2019: A year of storms and triumph

Mother Nature, fundraisers, resignations make up Top 10 stories in Oconto County
Warren Bluhm
Oconto County Times Herald Editor

OCONTO FALLS — As we take down the 2019 calendar and hang the new 2020 calendar on the wall, we look back on a year when Mother Nature did her best to beat down Oconto County but persistence and a sense of humor got things done, when leadership changed suddenly, and when justice proved to be something that can happen quickly or over a matter of decades.

Here are the Times Herald’s picks for the Top 10 news stories of the year just ended.

1. A forest leveled

Oconto County Sheriff Todd Skarban said the damage from a July 19 windstorm in the northern part of the county was the worst he’s ever seen, including the 2007 tornado that struck the Mountain area.

The storm that struck between 8 and 9 p.m. that night introduced the word “macroburst” to most county residents. Not one of the tornadoes that struck across the state that night, the macroburst — “an outward burst of strong winds at or near the surface with horizontal dimensions larger than 2.5 miles and occurs when a strong downdraft reaches the surface,” Google says — leveled thousands of trees and left more than 40,000 residents and businesses without power, some for as many as eight days.

At a special Aug. 1 meeting the County Board voted to award $10,000 grants and $50,000 interest-free loans to the towns of Breed, Bagley, Brazeau, Doty, Lakewood, Mountain, Riverview and Townsend, which were hardest hit. They’ll have until Aug. 1, 2022, to pay back the loans to the county’s General Fund.

Gov. Tony Evers requested a federal disaster declaration for Oconto and 17 other Wisconsin counties and two tribes for damage sustained from severe storms, tornadoes, and flooding in July.

Since approved, the declaration provides federal disaster assistance to help local governments and electric cooperatives recover some of their costs from responding to the storms, protecting citizens, removing debris, and repairing roads and other infrastructure.

ATV trails and the Mountain Lookout Tower were closed for five weeks as federal, state and local crews worked with volunteers to clear downed trees from the massive storm. More than 125 members of Team Rubicon – a coalition of military veterans, first responders and others who send volunteers into disaster areas to help with cleanup – arrived Sept. 28 and worked non-stop through Oct. 12 in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest as part of the effort coordinated by the U.S. Forest Service and the Oconto and Langlade County Forestry Departments.

“We kept hearing from our Facebook page and phone calls, ‘Gee whiz, why don’t you have it open yet, it’s been a couple weeks, etc.,’” Red Arrow Snowmobile and ATV Club President Gary Wagner told Evers when the governor visited during the Team Rubicon campaign. “But now these same people are commenting after they get an opportunity to get up here and go for a ride in the back country and the woods and they’re saying ‘Oh my God, I guess I do understand now.’ You have to get out in the woods to see the devastation.”

2. High water and rising

As the northwest portion of Oconto County began what are expected to be years of recovery, attention turned to the southeast portion of the county along the bay of Green Bay, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicted that problems caused by record-high water levels are going to get worse before they get better.

“I hope we don’t we don’t have ice shoves, I hope we don’t have flooding in spring, but the way it’s looking, and the projections of the Great Lakes, I don’t think that’s the case,” Emergency Management Director Tim Magnin told the County Board in October, a week after high winds brought water coursing over the lake shore, closing Bay Shore Road near Oconto’s Breakwater Park and other shoreline roads.

“There were people who had to leave their residence because of the water,” said Supervisor Rose Stellmacher, who lives on County Road Y in the town of Little River.

At an informational meeting in early November, Lauren Fry of the corps said all of the Great Lakes except Michigan-Huron set records this summer, with levels even higher than the previous records set in the mid-1980s, and record highs can be expected over the next six months for Lake Michigan-Huron, which is actually considered one lake and is about 11 inches higher than in January 2019.

“The past five years were the wettest five years of the last 120 years of record-keeping in the Great Lakes region,” Fry said.

The troubles continued Nov. 27 when strong northeasterly winds pushed water over the shore, again closing Bay Shore Road and part of County Road Y and also washing out the road to the Splinter Causeway at Breakwater Park. The first major snowstorm of the season Dec. 1 knocked out 10,000 electric customers and made the high water problems worse for a time.

“We’ve seen flooding, we’ve seen unprecedented erosion, and going into ice season we don’t have some great warm and fuzzies about what we’re going to be seeing in the next coming months,” said Krystle Walker, a public information officer with the Corps.

3. Honoring local heroes

Fulfilling a vision that the late Marie Magnin first voiced eight years ago, a new Oconto Falls Area Veterans Monument was dedicated Nov. 9 during an hourlong ceremony at the high school and a short program at the monument next to the school district offices.

“This was a community partnership effort,” organizer Bob Maloney said. “The project was and is a partnership between our community, local veterans, the American Legion Post 302, the American Legion Auxiliary Unit 302, and the Oconto Falls School District. Working together, we accomplished our goals on building that Marie Magnin started.”

Her original vision was for a monument in the same Center Avenue block as the city’s longtime veterans memorial, but the fundraising effort stalled for several years, and Magnin eventually endorsed the plan to build the monument near Woodlawn Cemetery on a parcel of land just south of the Oconto Falls School District offices.

Sadly, she did not live to see the project finished; she died April 24, three weeks before the final agreement to use the school district property was approved.

“Marie knew we had her back in getting the monument built, and I’m sure she would have liked to thank you for the School Board’s support,” Maloney told the board at its May 13 meeting.

4. Gillett mayor removed

James Beaton’s life was upended in early September when his business partner sold Legacy Funeral Chapels in downtown Gillett and the apartment upstairs where Beaton lived while working as funeral director.

He had waged a successful write-in campaign in April 2018 to become mayor of Gillett, a term marked by an often contentious relationship with the City Council.

On Sept. 30, Beaton received a letter, signed by all six aldermen, citing the state law that says that failure to maintain residency results in the office being vacated.

“As a community, we would like to ask you if you would resign from your office,” the letter stated. “Failure to resign would result in a due process hearing.”

During a closed-door meeting three days later, Beaton agreed to resign in exchange for a lump-sum payment of the $2,762.50 he would have earned had he served the last six months of his term. The public was not informed about the controversy until after the mayor was gone.

“They don’t want me there,” Beaton said regarding the six aldermen. “I could have dug my heels in, but how would that help anybody?”

He also questioned the genesis of the letter.

“I haven’t been able to get an answer to the question: When did they have a meeting to decide this? There were no notices of a special meeting or anything like that.”

City Attorney Kate Sloma said she did not write the letter. Questions about how the council arrived at its decision to ask Beaton to resign, who wrote the letter, and how it was signed without a public meeting were referred to acting Mayor Josh McCarthy, who never returned the Times Herald’s phone calls.

5. A new clerk of courts

Mike Hodkiewicz, who served as Oconto County clerk of circuit courts for nearly 29 years, submitted his resignation July 10 to Judge Michael T. Judge and Jay N. Conley, effective Aug. 2.

He had been re-elected in November 2018 to another four-year term in the office he has held since 1990.

“When I ran for re-election for the last time, it was not my intention to give up the best job I ever had with more than three years remaining on my term as clerk of Circuit Courts of Oconto County,” he said in a letter addressed to the County Board.

Without going into detail with the board, Hodkiewicz alluded to friction with the judges and their staff that had been ongoing for about four years. In his resignation letter to Judge and Conley, he took a somewhat sharper tone.

“You will have the opportunity to appoint a much better clerk of courts until the time of the next election by the people of Oconto County,” Hodkiewicz wrote. “The last almost four years have been extremely difficult in dealing with the situation, problems and tensions surrounding your judicial assistant. You clearly have made a clear choice, a choice I wish you the best with in the future.”

Trisha L. LeFebre, who worked for Hodkiewicz for 25 years including 18 months as deputy clerk of courts, was appointed to fill the remainder of his term.

6. Oconto Falls Dog Park opens

Girl Scout Emily Gonnering of the Oconto Falls High School Class of 2019 raised $25,000 in 15 months to build the new dog park along North Maple Avenue, which will be open from 7 a.m. to dusk between April 1 and Nov. 1.

City Administrator Vicki Roberts said there was a run on City Hall to buy dog licenses shortly before the Aug. 17 grand opening, once word got out that only licensed dogs would be able to use the park.

7. An arrest in a 1976 double murder

The man police believe murdered a Green Bay couple at a Marinette County campground in 1976 lived quietly in the area for nearly 43 years, settling with his late wife in Lakewood 17 years ago.

Marinette and Oconto county sheriff’s deputies arrested Raymond L. Vannieuwenhoven, 82, in early March after authorities said technology unavailable in the 1970s matched him to DNA found on the body of Ellen Matheys, who was murdered with her fiancee, David Schuldes, in a Marinette County campground.

8. Prison sentences for a fatal crash

Cory Folts, 22, of Oconto Falls died instantly Sept. 29, 2018, when a pickup truck crossed the median on U.S. Highway 41-141 and crashed head-on into Folts’ car as the driver and her passenger fought over the steering wheel.

In plea agreements, Kelly Crispin of St. Paul, Minnesota, and Eric Solomon of Plymouth, Wyoming, pleaded no contest to homicide by intoxicated use of a motor vehicle and second-degree reckless homicide, respectively. As Folts’ family and friends looked on in separate court hearings, Solomon was sentenced to 10 years in prison and Crispin to 7½ years, followed by equal amounts of time on extended supervision.

9. Cities celebrate birthdays

The county’s three cities during 2019 all passed significant anniversaries since receiving their charters.

Gillett held a jubilee celebration in October to mark the 75th year since it transformed from a village into a city in 1944.

Oconto Falls introduced a commemorative coin to celebrate 100 years since the city was chartered in 1919.

Oconto commissioned a new batch of its namesake beer among other observances of its 150th anniversary.

10. Tooth fairy note goes viral

Gillett Elementary School Principal Curt Angeli’s characteristic whimsy kicked in Oct. 9 when a first-grader lost a loose tooth and, with it, a chance to earn some cash from the Tooth Fairy.

Angeli quickly dashed off a letter explaining what happened and asking the fairy to “Please accept this letter as official verification of a lost tooth and provide the standard monetary exchange rate you normally use for a real tooth.”

Charmed staffer Jenna Carlson posted the letter on Facebook, where it quickly went viral. The story captured the imagination of local, and then not-so-local, television outlets, where Angeli’s letter was featured on CNN and ABC’s Good Morning America, among others around the world.