Roger Bruesewitz, who died in 2019 at 82, spent much of his early life in and out of jail after robbing businesses, running “a dirty bookstore” and dealing with a heroin addiction.
But he’s leaving behind a very different legacy.
Bruesewitz went on to graduate with honors from UW-Madison with a degree in journalism, become a copy editor for the UW-Madison Law School and buy his own little house in Monona. Before he died, Bruesewitz decided he wanted to donate almost the entirety of his modest estate to local organizations supporting ex-offenders, journalism and veterans.
He left all of his money to his longtime friend Mary Rouse, former dean of students at UW-Madison. She has doled out more than $158,500 to nonprofits and other causes she thinks Bruesewitz would have been passionate about.
“I have given away all of his money,” Rouse said. “In my mind, he left his estate to me not for me personally to buy a better car or anything, but … to see that it would do some good.”
The most recent donation of $25,000 was used to create a scholarship fund at UW-Madison for formerly incarcerated individuals to go to college. It’s called the Mary K. Rouse & Roger P. Bruesewitz Beyond Bars scholarship.
Rouse used both her and Bruesewitz’s names not because she wants credit for the donation, but because she knows some people recognize her from the nearly 50 years she spent working for UW-Madison, including 13 as the top campus administrator supporting students. She wants to give as much credibility to the fund as possible to encourage more people to donate.
The scholarship is the first of its kind in UW-Madison Continuing Studies, a division that offers courses to older students, or “lifelong learners.” Martin Rouse, an associate dean of Continuing Studies and Mary Rouse’s son, said no other scholarship in the division has been geared specifically toward ex-offenders.
Continuing Studies hopes to select the first recipient this summer so the student can use the scholarship this fall, Martin Rouse said. Preference will be given to UW students who are currently incarcerated, have been incarcerated in the past or are a part of Odyssey Beyond Bars, a program that teaches UW-Madison courses to people in Wisconsin prisons and serves as a stepping stone to getting into a college. To be eligible for the scholarship, students have to be admitted or currently enrolled at UW-Madison. The deadline to apply for the fall term is July 1.
Martin Rouse said his department is excited about the prospect of helping more former prisoners get an education.
“Education can be one important pathway for people like Roger,” he said.
Bruesewitz started his own college career while incarcerated in a Wisconsin prison through a study release program where he was allowed to come to campus to take classes, Mary Rouse said. He graduated in 1975.
Rouse, now 76, said she met Bruesewitz in 1973 when he was in his mid-30s. She was a mentor and adviser to him while he studied at UW-Madison, and he eventually became a lifelong friend of her family. She said he taught her to be more compassionate and understanding of people with vastly different backgrounds.
Rouse said Bruesewitz had a “rough childhood” and a poor relationship with most of his family. He joined the Army right out of high school, and when he came back to Wisconsin four years later he turned to crime to support a heroin addiction.
Except for one case in 1984 in which Bruesewitz served two years on probation for a battery charge, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections said it could not find reliable records of Bruesewitz’s convictions since the cases were so old. Rouse said he had been a “safecracker” and would steal coin collections and money from businesses. He also owned a “dirty bookstore” in Milwaukee, she said. Some of his convictions were related to the robberies and others were for dealing drugs.
But Rouse said “somewhere there was a seed that he wanted to have a different life.” She said getting an education and the job as a copy editor helped him accomplish that.
Emeritus UW-Madison Law Professor Dave Schultz, who was Bruesewitz’s direct supervisor, said Bruesewitz worked as a copy editor for 23 years. “He was good at what he did,” Schultz said.
“He made this tremendous transition from a life of criminal activity into owning a small house over on one of the canals in the Yahara River,” Rouse said.
His nephew, Jim Bruesewitz, said his uncle Roger was able to save up for the house over the years. Rouse said she co-signed for it.
“That was his baby. He was so proud of that,” Jim said of his uncle’s house. “When he was in jail he probably never thought he’d have a place of his own.”
Roger Bruesewitz and his nephew would meet up to go fishing in the canal. Afterward, they would sit in his living room and have a beer while talking about sports, politics and fishing, Jim said.
Jim described his uncle as a straight shooter who would “call a spade a spade.” The elder Bruesewitz was estranged from the rest of their family, he said, but the two of them had a good relationship. Jim said he even hitchhiked to visit his uncle in jail when he was a teenager.
Rouse said Bruesewitz was “a real curmudgeon” but underneath had “a heart of gold.”
After spending hours fishing in his little boat, Rouse said Bruesewitz would bring her filets of bluegill and pike. He also loved puzzles, cats, his vegetable garden, reading, writing and journalism. He always had two cats and would read two or three newspapers every day, she said.
From his estate, Rouse gave the largest donation — of $50,000 — to Wisconsin Watch, a nonprofit newsroom focused on investigative journalism. Other donations included $25,000 for a Madison Area Technical College scholarship for ex-offenders, $20,000 for the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development’s reentry services for formerly incarcerated people, $10,000 for Porchlight’s housing for veterans and $5,000 each to the Urban League of Greater Madison, YWCA Madison, Just Dane and the Rotary Veterans Assistance Fund. She also gave $25,000 to Jim.
“I feel that I’ve been able to honor his memory and what he was all about,” she said.
Rouse said she hopes the UW-Madison scholarship will help other formerly incarcerated people move past their convictions, just like Bruesewitz did. She said that’s what Bruesewitz would have wanted because he had “a special place in his heart for ex-offenders.”
At least 95% of state prisoners will be released back out into the community at some point, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. But ex-offenders face barriers to getting an education and employment.
More than half of formerly incarcerated individuals have just a high school diploma or GED, and another quarter have no high school credential at all, according to a 2018 report from the Prison Policy Initiative. Just 4% have a college degree.
Meanwhile, the unemployment rate for ex-offenders is five times higher than that of the general public in the U.S., the Prison Policy Initiative reported. Studies show higher levels of education among former inmates increase employment rates and reduce recidivism.
Martin Rouse said the Division of Continuing Studies hopes the scholarship will have “a long lifetime.” The $25,000 has been endowed, meaning the university invested it and will give out about $1,000 to $1,500 each year as the money grows.
In the event the division doesn’t get applicants with a criminal history, the scholarship will go to someone who has faced other barriers to getting an education, Martin said. But he said it’s likely that participants of Odyssey’s Beyond Bars program will apply.
Continuing Studies is hoping to attract more donors to boost the scholarship fund to benefit more students, Martin said.
Jim Bruesewitz said he thinks his uncle would be proud and honored to know that his estate might one day help set some inmates on the path of bettering their lives.
“His success should be seen by other inmates as something they can achieve,” he said. “They don’t have to continue in a life of crime. Roger was in jail off and on for a long time. I never thought he would get out. But he finally did and did some good.”