Marilyn Wood, beloved teacher, choreographer, community leader, entrepreneur, world traveler, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, passed away peacefully on Monday, January 2, 2023, at Lakeview Health Center in West Salem, Wisconsin, after a remarkable and adventurous life. She was 91 years young.
Marilyn was born on March 22, 1931 to Anton (Tony) and Grace Bruha in La Crosse. She graduated from Aquinas High School in 1949. Despite growing up with responsibilities far beyond her years due to her mother having contracted polio prior to her birth, Marilyn’s curious spirit and zest for life touched the hearts of all who were lucky enough to cross her path.
Marilyn married Charles (Chuck) Bull on April 22, 1950. A mutual love for dance brought Marilyn and Chuck together, and they enjoyed many happy hours dancing the night away at area ballrooms. They welcomed three daughters, Corinne (Corky), Toni and Julie, who were fortunate to be born into their parents’ world of music and dance.
Marilyn discovered her lifelong passion when she began taking dance lessons at age eight. A combined love for dance and children naturally led Marilyn to found her own dance studio, Marilyn School of Dance, in La Crosse in 1951. For more than 50 years, Marilyn trained thousands of Coulee Region dancers in ballet, tap, jazz and other styles, some of whom went on to dance professionally. In addition to being a stickler for proper ballet technique, Marilyn took pride in developing her students’ confidence, strength, discipline and poise.
Naturally, Marilyn’s students eventually included her own children and grandchildren, and her dance legacy continues in her family to the present. Following in Marilyn’s footsteps, both Marilyn’s daughter Julie and granddaughter Melissa established their own dance studios. Marilyn was a familiar face at Julie’s studio well into her eighties, assisting in ballet classes and guiding young dancers on proper technique. The family dance tradition continues to this day with several of Marilyn’s great-granddaughters currently performing and competing throughout the country.
Before and after Marilyn’s retirement, former students would approach her with kind words of appreciation and thankfulness. Marilyn truly cherished and loved hearing of her dancers’ memories and accomplishments. To many students, the dance school became their second home. Marilyn also showed great generosity to families who had difficulty affording dance lessons for their children, and she ensured all children who wanted to dance had the opportunity to do so.
In 1968 Marilyn met Dennis Wood at a production of the La Crosse Community Theatre. They spent many years traveling to 35+ countries, making friends everywhere they went. She hiked the Himalayas, swam with piranhas in Peru, side-stepped a coup in Sri Lanka – no adventure was off limits. She also loved traveling with her brother, David Bruha, including their journeys to Europe and camping trips around the United States.
In later years, Marilyn enjoyed single travel. Perhaps her favorite destination was India, to which she traveled seven times, teaching dance to children with polio. She had a special love for those children due to her own mother’s polio experience.
Marilyn had a lifelong love of reading and a strong appreciation for nature. She enjoyed adventures of hiking the bluffs behind her south side home with family and friends. Bonsai gardening was another favorite pastime. Of course, Marilyn absolutely loved performing and could be found on stage tap dancing or acting well into her twilight years.
Marilyn had the opportunity to build her own home in the south side bluffs of La Crosse in 1997. Through her connections she met an architect from Country Living magazine, who helped her design an English country home and garden. Marilyn’s storybook home graced the cover of the magazine in April 1998. She loved nothing more than giving garden tours to family and friends to explore what was in bloom!
Community meant a great deal to Marilyn, and she served it as a board member and volunteer for the La Crosse County Historical Society and as a volunteer for CASA for Kids. Marilyn also was the choreographer for many La Crosse Community Theatre productions, including choreographing its very first musical, Bells are Ringing, in 1964. The La Crosse Community Theater honored Marilyn’s choreography contributions by inducting her into its Hall of Fame in 2017, a very proud moment for her. Marilyn was instrumental in founding the Great River Festival of Arts in 1963 and also choreographed and acted in many Children’s Playhouse productions. The YWCA selected Marilyn as its Outstanding Woman of the Year in the Arts in 1996.
In addition to Marilyn’s professional and community achievements, family was extremely important to her. Marilyn honored her Norwegian and Bohemian heritage by gathering family members at holidays to make and enjoy lefse, sandbakkels, rosettes, and potato dumplings slathered in “greasy gravy.” She made sure to make time for each of her children and grandchildren, often taking them on special trips to see a Broadway show or skiing.
Marilyn was preceded in death by her parents, Tony and Grace Bruha, an infant sister, Mary, granddaughter Rachel Asher, and her friends John and Bill who were so good to her when she needed some gentle guidance and companionship.
She is survived by her three daughters, Corky (Richard) Huber, Toni Asher and Julie Austin (Kurt Knappen); brother, David Bruha; special foster daughter, Agnes Mabiong (Gordon) Johnstone; 11 grandchildren, Scott (Jessica) Ferrier, Kelly (Matt) Stohr, Tracy (Tharren) Appleton, John Asher, Jonah (Hiroko Nobusada) Asher, Adam (Sandra Boskamp) Asher, Julia (Adam) Snow, Grace Asher, Justin (Angela) Asher, Melissa Boudreau and Brian (Heather) Needham; 15 great-grandchildren, special nieces, nephews and other relatives as well as many dear friends.
A gathering of family and friends will be held on Wednesday, June 14th, 2023 from 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. with a remembrance service at 2:00 p.m. at The Gathering Place, 133 Mason St., Onalaska. Private burial will take place at the Catholic Cemetery in La Crosse. In lieu of flowers please consider a donation in Marilyn’s name to CASA for Kids, La Crosse Community Theatre or the La Crosse County Historical Society.
The family has such appreciation for the compassion and genuine kindness of the Lakeview Health Center staff, along with Dr. Loepfe and Cindy Glennie, who so lovingly cared for Marilyn these last few years.
Marilyn’s love of nature deepened as she grew older. The walks she took with her daughters were full of joy and wonder. We hope you will think of her when you walk in the woods, watch the birds or look at the clouds against a blue sky. Thanks for teaching us so much, Mom. We love you and are so proud to forever be “Marilyn’s daughters.”
To watch her service via zoom click here
To view her tribute video click here