Paup and Engebretsen rose from roots in small towns to all-league in Titletown

Before he sprouted into a bone-crushing NFL linebacker, Bryce Paup stood on the end of a coming-of-age verbal pounding.

“My coach got on me really hard for something,” Paup recalled of the junior-high harangue. “He said, ‘If Vince Lombardi had seen that, he would be rolling over in his grave.’ I said to myself, ‘Who the heck is Vince Lombardi?’ Later on, I found out.”

In 1990, a Green Bay Packer organization that had failed for two decades to replicate Lombardi’s grandeur selected the Division I-AA all-American from Northern Iowa in the sixth round of the NFL draft.

The Scranton, Ia., native developed into a four-time Pro Bowler and the AP Defensive Player of the Year, in 1995.

Paup and Paul “Tiny” Engebretsen, Iowans who rose from hardscrabble and anonymous small-town roots to become all-pros with the venerated Packers, together join the Des Moines Sunday Register’s Iowa Sports Hall of Fame as the 191st and 192nd members.

Paup’s upbringing in the western Greene County town of 600 consisted of the staples of rural Iowa life — operating heavy machinery, hefting 60-pound bags of soybeans and baling hay.

“When I got ready for football in Scranton, I’d run on gravel roads,” he said. “I never lifted (weights) a whole lot because I was always doing stuff on the farm. It gave me the work ethic to make it to the top.”

At times, Paup’s hard-nosed play wrought unexpected consequences. Against Bridgewater-Fontanelle, Paup said, he knocked three players out of a game. But an upset Scranton school official hollered down to the coach, who gave Paup the hook.

“He was a one-man crew,” said his mother, Harriett, 65, who still lives in Scranton with her husband, Byron, 67. “They funneled everything through him because he was the biggest guy on the field.”

Bryce Paup finished up his stellar NFL career with the Minnesota Vikings.
Bryce Paup finished up his stellar NFL career with the Minnesota Vikings.

In the NFL, the 6-foot-5, 247-pound Paup’s stature grew in 1994, when he was voted to his first Pro Bowl in his fifth season — only two years before Brett Favre, Reggie White and Co. brought another championship to Titletown.

But the Packers decided not to pursue Paup aggressively and Buffalo snapped him up with a three-year deal worth $7.6 million.

“It was where I bought my first house and had my first child,” Paup said of Green Bay. “I didn’t want to leave.”

Paup, however, flourished in Buffalo, where he was a Pro Bowl choice all three seasons and led the NFL in sacks with 17 1/2 in 1995.

“The Packers had never seen me as that type of player,” he said. “It took someone looking from the outside. … Buffalo put me over the tight end and let me rush.”

Paup, who had 75 career sacks, rounded out his 11 years in the league with two seasons in Jacksonville and one in Minnesota.

He is 38, married to Denise and has six children, including 6-month-old twins. He lives in the Green Bay suburb of De Pere, works for a hospital in performance enhancement and is an assistant coach for the De Pere High School team.

Since 1996, Paup and his family have lived in the shadow of nearly 50-year-old Lambeau Field.

“Other places say they have great fans,” he said. “I have done everything at Lambeau: I was a player, I’ve sat in the stands, I’ve tailgated and I was an opponent. It’s a great place to play, the absolute best.”

A long way from Chariton

Earl Louis “Curly” Lambeau, the Packers’ founder and first head coach, signed Paul “Tiny” Engebretsen in 1934 at a time the Packer mystique was gaining currency. Green Bay had won its first NFL titles in 1929, 1930 and 1931.

The Packers’ website heralds the midseason acquisition of Engebretsen from the NFL’s Brooklyn Dodgers as Green Bay’s free-agent grab of the decade.

“Tiny was a guard and one of the more important members of the offensive line,” said Packer team historian Lee Remmel, 82, who has lived in Green Bay since 1944. “And he won a few games for them with his foot.”

Engebretsen was born in 1910 in Chariton, a town of 4,600 in central Lucas County, and through his life wore a multitude of hats.

He worked on a wheat ranch in Canada, was a lifeguard, sold optical goods, owned an ice business, operated a restaurant, prospected for gold, and for many years until his death in 1979 at age 68 raised ringneck pheasants and mallards with his brother Bill on a farm outside Chariton.

IMG_0085His versatility extended to football. In addition to being a triple-threat on the field, he scouted for the Packers and coached the Buffalo Tigers of the short-lived American Professional Football League in the 1940s.

Engebretsen first made his name, which that era’s press frequently misspelled, as a center on the Register’s all-state second team in 1927.

He jumped to Northwestern, where he was named most valuable player of the Big Ten co-champion in 1931. In Evanston, he gained his reputation as a first-teamer at the dinner table and acquired his fashionably ironic nickname. The Chicago Daily News reported: “Tiny will eat anything placed before him.”

Engebretsen grew to 6-1 and 245 pounds and had a large presence in his 1932 rookie season with the Bears, starting at guard and leading the NFL in extra points (10) and attempts (15). He was coached by George Halas, while the Bears starred other Pro Football Hall of Famers Bronko Nagurski and Harold “Red” Grange, “The Galloping Ghost.”

“Pretty fancy neighborhood,” Remmel said.

The Bears, aided by an Engebretsen extra point, won the 1932 title 9-0 over the Portsmouth Spartans in a rare indoor football game, at Chicago Stadium.

After short stays with the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Brooklyn, Engebretsen began his eight years in Green Bay.

He was an all-league choice on the 1936 and 1939 champion Packer teams led by Hall of Fame receiver Don Hutson, topped the NFL in extra points (18) in 1939 and retired on Sept. 16, 1941, two days after the season opener.

In the NFL, Engebretsen scored 100 points on 15 of 28 field-goal tries and 55 of 62 extra-point attempts.

“This was a guy who played when they played for the love of it,” said grandson Mike McCune, 37, of Johnston. “They wore leather helmets, for gosh sakes.”

Engebretsen was inducted into the Packer Hall of Fame in 1978 with Canton enshrinee Ray Nitschke, a Lombardi disciple. In failing health, Engebretsen could not attend the ceremony. His weathered helmet is on display behind glass at the Packer Hall.

“He was quiet, laid back and wasn’t a real showman. A gentle giant comes to mind,” said McCune. “This was just a modest kid from Chariton who worked hard to get where he got.”

(Published in The Des Moines Register, Aug. 6, 2006)

On the fast track: Wisconsin woman working her way up stock-car ladder

On the surface, Kelsey Bauer seems to have it all. She’s a talented and emerging stock-car driver, she has an undying competitive streak, she’s intelligent and it doesn’t hurt her cause that she has a winning smile.

Even a D student in the nation’s worst marketing program would have a hard time botching the presentation of the total package that is Bauer.

Problem is, the Elkhart Lake resident does not have it all. She needs major sponsors, the kind of five-, six- and seven-figure money that will fuel her career more than will a truckload of trophies, a soon-in-hand mechanical engineering degree and her pearly whites.

The 2007 Howards Grove High School graduate, who lettered in four sports, has attracted some sponsorship money from good, local companies that believe in her potential and have backed to the hilt her three-year-old, late-model driving career.

But at some point, if Bauer really does have aspirations of one day burning rubber alongside the greats of the NASCAR circuit, sponsorships from deep-pocketed corporations and slick marketing will be paramount.

“Money is a big issue,” said Bauer, 21. “A lot of companies don’t sponsor due to the fact it’s an individual sport. Then they feel they would have to do it for everybody. It’s sad to see that because there are so many talented drivers, but they can’t do that because of the lack of money.”

As it is, even on the late-model circuit, bills pile high quickly. Bauer said a racing suit costs $1,200, a HANS device (which stands for “head and neck support”) costs $1,000, a helmet is $800, shoes are $300 and tires cost $400 each week for a new set. By comparison, the associated costs of racing in even one NASCAR event can be astronomical, she said.

“I’d like to get as far as I can,” Bauer said. “NASCAR is a big step. It was a big change to go from go-karting to late-model.”

In the meantime, all she can do is continue to perform well on the track and hope that opportunities arise. A former world go-kart champion, Bauer posted two top-five finishes in just four races at Columbus 151 Speedway last season. At Slinger Speedway, she qualified sixth last July.

“I’ve always been this way. I grew up as kind of a tomboy,” said Bauer. “Nothing ever bothered me when it came to speed. When you’re on the track, you don’t realize the crowd is there. You are focused, in the zone.”

This season, which is just getting under way for her because she recently completed her junior year at UW-Milwaukee, Bauer won a late-model heat at Columbus on May 2 and posted the fastest time in the feature at Slinger on May 16.

With two laps to go at Slinger, her car slid into the wall and she finished 10th. In 2007 at Slinger, she got her right arm caught in the steering wheel and broke her right, dominant wrist.

“I’m still working on getting over the fear at that track,” Bauer said. “It has the most banking (of any track in Wisconsin).”

In a recent interview, her mother, Donna, sat next to her daughter and talked of Kelsey’s strength and about the dangers of driving.

“Kelsey, as far back as I can remember, her competitive nature has gotten her success,” Donna Bauer said. “Yes, I’ve been nervous. She’s had a couple friends die. But late-model is safer (than go-karting), so I feel a little bit better. But it’s also faster.”

Her mother recalled a revelatory quote that Kelsey wrote for school in the fourth grade.

“It read, “The only time success comes before work is in the dictionary,’ “ Donna Bauer said. “And she has lived by that quote.”

“Lyn St. James was very determined,” says Kelsey Bauer. “She’s done a lot for the sport. More women are getting into racing, actually. I think in a few years, they will have a female in NASCAR full time.”
“Lyn St. James was very determined,” says Kelsey Bauer. “She’s done a lot for the sport. More women are getting into racing, actually. I think in a few years, they will have a female in NASCAR full time.”

The driver’s introduction to speed and the craft of racing was, like many things in life, accidental. Her father, Rick, who once raced snowmobiles in Eagle River, thought it would be fun to rent go-karts and see if his youngest daughter enjoyed it.

“She was kind of more an outdoors, tomboy type than the other two daughters,” said Rick Bauer. “We went on a vacation up North and we decided to race go-karts and it got to the point whee we couldn’t catch her. I was the only one who could get close to catching her. So we bought a go-kart and kind of started from there. That first half a season, she won three races, which we were impressed with.”

Bauer began her go-kart career in 2001 and, almost immediately, hauled in hardware: national champion, world champion, driver of the year, enduro driver of the year — all by age 17. Few titles eluded her.

At 18, she graduated to the late-model circuit, in which one of her idols, the late Alan Kulwicki, started his career decades ago. Bauer, who has a 3.2 grade point average in a challenging major, won the Alan Kulwicki Memorial Scholarship, worth $8,000, this month at UWM.

Her school year now complete, Bauer has an engineering internship at Bemis, where her mother works, and is able to spend more time in the garage and on the track.

The 5-foot-3 Bauer, who said she knows of only one other woman driving late-model cars in Wisconsin, said the men who race at Slinger and Columbus, many dyed-in-the-wool and 20 years her senior, give her respect, the same kind one of her other idols, Lyn St. James, earned in a long driving career.

“Lyn St. James was very determined,” Bauer said. “She’s done a lot for the sport. More women are getting into racing, actually. I think in a few years, they will have a female in NASCAR full time.”

Maybe it will be Bauer, but only if sponsorship, marketing and a few breaks fall into place. She could get one of those breaks soon. This summer, she plans to apply for NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, which encourages women and minorities to pursue racing careers.

“You apply, go to North Carolina to test, work on the car,” Bauer said. “They look at your entire racing career, if you’re marketable.”

As for this summer, she will continue to drive for Ratajczyk Racing and her crew chief, boyfriend Travis Dassow, and plans to add Wisconsin Dells to her racing schedule. As for marketing — and tomorrow?

“What Danica (Patrick) did was photo shoots,” Bauer said the driver racing part time in the NASCAR Nationwide Series this season. “Just to get your name out there, and then people can see who you are.”

(Published in The Sheboygan Press, 2010)

Kerouac transformed on the road in Iowa, his entry point into personal freedom

On U.S. Highway 6 in Iowa — In July 1947, Jack Kerouac set out to cross “the groaning continent” in search of “IT” — a trip that proved to be the incubator for his Beat Generation novel “On the Road,” published 50 years ago this month.

As professors and study groups examine the book, and marathon readings around the world celebrate the work, Iowa’s place in the novel remains crucial and enduring.

“In Iowa, as Kerouac writes at the end, they let the children cry; they don’t stifle them like in the East; they let them be themselves,” said Gerald Nicosia, reached last week at a Kerouac conference in Chicago and author of the definitive biography, “Memory Babe,” published in 1983. “To him, Iowa was the beginning of the West, and crossing the Mississippi symbolized the open door to that freedom.”

Jack Kerouac takes a drag on a cigarette on a fire escape in New York in 1953. Kerouac traveled the country beginning in 1948, beginning research for his influential novel
Jack Kerouac takes a drag on a cigarette on a fire escape in New York in 1953. Kerouac traveled the country starting in 1947, beginning research for his influential novel “On the Road,” published 10 years later.

The story gains speed when a middle-aged Iowa woman in a coupe picks up Kerouac’s protagonist, Sal Paradise, along Route 6 outside Joliet, Ill. She deposits him in Davenport.

“And here for the first time in my life I saw my beloved Mississippi River, dry in the summer haze, low water, with its big rank smell that smells like the raw body of America itself.”

Later, fortified with a few cold beers but receiving suspicious glances, Sal escapes “the purple darkness” in Davenport and winds up hitching with a truck driver who has “popping eyes and a hoarse raspy voice.”

John Sampas, executor of the author’s literary estate and whose late sister Stella was Kerouac’s third wife, said the author “made himself very aware of the people he met, whether in Iowa or Nebraska or Mexico. He was so full of himself — and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. He kept notes and charts and diagrams of his travels so he could write the novel.”

Sal roughly follows Route 6, then the nation’s longest road. In eastern Iowa, it’s winding and undulating and passes telephone poles and railroad lines to the left and cornstalks to the right.

“And he balled that thing clear to Iowa City and yelled me the funniest stories about how he got around the law in every town that had an unfair speed limit.”

The trucker gives a signal to another and Sal jumps into the next cab, faced with another screaming driver on the road that bisects the University of Iowa campus and heads north of today’s Interstate 80. Sal digs meeting adventurers “mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved.”

Kerouac, Sampas said, was “very aware of the huge influence of European writers that all American writers were imitating and he wanted to create something different.”

This new, spontaneous style in “Road” veers from the more flowery prose derivative of the old masters and used in Kerouac’s debut, “The Town and the City,” published in 1950.

In
In “On the Road,” Kerouac veered from the more flowery prose of his debut “The Town and the City.”

“I read ‘On the Road’ at 17, and it inspired me and made me want to become a writer,” said Jonathan Ames, a visiting professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “Then I reread it at 21 during my junior year at Princeton and realized it was more of a cautionary tale.”

The trucker and Sal stop to rest in Newton, where years later Sal and Dean Moriarty (Kerouac’s alter ego, Neal Cassady) are accused of stealing a Cadillac.

Sal hitches with two University of Iowa students four miles into Des Moines and tries unsuccessfully to get a room at a YMCA. He strolls to the railroad yards and finds a room at a “gloomy old Plains inn of a hotel,” possibly near the Des Moines Union Railway Co. roundhouse that stood at 14th and Mulberry streets.

There, Sal sleeps, his first quality rest since grabbing a room in Chicago’s Loop, and collapses onto a bed next to “beat yellow windowshades pulled over the smoky scene of the railyards.” He wakes up in that Des Moines fleabag aware of a transformation.

“… hearing the hiss of stream outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger.”

Nicosia called this passage the novel’s turning point.

“He’s shedding his old self when he’s in that hotel room; he’s a different person, no longer feels like a failure, no longer has to obey the rules,” he said. “The East was all failure — dropped out of Columbia, quit the football team, manuscripts had been rejected. And what he learned from the West is that you follow your genius, like Thoreau said.”

Sal leaves in “that strange red afternoon” and continues toward Denver to see friends, rushing “past the pretty girls, and the prettiest girls in the world live in Des Moines.”

He hitches with a farmer and his son to Adel, and there under a big elm tree near a gas station meets a man whom he suspects is on the lam.

“… he looked pretty awful on the road. But we stuck together and got a ride with a taciturn man to Stuart, Iowa, a town in which we were really stranded.”

The
The Rock Island Railroad Depot in Stuart, Iowa, awaits renovation on East Front Street. Sal and Eddie killed five hours there in “On the Road.”

Sal and fellow hitchhiker Eddie stand in front of the Rock Island Railroad Depot, built in 1879 and today awaiting renovation on East Front Street. There, they kill five hours telling dirty stories, kicking pebbles and making noises. Then they drink at an old saloon, after which Eddie yells “joyously in my ear all the sordid dreams of his life.”

They try to sleep on a bench, but the telegraph clicks and trains slam. It is no use.

“Iowa was also about tribulation,” Nicosia said. “Sal gets stranded, people don’t pick him up, Eddie later takes his shirt, he’s pulled over with Dean. So once you open your soul, you open yourself to other things. It’s not all roses and honey; there’s great suffering, too.”

Then the two consider riding the rails but concede they aren’t savvy enough. So they take a bus to Council Bluffs.

Sampas, who still lives in the author’s hometown of Lowell, Mass., said, “Jack liked the idea of the cowboy and taking the path of the American forefathers.”

But once Kerouac’s narrator reaches Council Bluffs, he’s displeased with what he sees.

“All winter I’d been reading of the great wagon parties that held council there before hitting the Oregon and Santa Fe trails; and of course now it was only cut suburban cottages of one damn kind and another, all laid out in the dismal gray dawn.”

A few years later, with Dean at the wheel and Sal beside him, they burn through the “curvy corndales of Iowa” going 80 to 110 mph and are involved in an accident in Des Moines.

IMG_0088At the conclusion of “On the Road,” Kerouac circles back to the Heartland.

“Iowa was kind of a pure center for him in his crisscrossing of the country,” said Ames, of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, “and the two coasts were associated with being more decadent.”

Nicosia said Kerouac likely used the image of the wide-open West to counter the oppressive political climate of the times.

“The Cold War, Russia, fear, intimidation, McCarthyism were all in the East,” Nicosia said. “For Kerouac, Iowa was the beginning of freedom and the end of conformity.”

“… and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? …”

(Published in The Des Moines Register, Sept. 25, 2007)

Chicago Studebakers accomplished first full-scale racial integration in pro sports

It was a milestone that under different circumstances might have led every radio newscast and been plastered across the tops of newspapers from coast to coast. But war was raging and, besides, the nation was indifferent to pro basketball.

At least one major publication, the Chicago Daily Tribune, gave this groundbreaking event a tiny headline and 27 words at the bottom of Page 40. And the article failed to mention why the game was significant.

Admittedly, we have the luxury of reviewing this event through the high-definition lens of hindsight.

This event — the first full-scale racial integration of a major professional sports league — was not achieved by the NFL’s Kenny Washington in 1946 or by Major League Baseball’s Jackie Robinson in 1947, as the history books would lead us to believe. And it did not occur in a heavily populated market such as New York or Chicago.

The first and often overlooked breaking down of the big-league color barrier happened in 1942. It was done en masse, with six players. It occurred without fanfare or police escort.

And would you believe this landmark desegregation unfolded in a small-town bandbox known as the Sheboygan Municipal Auditorium and Armory?

“It’s an untold story that deserves acclaim,” said Bill Himmelman, who would know, as he is considered the authority on pro basketball history.

The Sheboygan Armory hosted the first game in which the Chicago Studebakers played in the National Basketball League. Six black players suited up for the Studebakers.
The Sheboygan Armory hosted the first game in which the Chicago Studebakers played in the National Basketball League. Six black players suited up for the Studebakers on Nov. 25, 1942, four years before the National Football League and five before Major League Baseball integrated.

Few of the 3,000 locals in attendance on Nov. 25, 1942, knew the magnitude of the moment when Bernie Price, Hillary Brown, Duke Cumberland, Sonny Boswell, Tony Peyton and Roosie Hudson emerged from their locker room with four white teammates to play the Red Skins. What those fans cared about most was that Sheboygan opened the National Basketball League season on a positive note, 53-45, over the Chicago Studebakers.

Today, historians who recently finished observing Black History Month, and who are following the first months in office of the nation’s first black president, point to that Wednesday night on lower Pennsylvania Avenue as a watershed moment for inclusion.

“There had been token integrations before (in lesser leagues), but this was THE integration that marks the start for pro basketball and for major professional-league sports,” said Himmelman, who served as the NBA’s historian from 1985 to 2002. “About 30 years ago, I had the pleasure of spending time with the Studebaker players. They said they felt shortchanged as the ones who truly integrated pro sports, rather than Jackie Robinson and all the rest. The NBL was the trendsetter there.”

Integration was Sid Goldberg’s brainchild. The owner and coach of the Toledo Jim White Chevrolets broached the idea in an effort to save the league, as conscription had decimated rosters. The NBL’s Chicago entry, sponsored by the United Automobile Workers, piggybacked on the idea and recruited six former Harlem Globetrotter players who were working in the Studebaker defense plant and therefore exempt from the draft. The sprawling plant on Chicago’s South Side made military aircraft engines.

“They were always treated good because they made good money, working at the plant and playing for Studebaker,” said Al Price, whose late brother Bernie was Chicago’s second-leading scorer.

As luck would have it, the Studebakers’ season opener was played in Sheboygan. Some nights later, Toledo suited up four black players — Bill Jones, Shanty Barnett, Al Price and Casey Jones — for their opener. These dual events came eight years before Earl Lloyd was hailed as being the first black player to step onto an NBA court.

“Some of the towns we played in weren’t too cool,” said Price, 92, who still lives in Toledo. “That was just the way people were and how they felt. All across the country, discrimination was going on. Some cities and towns were very prejudiced and others were very receptive. Just like people are today, good and bad. I don’t remember how Sheboygan was.”

The last player remaining from that trailblazing Chicago-Sheboygan game is Red Skins forward Ken Buehler, who scored 14 points against the Studebakers and would be named the NBL’s rookie of the year that season.

“When I played at Milwaukee State Teachers College, we had a black player on the team, so it was nothing new,” said Buehler, 89, who lives in South Palm Beach, Fla. “As for the Studebakers having black players, nobody thought anything of it, as far as race relations go.”

To the city’s credit, the integration experiment appeared to go down without a hitch. The Sheboygan Press reported that “the colored boys looked classy and will undoubtedly do some upsetting before the season ends.”

Perhaps it wasn’t a big deal because for the better part of a decade Sheboygan had played black barnstorming teams and even hosted the Globetrotters’ first training camp, in November 1940.

Duke Cumberland of the Chicago Studebakers wraps up Kenny Suesens of the Sheboygan Red Skins, while looking on from left are Chicago's Bernie Price, Sheboygan's Rube Lautenschlaeger, Chicago's Hillary Brown, Sheboygan's Eddie Dancker and Sheboygan's Bill McDonald.
Duke Cumberland of the Chicago Studebakers wraps up Kenny Suesens of the Sheboygan Red Skins, while looking on from left are Chicago’s Bernie Price, Sheboygan’s Rube Lautenschlager, Chicago’s Hillary Brown, Sheboygan’s Eddie Dancker and Sheboygan’s Bill McDonald. The action was captured during a 1943 National Basketball League game at the Sheboygan Armory.

However, it might be misleading to characterize all-white Sheboygan as an island of tolerance in a nation otherwise divided by Jim Crow-era legislation. For instance, a local announcement for a 1939 game against the all-black Jesse Owens Olympians promoted the Red Skins’ rematch with “these darkies” and used several stereotypes of the era.

Author Robert W. Peterson, in his book “Cages to Jump Shots,” wrote that Toledo found accommodations in Sheboygan only because Red Skins coach Carl Roth had implored Sheboygan Indians baseball manager Joe Hauser, an influential voice in town, to find rooms.

As for the Studebakers, for all we know they may have stayed at a ramshackle hotel near the railroad yard, sleepless and staring at cracked ceilings as an assembly of train whistles and slamming rail cars inhabited the night air.

Two years earlier, the famous Globetrotters, consisting of several of these same Studebaker players, were met with the glare of taciturn hotel managers.

“They were not welcome at the Foeste, which was the nicest hotel in town,” said Frank Zummach, 98, the Red Skins head coach from 1939-42. “They found a hit-and-miss place, the Park Hotel, which wasn’t much of a hotel. Sometimes, and more often than not, they’d go to eat and they wouldn’t (be served).”

So while it may be with pride that Sheboygan embraces its role in big-league sports integration, it must be tempered with the knowledge that the road was filled with potholes and the door was open only a crack. Timing allowed the Studebakers and Jim White Chevrolets to squeeze through, and dumb luck allowed Sheboygan to share in the moment.

(Published in The Sheboygan Press, March 9, 2009, as a staff member of The Des Moines Register)

A Father’s Day story: Son’s illness alters the way Kloes family views life

Bounding across the family’s living room, gliding onto the fireplace hearth, cracking jokes and flashing wit, Jackson Kloes is the picture of vitality.

Outside, Jackson swings at Wiffle balls thrown by his father, Craig, head coach of the successful Sheboygan South baseball team. In the kitchen, father and son bond, preparing their favorite blueberry muffins and sausage for the family.

“He wants to be a chef when he grows up,” said his mother, Jenny.

During the week leading up to Father’s Day, there are hugs aplenty in the Kloes home. Craig rubs his son’s back and reaches his strong left arm around the little man’s shoulders. On Jackson’s T-shirt is a blue star — a symbol of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

“This is a very special day for me because Jackson treats me like a king; he is an extremely thoughtful boy,” Craig said. “As parents, we are trying to create as many memories as possible.”

For one week in May, in the middle of the Redwings’ charmed baseball season, Craig Kloes put assistant coach Will Madson in charge of the South team and with his family reported to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

His son, much more than his players and fellow coaches, needed him.

“I think the meaning of Father’s Day is a day to really appreciate your dad for what he’s done for you,” Jackson said. “He does a lot of nice things for us, takes me fishing and plays baseball with me. He takes me to the doctor and drives me to the Mayo Clinic. You should treat people how you’d want to be treated.”

Sheboygan (Wis.) South baseball coach Craig Kloes and son Jackson, 8, at their home in Sheboygan.
Sheboygan (Wis.) South baseball coach Craig Kloes and son Jackson, 8, at their home.

Jackson is one of only three 8-year-olds in a 300-patient national study centered on a life-threatening condition known as neurofibromatosis type 2, or NF2, a genetic disorder in which tumors form unabated in the body, particularly on the nerves of the brain and spine.

In Bethesda, Jackson had three magnetic resonance imaging tests, of two to three hours each, and underwent vision, hearing and balance testing.

No known cure for NF2 exists, but Craig Kloes is resolute in his belief that in the coming years medical advances will give his son increased hope.

“What’s great about the National Institutes of Health,” Craig said, “is that if there is any cutting-edge treatment, we’re in the loop.”

His optimism, however, is tempered by the harsh facts the family has been forced to digest ever since December 2001.

When Jackson was only 4 months old, Craig and Jenny grew concerned their youngest son was having vision problems and brought him to Dr. Jean Schott, an ophthalmologist in Sheboygan. She detected a mass on both retinas.

“(A hematoma) was discovered as an infant, which was a blessing,” Craig said of the finding later that day at the Eye Institute in Milwaukee. “If not for early detection, we’d have no clue what was going on. Now we can be proactive. But all that we can do is monitor the tumors and have them removed if needed.”

In June 2002, through genetic testing, the Kloeses were informed Jackson had NF2, which affects one in 25,000 to 30,000 births, and that their son’s gene mutation was spontaneous, rather than hereditary. The existence of NF2 in children, they learned, is considered more dire than in adults because tumors grow more aggressively in youngsters.

During his first three years of life, Jackson was in vigorous therapy.

“When he was 3, the therapist gave up on the idea that he’d ever walk or crawl,” his mother said. “Then he just took off.”

In the five years since, Jackson has been determined to pack years into months. As some NF2 patients don’t reach adulthood, time can be invaluable and fleeting.

Early in 2009, doctors discovered that a tumor touching Jackson’s optic nerve, in his brain, had grown from zero to 3 centimeters in less than a year.

The family’s “lot in life,” as Craig calls it, was magnified prior to the surgery when Jackson leaned in toward his father and asked, “Dad, is this something that could kill me?”

Craig, 43, a physical education and health teacher at Farnsworth Middle School, steadied his son with reassuring words. But he knew the stakes were high.

“I was worried at the surgery, the severity,” Craig said. “When they go over the risks and expectations, it kind of hits home. It got to the point where I thought, ‘This is kind of the big leagues.’ It’s that fear of the unknown. That’s the thing with NF2: tumors are so unpredictable.”

The tumor was not judged malignant, but atypical, and was removed by Dr. Michael Link at the Mayo Clinic in March 2009.

“But if you have one near your brain stem, it doesn’t matter if it’s benign. You can’t get to it,” Craig said.

Jackson and family will return to the Mayo Clinic in August and to the NIH in November; the latter a biannual visit for which all expenses are covered and the family meets with Dr. Ashok Asthagiri.

“Jack’s tough. That’s the thing. We never know if he’s sick,” his mother said. “If he has killer headaches, he’ll never tell anyone. He’ll throw up at school and not tell anyone because he doesn’t want to miss any more school.”

Despite missing 33 days in 2009-10, Jackson’s reading scores fall in the 99th percentile of students, and the soon-to-be fourth grader at Jackson Elementary School has been enrolled in the school district’s Program for Academic and Creative Extension. PACE is for the gifted and talented.

“What they told us at the Mayo Clinic is that there’s a dark side (with NF2),” Craig said. “But that he’s going to amaze you with what he can do.”

Among his interests, Jackson bowls, sleds, fishes, rides his bike, explores Kohler-Andrae State Park and goes to the movies. But for all his energy, Jackson faces many obstacles.

“We have a lot of support, family and friends,” Craig said. “You do what you have to do to make it through the day. You stay positive, but you have to be realistic.”

The Kloes family, from left, Jacob, mother Jenny, Jackson, father Craig and Emma. Jackson suffers from neurofibromatosis type 2.
The Kloes family, from left, Jacob, mother Jenny, Jackson, father Craig and Emma. Jackson was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis type 2.

Jackson is legally blind, only able to see out of the periphery of his eyes. He reads with the help of a magnifying machine and walks with a cane in public. He has a mobility teacher, Diane Gafney, who helps him with his orientation skills. He has tumors over both retinas and on three facial muscles and is having problems with dizziness, nausea and balance, belying his sure-footed movement through the family’s living room last week. In his ears, he has bilateral tumors, called acoustic neuromas, and will lose his hearing.

“It’s hard because you progressively see more things taken away from him,” said Jenny, 40, a first-grade teacher at James Madison Elementary School. “It kills him now because (sister) Emma goes out and plays, and the doctors have him on restriction. He’s so cognitively able, it’s heartbreaking. To see him so unhappy … Yesterday, he did a lot of crying. He just wants to be normal, like everybody else.”

The Kloeses cannot say enough of the earthly angels they have encountered during this journey and how Jackson’s condition has brought the family together.

They call his big brother Jacob, 17, his “caretaker,” while Emma, 11, sang “Star in the Sky,” written and composed by Jackson, at the school talent show on June 9. Jackson, in turn, will write his parents love letters when he can tell their stress levels have peaked. Jacob has Asperger Syndrome and Emma an organic impulse disorder.

“It’s very difficult having three special-needs kids,” Jenny said.

The Kloeses said the outpouring of support from fellow teachers has been impressive, along with precocious gestures by Jackson’s good friend, Zach Polster, a child without disabilities who has brought a cane to field trips and is learning Braille with this classmate.

“So Jackson doesn’t feel left out,” Jenny said.

The Make-A-Wish Foundation and Give Kids The World have been generous to Jackson. Today, the Kloes family hopes to embark on a tour of 21 amusement and waterparks in 21 days, made possible by GKTW. And soon Jackson will be pictured on Make-A-Wish literature.

“I think he’s made a difference in people’s lives,” his mother said. “He likes the good in people and he likes what’s right and he’s appreciative.”

Jackson has made an indelible imprint on the lives of his siblings and parents.

“If you’re contemplating doing something now or later, you do it now,” his father said. “I think I am more straightforward now, more sensitive, more aware of what’s going on around you. The cliche of stopping and smelling the roses. …”

Craig and Jenny hold dear to them every detail of Jackson’s life, every memory, his every reaction — snapshots in time that other parents might not deem worthy to preserve.

“Remember when that giant, bouncing ball got stuck in the tree?” Jackson said last week to anyone within earshot. “That was great.”

And what about that smile that graced Jackson’s face in early June when his father was named the Fox River Classic Conference coach of the year, after the Redwings had broken 28 of 47 individual and team records, tied for the East Division title and finished with a 19-7 record?

That smile stretched from here to Bethesda, Md.

“I think the character of that team, there was always concern for the family first,” Craig said. “There are bigger things in life than baseball.”

Star Josh Gruenke bought Jackson a framed photo of Milwaukee Brewers slugger Prince Fielder last year, while standout Sam Raff spoke of the Kloes family and of South volunteer assistant coach Mark Reinemann, who is battling cancer, in a speech June 10 at the team banquet.

Afterward, the smallest member of the team waited in the wings to congratulate Coach. It was Jackson’s turn at-bat, and he was just one of the guys.

“That’s the saddest thing about NF2,” his mother said. “He’s wanted so badly to play on his daddy’s baseball team.”

(Published in The Sheboygan Press, June 20, 2010)

Holding onto memories of my son’s short, touching life

When Quinn was old enough, he was as active as any boy his age. We did many of the usual father-son activities. I loved being in his company.

In Quinn’s earliest months, I read him a favorite, “Oh, Baby, The Places You’ll Go!,” adapted from Dr. Seuss. It begins:

Baby, oh, baby
The places you’ll go!
The worlds you will visit!
The friends you will know!

He wiggled when I turned up my voice to emphasize a passage. Though my wife, Julia, and Quinn were inseparable, I, too, was forging a strong bond with our first child.

The thing about our Quinn was that he was a a ham. And expressive. In his earliest days, without fail, he would flash a goofy look on his face the moment his image was being captured.

He was along on walks with Mama and Papa. We didn’t expect great feats of endurance because he first was gaining his lungs. But he stretched and moved his legs as surely as other sprouts did. A couple times, he kicked my palm with considerable force, a typical, active boy.

And there was that night I surprised Julia with tickets to the musical “Chicago.” It was March, and Quinn had been with us for some time. When a female vocalist let loose her booming voice, Quinn reacted with turns and vitality. That lad made quite a scene. Quinn moved his arms and legs and danced with pleasure. A regular Gene Kelly, my son. We silently giggled and looked in his direction, and others in our section glanced over and gave us knowing smiles.

I figured that with all that energy, he was destined for athletic greatness. Or whatever he wanted to be: a computer scientist, a policeman, a teacher, a journalist, like his papa. My given name is his middle name.

He was my bud, that son of mine. Together, we explored this world of ours.

I hang onto these memories because they are all I have. Never was I able to hug or kiss my son and have him return my affection. Quinn died in utero, confirmed by an ultrasound. He was born still on April 12, 2001, one month before his due date. No cause was determined.

Brian Gaynor holds his son Quinn at Meriter Hospital in Madison, Wis., on April 12, 2001.
Brian Gaynor holds his son Quinn at Meriter Hospital in Madison, Wis., on April 12, 2001.

But, yes, I experienced Quinn and tried to gain an understanding of who he was through his everyday movements in my wife’s belly, through his reactions to our readings, his dancing to the music we listened to together.

My wife reminds me I was a by-the-books father, attending to Quinn’s nutritional and medical needs. I cared deeply about his well-being and loved him as fervently and unconditionally as any father does a son.

He was bathed and clothed and footprints were made, the same ritual as for a newborn. The nurses at Meriter Hospital in Madison were sensitive to our needs. Soon, we learned that hospitals and support groups used the butterfly as a symbol for infant or child loss. It could be a comfort to parents.

I remember being hesitant, even afraid, to kiss Quinn. I was stiff with fear. I expected him to be cold. Weren’t they all cold? Somehow, he seemed alien. The dead. But he was our Quinn, once vibrant during a healthy and blissful pregnancy.

I kissed his forehead. He was warm. He was the cutest baby in the world. Quinn. Quinn! In disbelief, I longed to welcome him to the world, hug him, tell him about the sports we would play together, the horsey rides I would give him on my back. I wanted him to grip my finger with his tiny hand.

Then … reality. Suddenly, upon the doctor’s hushed words, I was pinioned under the weight of crushing and debilitating sorrow. The amniotic fluid had kept him warm, the doctor whispered.

Outside, rain poured from the grieving skies. I was wholly unprepared for the enormity of my son’s death and the intense sadness it brought.

I thought of Quinn’s crib, enclosed by rows of white, vertical bars, and how it stood at home as colorless and stark as the rows of tombstones at Arlington. And how it stood empty. I broke down.

Once the spring rains finally relented, Julia and I devoted an afternoon to searching for beauty. We found it in our back yard in the buds of early spring and in the birds returning from their winter escape. We took several photos that day because we desperately sought to capture evidence of beauty and life. We had learned how fragile and fleeting happiness could be.

Then, as we turned to walk back to our house, a butterfly brushed up against my cheek, danced around us and soared up into the sky.

(Published in The Sheboygan Press, Oct. 14, 2009)

50 years ago, Mary Alice Fox of Wisconsin nearly became Miss America

Fifty years ago tonight, Mary Alice Fox stood before 18,000 people at Convention Hall in Atlantic City and waited for her life to change forever.

In Sheboygan, young and old sat in the light of their flickering black-and-white television sets, fixed on channels 2 or 6. Across the nation, tens of millions more watched. They edged closer.

It was about 11 p.m. in Wisconsin, on Sept. 12, 1959. The deeply bronzed Fox had won the swimsuit competition earlier and prepared for iconic emcee Bert Parks to announce the final cut. Would the 1957 Sheboygan Central High School graduate become Miss America?

“I just wanted to make the top 10, but then it got to the point where I thought, ‘I could win this,’ “ Fox said in a recent interview.

Dressed in a ball gown, Fox held hands with her only remaining challenger, Lynda Lee Mead of Mississippi, as the suspense heightened.

“I tried to talk with Lynda Lee on stage — as I always do, I talked a lot — but she wouldn’t say a thing, she was so nervous,” Fox said. “She was the sweetest thing in the entire world.”

Parks announced Fox’s name next, as first runner-up, to conclude her heart-pounding ascent and one of the most riveting stories in Sheboygan history.

“I was the first from Wisconsin to make the top 10,” she said. “So it was a big deal at the time.”

Fox said she played it cool in the final moments.

“I’m always very comfortable in front of people,” she said. “And it was kind of dark after how many rows, and then you have a huge orchestra in front of you and a runway that goes out 40 rows. And you were familiar with it because we had already competed for three nights — evening gown, talent and swimsuit.”

Mary Alice Fox and her husband, Alton Schmitt, are pictured shortly after the Miss America Pageant, held in Atlantic City, N.J., in September 1959. The Miss Wisconsin, a Sheboygan native, finished second in the national pageant.
Mary Alice Fox and her husband, Alton Schmitt, are pictured shortly after the Miss America Pageant, held in Atlantic City, N.J., in September 1959. The Miss Wisconsin, a Sheboygan native, finished second in the national pageant.

Fox is now Mary Alice Schmitt and lives with her husband, 1954 Sheboygan North graduate Alton Schmitt, in Woodland Hills, Calif.

Although she was athletic, poised and striking, Schmitt’s ticket to Atlantic City was partly accidental. She had just completed her sophomore year at Valparaiso University and was recruited to enter the 1959 state pageant in Kenosha because Miss Sheboygan had gotten married.

“I wasn’t even Miss Sheboygan; I (had been) Sheboygan’s Bratwurst Queen of 1957,” She said.

The winner of that 1957 contest received a trip to Chicago, and there, at dinner in the Loop, a famous musician approached Schmitt and her friend Patty Zenk. Thus began her life in the public eye.

“He came over and said, ‘My, who are you?’ I said, ‘I’m the Bratwurst Queen of Sheboygan,’ ” Schmitt remembered. “Then he said, ‘Where did you girls get those beautiful tans?’ It was Elvis Presley who came over to meet the Bratwurst Queen. How about that?”

Schmitt was the one making the moves two years later at the Miss America Pageant. She muted her bright smile with black wax, wore baggy clothes and a floppy hat and threw her petite body across the stage in “a very clever, eccentric dance,” as an Atlantic City Press reporter described it. Her three-minute skit, set to Dixieland music, won over the talent judges and the crowd and put the crown within reach.

“It was a sorority act I had put together for a pledge meeting in college,” said Schmitt, who had had eight years of dance training with Helen Finst in Sheboygan. “Every piece I used, except for my shoes, was a personal moment. The old pants were those of my mother’s great-grandfather, who came over on the boat from Switzerland.”

She collected her first runner-up prize of $3,000 and embarked on a whirlwind year. Five hundred people welcomed her at Manitowoc Municipal Airport, after which she rode in a red convertible with Sheboygan Mayor John Bolgert and her business manager, Bob Richter, and waved her gloved right hand at thousands of fans along Eighth Street.

She was “stunning in a white V-backed sheath — prettier, if possible, than when she left,” The Sheboygan Press gushed, and she carried a spray of orchids in her left arm.

“I wasn’t aware of the parade or any of this until I landed in Manitowoc,” Schmitt said. “And then to have a reception at the Foeste Hotel. It was absolutely delightful.”

She then made a blur of appearances arranged by Richter, married Alton Schmitt the next summer and moved to California, where her husband worked as a nuclear engineer. She took acting classes at UCLA.

“I was in a couple episodes of ‘Green Acres’ as Eddie Albert’s secretary,” she said. “I did guest appearances on ‘Truth or Consequences’ in the 1960s. Most of all, I did (hundreds of) commercials because it gave me freedom to be here at home with the boys (sons Altie and Brad).”

Mary Alice Schmitt cuddles with Badger, a female Alaskan Malamute, in the family's yard in Woodland Hills, Calif.
Mary Alice Schmitt cuddles with Badger, a female Alaskan Malamute, in the family’s yard in Woodland Hills, Calif., in 2009.

Schmitt retired in November 2006 and celebrated her 70th birthday with Alton, Jim and Pat Schreiber and other longtime friends last month at the Paddock Club in Elkhart Lake. She also visited Richter in Sheboygan, and the pair looked at 50-year-old photos and discussed them as though little time had elapsed.

“I’ve never thought of myself as a celebrity,” she said. “The Miss America contest was just a fun time for me and for Sheboygan.”

(Published in The Sheboygan Press, Sept. 12, 2009)