By Shereen Siewert
Mary Pepowski, an accomplished artist and co-owner of The Mint Cafe in downtown Wausau, died July 29 following a brief illness. She was 59.
“My mom was the most caring, funny, selfless person I will ever know,” said Pepowski’s daughter, Angela. “She constantly was looking for ways to make those around her happy. Mary will be missed by so many.”
One of downtown Wausau’s most familiar faces for 30 years, Pepowski is being remembered by friends and family members as a talented, generous woman with a soft spot for animals and an unmatched kindness that will live on in her children.
On the days she didn’t work at The Mint alongside her husband of 35 years, she volunteered for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northcentral Wisconsin and the Boys & Girls Club of the Wausau Area. She wholeheartedly supported the work of New Life Pet Adoption, often visiting the facility to play with the animals and fostering many cats who needed temporary shelter before finding their forever homes.
Pepowski graduated from high school in De Pere before attending the University of Wisconsin-Stout. In college, she met Joe Pepowski, who would later become her husband and life partner. After graduating in 1983 with degrees in vocational rehabilitation and special education, Mary agreed to marry Joe and the couple moved to California.
While living in California, Joe Pepowski managed a Mexican restaurant; Mary gave birth to the couple’s oldest child, Peter before moving back to Wisconsin and settling in Antigo. There, the couple ran the Superior Family Restaurant, with Joe as manager.
But in 1990, when Mary was pregnant with their youngest child, Angela, they took a leap of faith and moved back to Joe’s hometown, Wausau. Here, they bought The Mint Cafe, 422 Third St., from Harry (Bob) Youtsos, who closed the cafe a year earlier.
In 1990, Mary told a Wausau Daily Herald reporter that they looked forward to running the restaurant for decades. She and Joe thought of eventually passing The Mint to their son, Pete, then 3, or Angela, who was due a month after they closed on the property.
Joe and Mary kept the name the same and retained much of the original Greek menu. They hired three cooks, seven waiters and two dishwashers including one waitress, Marjorie Brummond, who worked at the cafe for 25 years under the previous owner.
“It’s just the way people remembered it and it didn’t make any sense to change,” Mary was quoted as saying in 1990.
Mary was a familiar face at The Mint, often taking the time to sit with customers to learn about their lives. She listened without judgement, offered jobs to people down on their luck, delivered free meals to people who needed them. She knew the names of not only her patrons, but also the names of their children, and of their grandchildren.
“My mom was the type of person who would give you a pair of earrings she was wearing if you said you liked them,” Angela said. “She would call me up while I was away at school and ask if my friends and I wanted to go out to dinner, or if any of us needed anything. She was just always looking for ways to make people’s lives better.”
Julie Luedtke, catering and service manager at The Mint, met Joe and Mary more than 30 years ago when the couple was living in Antigo. Later, she came to work for the couple in Wausau.
“I don’t know if I have words that can begin to relay what a blessing it has been to share the past 29 years with Mary at The Mint,” Luedtke said. “Mary was one of the very few people in life that have the ability to gift others with a love for themselves, she appreciated people so much that you couldn’t help but feel good when she was around.”
Longtime friend Joe Lohmar, who also worked for the couple in various capacities over the years, said the loss is indescribable.
“Kindness is the word that comes to mind when I remember Mary,” Lohmar said. They are the most giving people I know. True role models.”
Mary was an artist who worked in several different mediums. She loved flowers, cats, bright colors, decorating the house for Christmas, telling stories and spending time with her family, whom she loved with steadfast fierceness and loyalty. She is survived by her husband, Joe; son Peter Pepowski and spouse Sam Blackwell; daughter, Angela; cats, Jilly and Fiona; her family at The Mint; and countless friends and acquaintances.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, family members are holding a private service, but mourners can attend virtually by visiting this page at noon on Aug. 15. A celebration of life will be held at a later date.
“She truly made the world a better place,” Luedtke said.