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Weinbrenner shoes installs high school shoemaking class to inspire, retain skilled workers
MERRILL - Thread, scissors, and a foot pedal all feel natural to Linda Herber.

"I could make the shoes from the beginning to the end," Herber said.

The master seamstress spent 39 years making shoes and boots for Weinbrenner Shoe Company in Merrill before retiring in September 2017.  Now, she spends her Tuesdays bringing that experience to the high school.

"I said, 'Yeah,' because I thought it would be a lot of fun," Herber said.  "And it is a lot of fun."

Herber teaches Merrill students during their "flex" periods, which was new this school year. Students have the option to choose from dozens of different class offerings during the period. In this class, there are no textbooks or quizzes. Instead, everything needed -- including $50,000 industrial sewing machines -- is at their fingertips and in Herber's mind.

"Sometimes she cracks the whip a little," senior Nate Stenberg said with a smile.

Stenberg signed up for the shoe making class when it opened in late-November. He'd never used a sewing machine in his life prior to taking the flex period.

"I work on a farm and I always need a new pair of boots to wear," Stenberg said. "I think it would be cool to make them."

Stenberg's needs will be filled. At the end of the class he'll get to keep the pair of shoes he makes.

"It's a lot of fun, I think it's great," Herber said of the class. "Just the kids learning this stuff and they're excited. Great to see them excited."

But entertaining and teaching is only half of the purpose.

"It's an art that is dying," Weinbrenner Shoe Company President Pat Miner said. "We're not teaching our kids how to sew."

Miner came up with the idea of bringing the class to the high school a few years ago due to a growing need. Miner says he's always looking for ways to maintain the 450,000-pair output his factory produces each year -- and that takes people.

"It doesn't matter whether you're an entry-level individual or my position. We have to have the ability to replace everybody," Miner said.

Miner prefers to replace workers who retire or move on with people from Merrill. That's been a successful model in maintaining his workforce of nearly 200.

"If you've got a basic knowledge of what it all takes to build a shoe, there's a lot of positions," Weinbrenner manufacturing engineer and Merrill High School grad Ben Martens said.

Those are positions Herber worked over her nearly four decades with the company. Now, she's sharing those skills with kids who just might have a leg -- or foot -- up on the competition after graduation.

"We're not just a dirty manufacturer of shoes," Miner said. "[We want these students to learn] that it's actually kind of cool to be involved with us."

Students will take their shoes to Weinbrenner in a few weeks to put soles on them, then will take them home to keep.

Miner wants to continue the flex class program "as long as the school will have us."

Story By: Lane Kimble

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