Psychologist Explores Heritage and Loss

Article originally published in Whitewater magazine, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
Graduate: Mary Wimmer, 1982 
Author: Sandy Cullen
View original article here.

As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Mary Wimmer was fascinated by the array of areas open to school psychologists.

On her own, she found another: Writing fiction.

Inspired by her mother’s Irish ancestry, her daughter’s involvement in Irish dance, and the true story of a tragedy said to have orphaned hundreds of children of Irish immigrants in Miliwauke’s Third Ward, Wimmer wrote the award-winning novel for young adults “Reaching Shore,” which she co-published in 2007 with Goblin Fern Press of Madison.

“It’s historical fiction,” says Wimmer, 50, a “history geek” in high school who was later drawn to psychology and earned a master’s degree in school psychology in 1982.

Like her book’s main character—a high school junior named Maggie—Wimmer researched the sinking of the Lady Elgin on Lake Michigan in 1860, poring through original accounts of the disaster involving members of Milwaukee’s Irish Union Guard, who took the steamer to Chicago to hear a speech by Stephen douglas, Abraham Lincoln’s presidential rival.

While returning, the ship was rammed by the schooner Augusta, leaving more than 400 people to die.

“Looking into your heritage and the importance of culture, I think, is really reflected in the book,” says Wimmer, whose fiction debut was named best young adult novel by the Midwest Independent Publishers Association in 2008. Her curriculum guide for teachers is available at

Before writing the novel, Wimmer wrote “School Refusal: Assessment and Intervention Within School Settings,” dealing with children who won’t go to school because of emotional reasons, such as anxiety or depression.

In “Reaching Shore,” Maggie, a violinist, deals with performance anxiety, the subject of Wimmer’s doctoral dissertation at Marquette University.

Her novel also explores “the idea of loss and what happens after we die and the connection we have with people who have died,” says Wimmer, who’s now working on an adult novel.

Now in her first year at Pershing School in West Milwaukee after more than 18 years at Bristol in Kenosha County, Wimmer hasn’t lost enthusiasm for being a school psychologist. 

The field is just always changing,” she says, adding, “There’s a shortage of right now. There are jobs.”