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Two for St. Ambrose

Beth and Brian Lemek

Beth and Brian Lemek

October 2016 | by Ted Stephens III ’01, ’04

It is dinnertime on a sultry summer evening in the nation's capital, where Beth and Brian Lemek have joined a guest at a quiet table outside a Georgetown neighborhood restaurant known to be a "power center" for politicians and lobbyists.

The Lemeks are not a power couple, however.

They are an Ambrosian couple, still steeped in the sort of "Midwest Nice" that is defined by kindness, humility, service and social justice. These are values each learned growing up in their Davenport homes, as well as at Assumption High School, where they met, and, definitely, at St. Ambrose University, where they spent their first years as husband and wife.

Although the Lemeks relocated inside the Beltway just a few years after they graduated together in the spring of 1986, they remain extremely loyal to their college alma mater. Each serves on the university's Board of Trustees and they also are volunteer co-chairs of the Building Our Future campaign, which they helped introduce to the public this past spring.

Their love for St. Ambrose is evident throughout a dinner meeting filled with easy conversation, self-deprecation and abundant laughter.

THIS is your typical Midwest love story, with a few twists.

"We dated on and off," the former Beth Figge explained of the early beginnings of a three-decades-plus-long romance. "Brian actually had a bunch of classes with my sister Trish."

"We liked to ‘compete' academically with each other," Brian chimed in.

"Yes!" Beth recalled with maybe just a little more enthusiasm than her sister might appreciate. "So when we started dating, she didn't like that."

Brian earned a football scholarship to attend St. Ambrose to study economics, and Beth made the decision to leave the Quad Cities for Boston College in Massachusetts.

Then she came back.

"First of all, before she left, she bought me a dog," Brian said. "Winston I."

(It follows, of course, that there was a Winston II. But there is some debate as to whether a Winston III came to be.)

"I think, ‘Oh, I give him a dog and we'll stay together forever,'" Beth explained of the original Winston.

The dog helped, but, after one year in Boston, love had much more to do with Beth's return to the Quad Cities and her enrollment in St. Ambrose.

In short order, Rev. William "Digger" Dawson married Beth and Brian at Christ the King Chapel, and the newlyweds rented a home just four blocks from the university.

When daughter Katie was born, Beth took a semester off while Brian attended night classes.

"In many ways, it felt like we were playing ‘house,'" he said. "I stopped playing sports after two years, and got a job fixing appliances while in school."

Their "fun job," Beth said, was going to college.

"We were in the classroom learning-there were good people like Richard Geiger and Pat Kennedy interested in what was in our heads," she recalled. "For a few hours each night, we weren't changing diapers. It wasn't always easy, but we worked it out. And we both graduated on time."

A second child, Brian Michael, arrived two weeks after Beth walked across the graduation stage with a degree in English.

"We were glad she didn't have him at commencement," Brian said.

Cue the laughter.

* * *

day after their St. Ambrose commencement, Brian began a career in banking at Davenport Bank and Trust, which at the time was the largest commercial bank in Iowa.

He held a variety of positions at the bank before it was sold to Norwest Bank in the early 1990s, then went on to dip his toe into entrepreneurial endeavors, first becoming a partner in a stock brokerage firm.

Friends encouraged him to look into franchising a St. Louis Bread Company restaurant. Franchise options in the Quad Cities and surrounding region already had been purchased, but there were opportunities to buy in elsewhere.

Brain and Beth Lemek"The books, the concept, it looked like a great business opportunity," Brian said. "Initially I wanted a piece of the Wisconsin territory. But my friend was not giving that up. Corporate was offering territories in Nebraska, Indiana and part of Maryland-12 stores to be exact.

"But I wanted more," he continued. "I actually didn't really know what ‘more' meant, but 12 didn't seem like enough."

Today, through Lemek LLC, he owns and operates Panera Bread franchises in 59 locations across Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey.

The move to the east coast was anything but easy for the family. Katie was about to begin high school. Son Brian was in middle school, and their two youngest children-Mary and Peter- had only begun to make grade school friends.

It was, however, a decision Beth and Brian believed could be good. Not just for this new business venture, but also for their family.

"I think we were just looking for a change," Brian said. "We said, ‘You know what? Let's step up to the plate and see what we can make of this.' Beth's sister and parents were on the east coast. There was something familiar there."

And so, for four months, Brian commuted between the Quad Cities and DC while starting the company. Beth searched and searched for a home for their family of six.

She found that home in Chevy Chase, Md. Brian did not see the house before they had signed the closing papers. They live there still today.

During Lemek LLC's first year, Brian worked from home.

"Once I started asking, ‘Can you pick up the kids? Can you run to the grocery store?' he decided it was time to get an office," Beth said.

"I was becoming an errand boy."

Cue more laughter.


THE Lemeks do laugh quite a bit.

And to watch and hear them talk about their life-how they got together and broke up and got together again, went their separate ways as they started college, and came back together to start their family while students at St. Ambrose-is a chance to see how the values that make them Ambrosian have strengthened their relationship.

Time and time again, Beth and Brian Lemek have supported each other. They have taken chances with good intentions. Found opportunities and seized on them. Kept a focus on their family. And they have Brain and Beth Lemeklived a life centered on generosity.

That is an essential ingredient of their life together, and, they say, of a life fulfilled.
Giving is something each learned, in different ways, from parents who viewed it as a necessary responsibility of citizenship. And generosity wasn't just about contributing financially to causes that matter.

"It was about supporting people and organizations that were contributing to community," Beth said.

Places that were making life better for others. That were instilling good values. And setting the stage to pass on goodness to future generations.

That, after all these years, is why Beth and Brian continue to serve and assist St. Ambrose.

As trustees, they continue a legacy of leadership left by Beth's father, the late Quad Cities banker and SAU trustee emeritus John Figge. Yet as trustees, the Lemeks also blaze a path of their own. They were the first couple to join the board together.

Recently, they joined their friends Barbara (Bush) and Mike Johnson as volunteer co-chairs of the capital campaign for the new Wellness and Recreation Center.

"We care about St. Ambrose, and we care deeply about Davenport-it is where we both grew up," Brian explained. "We believe that St. Ambrose is very important to Davenport. Davenport thrives, in part, because of St. Ambrose. The university brings in young people from Chicago, Des Moines, and all over the Midwest to Davenport."

He often reflects on the Midwestern values the Lemeks have imparted to their now-adult children.

"Moving out to DC really made me appreciate where I came from," he said. "And Beth and I want to participate in the future of a community that for so long we called home. Where we started our family."

For the couple, the Building Our Future campaign harkens back to their past. It touches on a number of the things that mattered most to Beth and Brian more than 30 years ago. As parents, they also see how important the right balance of academic rigor and social opportunity can be to college students today and for years to come.

"Quite frankly, we're not sure how St. Ambrose can remain competitive without state-of-the-art wellness and recreation facilities that match the strong academic environment St. Ambrose provides students today," Beth said.

That's a message they believe will resonate with fellow alumni, friends and strangers who they're certain hold St. Ambrose in equally high esteem.

"As graduates, all of us have the neat opportunity to give back to an institution that gave us so much, in many different ways," Brian said. "For some alumni, that might mean a first-time contribution or a long-term commitment to their alma mater. For others, it may mean recruiting students to the university. Both are important."

He continued. "Whether it was by offering night classes to people like Beth and me, by supporting the everyday realities of raising kids while attending college or by offering world-class facilities that help meet the mission of the St. Ambrose community, St. Ambrose was there for us."

As the sun set on a sultry DC day, Beth added, "Now's the time for us to be there for St. Ambrose. For all of us to be."

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