Suzanne Wilke pulls up to her dog grooming store and exits her white Pathfinder with an exuberant wave and a giant smile on her face. She walks indoors and is immediately greeted with a barrage of barking dogs and friendly smiles. She picks up a chair and suggests we talk outside. “It’s too nice to be inside.” As we make our way to the storefront, we are greeted by multiple friends and customers picking up or dropping off their furry loved ones. Wilke greets everyone with the same friendly demeanor.
Wilke, who turns 60 in December, is a cancer survivor and owner of Bark Avenue Omaha, a grooming and daycare center for dogs. Her business is expanding, servicing 60-100 dogs per day. She is a rare breed whose ethics come from hard work and determination. Not satisfied with a mundane routine, she keeps herself active. “I hope to always keep that mentality, to stay busy enough where I don’t really have to worry about staying young,” Wilke says.
Her passion for dog grooming started at a young age. When she was 14, she started helping out at her aunt’s grooming shop. “There is just an art to it,” she exclaims. “My brain clicked, and it just came naturally to me.” So it would only make sense that from then on Wilke would follow her love for dogs and eventually begin her own business.
Though Wilke’s love for grooming only increased over the years, by age 23, in 1979, she took an apprenticeship with a plumber’s union as the only female apprentice. Wilke’s father, who was also a plumber, let her know that he wanted his daughter to have a career. “I was focusing on grooming, but my dad was always saying, ‘you need a career,’ and I didn’t want to do anything that confined me.”
After a few years of her apprenticeship, Wilke was no stranger to physical labor and eventually left the plumber’s union to begin a more promising job as a Union Pacific Railroad freight welder.
“I was the only woman to do that.”
She smiles and explains some of her duties. “I welded hopper cars and did physical labor down in the shops of the Union Pacific Railroad.” Wilke continued to work at Union Pacific until 1988.
As Wilke began to figure out what career she wanted to pursue, she did not abandon her true passion, grooming dogs on weekends. She never lost her clientele regardless of what she was doing. “I still have clients that I had 35 years ago. Because they still have dogs.”
Unfortunately, in 1991, Wilke was diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma, a rare malignant tumor. Wilke battled her way to make a full recovery only a year later. With a rare cancer, treatment was never easy. “They really didn’t know what to do for me.” However, she knew that there was something more. “I’ve always sat back and tried to understand what my purpose was. There’s got to be a purpose for me to be here.” After recovery, Wilke continued to work part time grooming dogs, but in 2000 she decided to open Bark Avenue.
As time progressed, Wilke maintained a healthy lifestyle both mentally and physically. She was in a position to do what she loved and make a living at it. However, in November 2015, Wilke suffered from a stroke that affected her speech and ability to walk. “It took me from November until the end of March to feel like I could get everything the way I needed it.” Much like other situations in her life, Wilke took this head on and conquered it. She shows no signs of health problems only a year after her stroke.
Today, she still grooms dogs on a daily basis and exercises every day. “There are all kinds of things we do in our lives that we feel passionate about,” says Wilke, who also enjoys camping, riding motorcycles, and four-wheeling.
Michelle Vilak, a good friend of Wilke and manager of Bark Avenue, says, “(She’s) the hardest working woman I have ever met. She’s inspirational and my best friend.” After spending an afternoon with Wilke, truer words could not have been said.
Visit barkavenueomaha.com for more information. Sixty-Plus in Omaha.