience that inspired her daughters Claire ’23 and Madeleine ’24 to follow in her footsteps. When it came to choosing UW–Madison for nursing, the Bizjak women had one common basis: they wanted to learn how to help people the best way they could.
“UW–Madison is a world class university that breeds critical thinkers by giving you hands-on experience that translates into every part of your life,” Kimberley said. “You graduate so well-rounded and that’s what I want for my daughters.”
The Bizjak family legacy goes back two generations; Gerald and Kay Bizjak graduated from UW–Madison together in 1966 and passed the red and white torch to all four of their children. While Kimberley is a Bizjak by marriage, she was heavily influenced by the family, meeting her husband Christopher in middle school. Today the bloodline continues with their daughters Claire and Madeleine whose memories are flooded with Bucky-filled fun.
“I think I often reminisce on going to football games as a family growing up, and those were probably my first exposures to UW as a child,” said Claire. “I can vividly remember driving into the city and thinking about how huge it was when I was so small. I also loved walking past Luther Memorial Church where my parents would point out that’s where they got engaged in college.”
From a very young age, Kimberley felt called to care for people. This calling paved the way for her career as a perianesthesia nurse and health coach. Claire and Madeleine inherited this trait from their mother, both of whom are deeply passionate about helping others. While the feeling is innate, they also had the opportunity to see it brought to fruition. Having a mom as a nurse was the pinnacle of leading by example; they saw the impact their mother made on the lives of so many people every day, and the gratification that came with it.
“Throughout our childhood, we heard stories about different procedures that happened each day, and the work our mom was doing was always super fascinating,” said Madeleine. “I loved knowing that my mom was able to help other people and I wanted to follow in her footsteps to also help other people and make as much of an impact as she did on our community.”
Claire and Madeleine are doing just that. Both are currently in nursing school and forging their own paths for their future careers in health care. While their experiences are distinct, Kimberley’s college stories have an influence of their own.
“One of my favorite memories of nursing school was getting to simulate being a flight nurse and going up in a helicopter,” said Kimberley. “I share that memory with my then classmate, and now coworker, James Karow, and the reason I remember it so well is because I got sick in the helicopter and threw up on him. He never lets me or my daughters forget it.”
Hearing all of her mother’s stories about her flight nurse simulations — the good, the bad, and the funny – sparked Madeleine’s interest in the specialty. Today, she aspires to become a flight nurse in the Air Force following her graduation in 2024 and eventually become a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA).
For now, though, the Bizjak women share the pride of being Badger nurses. The joint experience has been an unforgettable journey so far, and their UW–Madison legacy has bonded them beyond their DNA.
“I love being a Badger nurse,” said Kimberley. “I still wear my nursing pin that reads ‘Numen Lumen’ on my badge every day. It truly has opened many doors and enlightened many opportunities. I take a lot of pride in it, and I’m thrilled to share that experience with my daughters. I know the state-of-the-art school they are attending, and I’m ecstatic for everything they will accomplish.”
Kathlyn Steele started caring for children at the age of nine and was a born nurturer. She loved the job and became a source of help for her entire neighborhood; she took babysitting courses and pursued it as philanthropy in her Girl Scouts troop. The passion only flourished from there and sparked a yearning to continue learning how to care for children. She became an expert; as a pediatric nurse and mother of three, she turned her passion into her entire life. She continued to dedicate over 40 years of her career to caring for patients with developmental disabilities. Her accomplishments became a blueprint for two of her daughters, Kate Louther, MS’10, and Beth Kucher ’09, and they were eager to expand their family’s legacy and make their mark on the nursing profession.
“In all of her roles, she took a leadership position, and it was really empowering as a girl to see my mom as a boss lady,” said Kate. “It was a blessing to have known that I could grow up and do anything I wanted to do because that’s the example she set. I mean, there were weekends where she wasn’t around because she was with her colleagues writing a chapter in a book, and I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, my mom is really, really cool.’”
Both Kate and Beth found their passion for care giving in the model their mom built for them. They pursued it from a young age by becoming babysitters first, then certified nursing assistants in high school. They worked alongside their mom before even reaching college. Kathlyn became their mentor in all respects and continuing her legacy became a shared goal for them.
“She’s the reason why I am who I am today, not just in my personal life but in my career, too,” said Beth. “I know how to be a leader because of her, and she is my mom and mentor all in one. She’s the first person that I go to if I have a question about anything really. Personally, or professionally, I know she’s going to give it to me straight.”
Growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, Kathlyn knew from a very early age what it meant to be a Badger. The Madison community became an instrumental part of who she was, and she had her sights set on staying home to pursue a college degree to become a first-generation Badger. Kathlyn was dedicated to her education, and, regardless of the circumstances, she was prepared to learn more and become better at her passion. From being tear gassed during a biology final on Bascom Hill in the midst of Vietnam War civil disobedience to taking a medical-surgical exam the morning of her wedding day during a blizzard, she didn’t allow anything to deter her from reaching her goals. These adversities shaped Kathlyn as a nurse and a role model for her daughters.
“Being a Badger nurse is a leadership role,” said Kathlyn. “You lead by example and show people you mentor that helping people is centering in on their individual needs. And you give those who don’t have voice, who are vulnerable, a space to be heard and an advocate. These traits don’t come easy, but it’s always rewarding.”
Kate understood this responsibility when she decided to return to Madison for her master’s degree in nursing education. After receiving her bachelor degree in medical microbiology and immunology and completing the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh’s online and accelerated nursing program, she had a large amount of appreciation for nursing and the flexibility of her degrees.
“Right after I received my bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree, I applied and went straight for my nursing educator degree at UW–Madison,” said Kate. “The reason why I wanted to do that was I wanted to be able to give back to the nursing profession, and work in infectious disease. Ultimately, I wanted to meld my two degrees together to work in infection control or work in areas that are important to public health.”
Beth found herself on a different trajectory than her sister by landing in oncology nursing following her graduation. While she had felt she had found her stride in this field of nursing, she was soon called back home to care for her model, mentor, and mother while she was treated for kidney cancer.
“I came back to take care of her, and there is no place like home,” said Beth. “I think that’s a part of our legacy too, we stick together and are community bound. I still go to work at UW Health Hospital, and I was where I needed to be most. We got through it, and now she is 13 years cancer free.”
The Steele women passed down the resilience and compassion that comprise a Badger nurse. Today, Kate continues to give back by teaching a public health nursing course for Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin, every summer since she received her master’s degree in 2010, and she works as a nursing supervisor for Public Health Madison & Dane County.
Over a decade after she earned her BSN from UW, Beth received her master of science in nursing education in 2022 from Chamberlain University. She has now returned to UW Health as a clinical staff educator. Kathlyn was acknowledged as a distinguished alum during Homecoming of 2016 and is now dedicated to helping her daughters full-time in any way that she can.
The Steele legacy is lived out in the actions of three strong nurses who are passionate about their work and their community. “It’s who you are and how you live,” said Kate. “That is our legacy, and that is what we want to share with our kids and beyond.”