It was a child’s chore that inspired Steve Wismar ’72— Steve the Painter — to begin painting. Wismar and his younger brother were painting some furniture in the yard for their mom. Eventually, she let Wismar’s younger brother go play. In response to Steve Wismar’s complaints, she said: “You’re the better painter.”
Almost 60 years later, Wismar runs a painting business in Hillsdale, but said he’s a drastically changed man.
He came to Hillsdale College in 1968 — the year it was ranked as a party school in Playboy Magazine, he said.
“We weren’t like you guys are now. We didn’t have a whole lot of interaction with the town,” Wismar said, adding that in contrast, the school is about 1000 percent improved since then.
A Phi Sigma Kappa and avid player of the popular game “gut frisbee,” Wismar would occasionally visit his friend at the University of Michigan to “bask in the hippy-ness.” By the time he graduated in 1972 with a double major in history and political science, he was married and owned a janitorial service.
In 1975, the drinking, smoking, and partying Wismar was radically transformed. After a coworker came back from a vacation talking about “being saved,” Wismar started to examine his own life and considered converting to Christianity. During the altar call at a fundamentalist church one night, Wismar said he was saved.
“I stopped doing the things I did before and started doing the things I never dreamed I would do. I went to church. I was agreeing with God,” Wismar said.
In addition to giving up drinking, smoking, and many other habits, Wismar developed a passion for the pro-life movement after a personal experience with abortion.
“Somewhere in heaven, I have a child,” Wismar said. “I don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl, but I know for a fact it’s there. That’s the only child I’ve ever had. The Lord showed me, and I just couldn’t believe that it was first-degree murder.”
He’s a heavy donor and occasional volunteer at the Alpha Omega Care Center now, and uses his story to evangelize.
A changed man, Wismar worked as a social worker and in lumber yards before deciding to open a painting business called Steve the Painter about 15 years ago. He said he loves the process, which has a clear beginning, middle, and end.
“The prep is what really makes a good paint job … and the finish is just gorgeous,” Wismar said. “It thrills me every time even after all these years to see the progression.”
He and his coworkers paint buildings, exterior and interior, but Wismar prefers exteriors because people can see his work. He’s painted houses and buildings all over town, including the Chi Omega house on Hillsdale’s campus. When painting, he never listens to music, preferring instead to pray, think, meditate, and concentrate.
“I’m the only contractor in the whole wide world that doesn’t have a radio going,” Wismar said. “I’m so radically changed. Because of the transformation, it’s easy for me to be calm and laid-back, but that’s just what I want to do: spend many, many hours working, more hours on books. Because what I really like about painting is meeting the people, going to do a quote. Everybody’s different, every job’s different.”
Seniors Luke Martin and David Johnson, who were among four college students to work for Steve the Painter last summer and were nicknamed “Steve’s Boys,” said “many, many” hours of work might mean staying up all night to finish a paint job or working on Thanksgiving or Christmas.
“He kind of runs his business like a charity,” Johnson said. “He’s always out of money. He tells a customer ‘it’s going to cost this much to do the house,’ and then he just decides ‘I’m going to replace their windows and fix the doors and stuff.”
One of his sayings is: “If it needs to be done, then do it,” Martin said, and Wismar lives that out with every job.
Wismar spent several months painting a church for free. When painting for pay, he gives quotes instead of estimates. If he decides to add an additional coat or other labor, he loses money. His friendly demeanor, identifiable “Steve-the-Painter” car, and paint-covered clothes have made him a known and loved member of the community, according to Martin and Johnson.
“I’ve worked in the public all my life,” Wismar said. “People recognize me from the lumber yard that haven’t seen me in years, and volunteer activities.”
Martin and Johnson said when they’re with Wismar, people come up to him about every 30 seconds to say hello or chat.
“Everyone knows him. It’s impossible to go somewhere without seeing someone come up and talk to him for a couple seconds or minutes,” Martin said.
In addition to meeting people through volunteering, Wismar has served as an elected official (a township supervisor) — the only area he’s used his political science and history majors, he said. In 2004, his name was on the same ballot as the presidential nominees.
“It’s kind of neat to have your name on the ballot,” Wismar said. “Back in the days of the voting machines, we’d walk into the booth and put down ledgers to vote. I have a sample ballot from ’04. [Bush and I] were over here on the same ticket. Far removed, but same ticket.”
Wismar hasn’t seen a movie in theaters since “Star Wars: A New Hope,” and he doesn’t watch TV, play sports, or listen to a lot of music. He said he’s cultivated an interest in classical music and local businesses.
“He’s a charming relic in Hillsdale county that deserves some kind of recognition for all the things he’s done,” Martin said.
Wismar never got angry at his workers — even when they had to redo an entire house of painting. His long wingspan helps his own painting, and he told his workers stories of his feats on ladders. But Martin and Johnson described him as a grandfather figure who influenced their lives positively.
“I think he feels the story of everything that happened is a good way to evangelize to people,” Johnson said.
He and Martin said Wismar inspired them to care more about doing a good job than getting paid well, although he was generous with pay. Wismar even replaced Johnson’s tire when it went flat.
Wismar continues to attribute all of his good work and change to his conversion. His life can be summed up in John 3:6, he said: “You should not be surprised at my saying ‘You must be born again.’”