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During Lakeland’s recent Homecoming 2013 celebration, 1999 graduate Eric Kriete enthusiastically ran the 5K in a light rain, caught up with old friends and wore a proud smile all day long.

“Lakeland means everything to me,” he said during the tailgate luncheon. “I didn’t get it at the time, but as I got older, I realized that the faculty, staff and students at Lakeland changed my life forever – in such a positive way.”

Eric, successful owner of Sheboygan’s popular pub, The Silver Fern, takes pride in a being a consistent donor to the school he holds so close to his heart.

“I give back to Lakeland because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “Lakeland means too much to me not to give. Everyone there was so kind to me, and there’s just something about this place. It reflects so much goodness and I want to help other students experience that. In a sense, Lakeland built me.”

Coming out of 1,400-student Homestead High School in Mequon, Wis., Eric said he was “very shy.”

“I struggled at Homestead,” he recalled. “I felt stress and anxiety. I knew I had to go to college somewhere smaller because a big college or university would have swallowed me whole. At Lakeland, the people were so kind to me, they really brought me out of my shell.”

The professors at Lakeland also taught Eric how to be responsible. He said he learned to “buckle down and get things done,” and he left with a degree in business and marketing.

After graduation, Eric had the opportunity to climb the ranks at his family’s large Wisconsin company, Kriete Group truck distributorships. But armed with newfound confidence and a sense of exploration that blossomed at Lakeland, Eric decided to take a different path.

“I hiked in New Zealand for a few months,” he said. “It was one of the greatest things I ever did. While I walked, my head was so clear. I thought about what success really meant, and I realized what I wanted to do with my life.”

Once a shy teenager, Eric had morphed into a confident young man who loved socializing and sharing stories and laughs. So he purchased a bar, refurbished it and named it The Silver Fern – which happens to be the national emblem of New Zealand.

Now, more than a decade later, Eric is as comfortable around people as anyone you’ll meet. His eye contact is warm, his smile is genuine and his handshake is firm. Not bad for a kid who once suffered from anxiety in high school and dreaded being in a crowd.

“I know that without Lakeland, I wouldn’t have thrived,” he said. “I know I wouldn’t have found myself.”

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