Grace Eckland’s Impressive Impact on Lake Geneva

By Anne Morrissy | Photography by Holly Leitner

Lake Geneva Beautification Committee. Black Point Historic Preserve. The Lake Geneva Symphony Orchestra. Gateway Technical College. The Walworth County Workforce Development Board. Lake Geneva Wine Festival. Kishwauketoe Questers. Rotary International. Horticultural Hall. Geneva Lake Conservancy. Geneva Lakes Family YMCA. American Association of University Women. The Lake Geneva Library Foundation. This is just a sampling of some of the local organizations that have benefited from the energy, talent and passion of one Lake Geneva resident: Grace Eckland.

In hindsight, Eckland’s path of civic leadership may have been inevitable. Early in what turned out to be Eckland’s impressive career in banking technology, editors from Time Magazine approached her then-employer, IBM, for a story they were working on about corporate employees who were enriching their communities. IBM leaders nominated a handful of people from their company, including Eckland, who worked as an election judge in her Chicago neighborhood. “There I was, in Time Magazine,” she marvels today. But as it would turn out, this early foray into civic work was just the beginning of what would eventually become a guiding passion for Eckland.

As with many things in her life, the path to discovering that passion was a winding one. Before she landed at IBM, Eckland had initially trained as an opera singer. While still in college at UCLA, she toured with the Roger Wagner Chorale and the Robert Shaw Chorale, had leads in opera and light opera productions and worked at paid recording sessions. Returning to Chicago, she later performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus and the Fourth Presbyterian Church Chorus. “I loved it all and there were many [memorable] experiences,” she says.

However, by her junior year, Eckland changed her focus, and ultimately graduated with a degree in business administration … “in hopes to ward off starvation,” she explains. This was how she found herself on the ground floor of the banking division of a major, international company that was rapidly transforming the business of banking through its revolutionary technology: IBM. She was the first female “salesman” (the company had not yet updated its titles) at the company.

Through that job, Eckland met her late husband, Bob, and they went on to have two children together. When their kids were young, Bob was offered a position managing a bank in Lake Geneva. Eckland had only been to the area once before, on a day trip in college, and she had just a few weeks to pack up and sell their house in the Chicago suburbs and relocate her family to Walworth County. They arrived in time for the start of the new school year, and got a crash course in rural Wisconsin winters: their first year in Lake Geneva, more than 80 inches of snow fell throughout the season. “The kids could climb the snow piles up on to the roof,” she remembers with a laugh. “And dig tunnels through the snow.” Despite this, Eckland found she loved Lake Geneva. “It’s a utopia,” she says.

After moving here, Eckland drew on her experience working at IBM to help local business owners figure out the best emerging technology to adopt for their more specialized needs. “I did all kinds of consulting after retraining [on mid-sized computing systems],” she explains, listing Klockit, EduSystems and Pat’s Services among her clients. Then she was approached by Bill Gage, owner of Lake Geneva Cruise Line, and cruise line director Harold Friestad. “Bill was looking to add a computerized reservation system,” she explains. “Friestad had ambitious, good ideas about not just standard reservations, but online reservations for private parties and things like that as well.”

There was no technology system available on the market at the time to do exactly what Gage and Friestad were looking for. However, it turned out that Eckland had the perfect expertise to conceive and test a new system tailored to their business model. In order to make the concept into a reality, she hired a handful of employees, starting with a programmer. “All of a sudden, I became a company,” she explains. Eckland and Associates, Ltd. provided software development and marketing and technology consulting to Lake Geneva Cruise Line, and then expanded to a wide roster of clients in various industries, including dairy, credit management, supply chain, catalog management and banking.

Thanks to that experience working with Lake Geneva Cruise Line, Eckland eventually identified a business opportunity to expand the online reservations system her company designed for Gage and Friestad, selling its use to similar vendors throughout the country and acquiring clients as far as away as Hawaii. Eckland and Associates, Ltd. became the nation’s leading vendor for reservation systems servicing excursion venues.

Then one day, Eckland was invited to a luncheon at the Hunt Club Restaurant at Geneva National, where she happened to be seated at the same table with Sue Ann Thompson, wife of then-Governor Tommy Thompson. Because of that chance encounter, Eckland was invited to a meeting with the head of the department of gaming for the state of Wisconsin, who was interested in Eckland’s experience. He wanted to know how she could help streamline the state’s stake in gaming opportunities.

After hearing her ideas and arranging a meeting between Eckland and the state’s representatives, the state gaming department formalized a relationship with Eckland. “They hired me to come as a consultant,” she explains, which led her to a position as the Lottery Division Administrator, which included a position on the Multi-State Lottery Board as well.

By 1992, the riverboat gaming industry was growing rapidly and Eckland and Associates, Ltd. was perfectly positioned to benefit. Trase Miller, a major reservations services firm aspired to get into riverboat gaming and offered to buy Eckland’s company, bringing Eckland on for one year as Vice President of Marketing and Sales.

With the successful sale of her company, Eckland was free to focus on caring for her husband, who had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and directing her energy to another passion: civic improvement. That was the beginning of what Eckland describes as her “community phase.”

It all started when Milwaukee’s Marcus Corporation bought the former Playboy Club Resort in Lake Geneva in 1992. The company began investing time and resources into developing tourism opportunities in the area. However, at the time, Lake Geneva did not yet have an entity common to other tourist destinations known as a “convention and visitor’s bureau,” or a CVB. So leaders from the Marcus Corporation and the city of Lake Geneva tasked Eckland with the facilitation of strategic planning for just such an organization here. From these planning meetings, the CVB — now known as VISIT Lake Geneva — was born.

One of the first events that the new Lake Geneva CVB took over was the fledgling Winterfest celebration. Eckland assumed leadership of Winterfest in its second year. She realized that she needed to raise significant funds to keep the event going, so she started a local tourism magazine and sold advertising in the publication, applying the proceeds to the Winterfest budget. “I think that year we raised around $40,000 to $50,000,” she says. “I eventually got it up to $70,000 to $80,000 [in subsequent years]. And I placed ads in the Chicago market to bring people in.”

Eckland remained as the marketing consultant for the CVB and continued leading Winterfest for about a dozen years. But her civic inclinations did not stop there. The list of her contributions to the local community over the past two decades reads like a master class of civic service: officer of the American Association of University Women; a member of the Walworth County Education Advisory Board; a member of the Board of Directors of the Geneva Lakes Family YMCA; chairman of the board of the Geneva Lake Conservancy; first woman president of the Lake Geneva chapter of Rotary International; president of the Lake Geneva Beautification Committee; president of the board of directors for Black Point Historic Preserve … the list goes on and on. Eckland’s passion for community improvement has led to many, many awards and recognitions, including the Stu Herzog Outstanding Citizen Award.

Over the years, Eckland’s impact on the community has been truly immeasurable. Her tireless energy and unique talents have touched nearly every aspect of life in the Geneva Lake area. “The activities I’ve chosen to get involved in and participate in are things that I felt would benefit a lot of people,” she explains. “For example, [the] Beautification [Committee] is one you can see, the [Lake Geneva Public Library] foundation had a big effect on the library, and will continue to have into the future. I have tried to work on things that benefit the children of the community, and I feel it’s extremely important to preserve history as well.”

After many years spent dedicated to her work and her community, today Eckland is finally taking some well-deserved time off. She enjoys spending time with her grandkids and traveling, and she rarely misses a weekly game of bridge with friends.

When asked what she is most proud of from her career and her life of community service, Eckland says it is hard to choose a single thing. “I think I’m proudest of how I believe, in my own small way, I’ve had a positive impact. My heart is really here in Lake Geneva.”

Author: atthelake

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