2017 Outstanding Professional Adviser of the Year - James Spella

Spella a ‘quiet force’ in strengthening West Bend’s charitable community

In his job as a partner and attorney at Schloemer Law Firm in downtown West Bend, James Spella devotes about half of his practice toward estate planning.

Spella, much like his father, is a natural salesman. Yet while his father spent more than four decades selling paper, Spella has spent nearly the same amount of time conveying the concept of charitable giving, specifically through a community foundation, to clients.

In doing so, in a straightforward yet non-pressured sort of way, he not only has helped his clients leave a legacy but he has indirectly crafted his own — that of building up West Bend’s charitable community where he has lived, worked and raised a family of six.

“This community has always had a big heart,” Spella said. “When you are surrounded by people who are so committed and so self-giving and have that value system, it kind of rubs off on you.”

Spella was on the ground floor in helping craft a successful philanthropic concept in 1999 that has become a trailblazer for other southeastern Wisconsin communities. He was an attorney for the founders of the West Bend Community Foundation, one of its initial board members and has helped many clients over the past 18 years to start funds there. It now stands as the largest of three partner foundations — in terms of assets, funds and grants — affiliated with the Greater Milwaukee Foundation.

“He is a quiet force,” said Sharon Ziegler, former West Bend Community Foundation president. She and her late husband, Doug, and Cliff and Betty Nelson each contributed $1 million in unrestricted funds to launch WBCF. “He’s been an absolutely invaluable and passionate supporter and advocate.”

Spella has spent the large portion of his nearly 45- year law career in West Bend, but his formative years were spent in Milwaukee. He lived for several years in Milwaukee’s Third Ward and his father, Rosario, was one of the founders of the Italian Community Center. His family later moved to Milwaukee’s northwest side.

He attended Marquette University High School and continued his education a little farther down Wisconsin Avenue at Marquette University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting, and then Marquette University Law School. In 1973, after spending two years at the accounting firm of Arthur Andersen, he joined Schloemer Law, where he also concentrates on business law, taxation and real estate.

He first learned of the concept of a community foundation — specifically the Greater Milwaukee Foundation — through his cousin. She had created a fund in honor of her parents — Charles and Mary Maglio — and suggested contributions as a way to honor their 60th wedding anniversary.

When Cliff Nelson and Doug Ziegler asked him to become involved in the West Bend Community Foundation, Spella viewed it as an honor and duty he couldn’t pass up.

While there are many tools attorneys can suggest as ways for people to give, Spella is especially enamored with the donor advised fund.

“It’s just an easy way for people to participate if they have that philanthropic intent,” Spella said.

Spella is heavily invested in West Bend, through participation on such organizations as the West Bend Noon Rotary Club, St. Frances Cabrini School Board and West Bend Economic Development Corporation Board. Yet he seems to gravitate more so toward charitable foundations. In addition to serving 10 years on West Bend Community Foundation’s board, including three as its president, he spent nine years on The Threshold Foundation board and three years on Westbury Bank’s foundation board.

Professional advisers like Spella are crucial to the growth of a community foundation, said Tim Larson, vice president of philanthropic services.

“By virtue of his role as that trusted, knowledgeable resource, Jim has played an instrumental role in extending the reach of philanthropy within the region,” Larson said.

Nelson and Ziegler both credit Spella’s integrity, sincerity, reputation and commitment to the community as key factors in drawing in new donors.

Ask Spella exactly how many individuals he has directed to WBCF over the years, though, and he doesn’t have a clear answer. He doesn’t keep track. It’s not about the numbers.

“I think when you are part of something good happening for others, that’s the reward,” Spella said. “What’s satisfying is you help somebody help somebody else.” 

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