By Renee Lorenz Special to Published Apr 22, 2012 at 1:05 PM

For many people, Channel 10's Great TV Auction is a springtime institution. Now in its 44th year, Milwaukee's is the most popular public television auction in the country.

"We raise over a million dollars every year," said Auction Director Sharon Fischer-Toerpe. "That million covers 10 minutes of every hour of programming, so it's really important to Milwaukee Public Television."

Since its beginnings in 1969, the auction has grown from a small operation with an initial goal of raising $50,000 to an anticipated yearly event with thousands of volunteers and even reliable bidding "regulars" dedicated to its efforts.

Although the auction has almost a half-century of experience on the air, it wasn't until a decade ago that it finally got a permanent headquarters. Before that the entire operation was forced to take up temporary residence at the Wisconsin State Fair each year and operate under much more restrictive time and space constraints, according to Fischer-Toerpe.

"We've really grown," she said. "We've owned this building for 10 years, and it allows us to work on the auction year-round."

Within the deceptively small exterior of the MPTV building, located off 124th and Burleigh in Brookfield, the auction runs a meticulous ship that tracks and handles over 20,000 auction items from beginning to end.

"During the year we have a core group of leadership volunteers who kind of work year-round and have their teams," said Fischer-Toerpe, who cited Acquisition, Copy, Display, Scheduling and a handful of other teams that work both in-house and in the community to put together each year's auction collection.

"Once things come in, every item gets its own item number. From there on it gets data-entered, it gets located in the warehouse, they check it over, they pack it up, if it needs to be cleaned they do all of that."

The acquisition and storage system works much like a museum catalog. Each piece has a specific space in the auction's expansive warehouse space. Donations are categorized on shelves, or – in the case of items valued over $500 – stored in lockers. Big-ticket items and antiques are also appraised to ensure their determined worth is accurate.

Even after so much processing, this is still only the prep stage. During the auction – which runs April 27-May 5 this year – even more volunteers join the ranks to field phone calls, manage online bids and run the on-air auction's behind-the-scenes operations.

"We have a team that sets it all up on the tables for table staging. We have our phone bank leaders who make sure everything is all set and manage all the bouncers. There's another team that is in charge of the phone bank. We have a whole team who does the commissary and feeds them," Fischer-Toerpe explained.

"We have a confirmation who calls all the winners. Then it goes to pick-up and pay, and people can come in to retrieve their items or have them shipped – and then it goes to our shipping team," she continued. "It takes about a month to really wrap up the auction."

The auction is completely volunteer-powered, from those who give their time to run the inner workings to those who donate products and services to auction off.

"During the auction, between the phone banks and everything, we have over 3,000 volunteers," said Fischer-Toerpe. "It takes a lot of volunteers. There are volunteers who plan their vacation around the auction just so they can be here."

And obviously, the auction's success also sits on the shoulders of the community's generous donors and buyers.

"It really is a Wisconsin tradition. It's really a community thing, so you're not only supporting MPTV, but you're supporting our donors by watching it," said Fischer-Toerpe. "You never know what you're going to get, which is what I really like about it."

Renee Lorenz Special to

Contrary to her natural state of being, Renee Lorenz is a total optimist when it comes to Milwaukee. Since beginning her career with, her occasional forays into the awesomeness that is the Brew City have turned into an overwhelming desire to discover anything and everything that's new, fun or just ... "different."

Expect her random musings to cover both the new and "new-to-her" aspects of Miltown goings-on, in addition to periodically straying completely off-topic, which usually manifests itself in the form of an obscure movie reference.