Those we lost: Celebrating the extraordinary lives of ordinary people

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Saturday, December 31, 2016

JANESVILLE—We lost some big characters in 2016.

Astronaut John Glenn, boxer Muhammad Ali, actor Gene Wilder, journalist Morley Safer, bluegrass great Ralph Stanley and author Harper Lee to name a few.

Those are names who made the news.

Our lives were more profoundly impacted by personal losses—mothers, fathers, siblings, friends who were precious to us for all of love's complicated and intangible reasons.

We dug through The Gazette archives and picked out a few of the local people who died in 2016 after quietly living extraordinary lives.

-- Patricia “Trish” Collins of Janesville, writer, fundraiser.

Trish and her husband, Bob Collins, were the main drivers behind the Goshen Home for Boys in Janesville.

“She had a dream in high school about opening a home for abused boys,” her son Dan Collins said.

Where did the idea come from? Did she and her husband have foster children? Was somebody she knew abused?

None of the above.

“I think it was a God thing—and I think she would have said it was, too,” Collins said. “I think God directed her to do it.”

The home became a Cargill United Methodist Church project, with Trish responsible for fundraising.

“She loved raising money,” her son said. “Once it got up and running, my parents mostly provided moral support.”

Before Goshen was built, boys in foster care often were sent out of the county, a situation that was difficult for them and their families.

Throughout her life, Trish Collins wrote dozens of children's stories that were published in magazines such as “Highlights.” She also wrote and illustrated a book for children, “Grinkles.”

-- Sister M. Ann McGregor of Janesville, modeling Christ but with a smarty-pants sense of humor.

Before becoming Catholic, Sister Ann—as she came to be known—tried a variety of churches. What attracted her to the Catholic Church was the Blessed Sacrament, the belief of Christ's real presence in the Eucharist, said Sister Marie Julie of the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady, Mother of the Church.

Sister Ann became the presence of Christ to others throughout her career.

After becoming a sister, she was assigned to work at St. Elizabeth Nursing Home and served in a variety of roles, including director of activities, certified nursing assistant, dining room aide and receptionist.

Sister Ann had a smarty-pants sense of humor but seemed to know whom to tease and how far to take her jokes, Sister Marie Julie said.

She knew all the employees and their struggles. She knew the family members of residents. She was the recipient of many confidences and prayer requests.

“Oh, the secrets she took to her grave,” Sister Marie Julie said.

Sister Ann remembered people's names and their trials.

“Someone would come in the door, and she would say, 'Hey, is your brother still in the hospital?'” Sister Marie Julie said. “People felt noticed; they engaged with her.”

In her later years, Sister Ann would sit in her wheelchair by the entrance and greet people.

“Everybody knew Sister Ann,” Sister Marie Julie said.

-- Betty Lou Dansin Stewart of Orfordville, all-around newspaperwoman, companion.

Betty was a 1949 graduate of the UW-Madison School of Journalism. After living briefly in Milwaukee, she and her husband, George, returned to Orfordville in 1954. George's father, Ward Stewart, was ill, and he needed his son's help publishing the Orfordville Journal and Footville News.

In 1961, when Ward died, Betty became part of the newspaper business. Betty and George worked together until May of 2008, when Betty became ill. Together, they published the last copy of the Orfordville Journal and Footville News on Aug. 15, 2008, when Betty was 82.

They spent their last years together, with George as Betty's constant companion and caregiver until his death in 2013.

In her obituary, her family described her as an “amazing woman, mother and friend. She was ahead of her time, had an amazing grasp of language and writing, but first and foremost, was always a genuine lady.”

-- David Veith of Whitewater, teacher, friend.

David Veith spent much of his life teaching, including stints at Lakeland School and at the Ethan Allen School for Boys, the former juvenile detention center in Wales.

“He had a big heart for kids that got left behind,” said his friend, Mark Hildebrand.

David became a father figure to Hildebrand and his significant other, and a grandfather figure to the couple's children.

David encouraged them to live “honorably and openly."

As a teacher, David witnessed the kind of bullying that went on in schools, especially those in rural Wisconsin. Anyone who didn't quite fit the mold, anybody who was a little different, was subjected to harassment.

David was a theater aficionado, a pacifist and very politically minded, his obituary said.

It's fitting then that a Safe School Endowment Fund was set up in his name. The endowment fund will be used to support theater programming that addresses teen suicide and bullying.

-- Eugene “Gene” Francis Lee of Whitewater, clown.

“He edited two monthly national clown publications and was the display director for the Clown Hall of Fame.”

There's a line you won't ever see in another obituary.

Gene was probably better known as “Cousin Otto."

He was the real deal. Along with performing with several circuses, Gene was the Red Dot Potato Chip clown and one of the original Ronald McDonalds.

At parades in his hometown of Whitewater, the crowds went wild when they saw him. Gene also helped get clowning programs going on college campuses, spreading the red-nosed joy.

-- Barbara Jean Konkle of Sharon, dancer, cowboy action shooter, companion.

Barbara was a three-time Wisconsin Cowboy Action Shooter and 2008 World Grand Dame Champion.

In cowboy action shooting, participants fire at targets in a staged setting using four guns: two single-action revolvers, a shotgun and a rifle of the type used before 1899.

Events are timed, so the faster the better.

Barbara's alias on the shooting circuit was “Snapshot.” She could slam fire a shotgun when she was 70 years old, her daughter Dianne Kubsh said.

To slam fire a shotgun, you hold down the trigger and then, when you close the action, the gun fires right away. Silver-screen cowboys did it best.

“When I brought my (future) husband home to meet my family, my father said to him, 'Be careful, she shoots low.'" Kubsh said. "He was talking about my mother.”

Along with being a master gunslinger, she also was a dancer. She and her husband, Wayne, taught hundreds of people to dance at McHenry County College and at the VFW in Janesville.

She and Wayne had one of those rare marriages in which each partner is fulfilled by the other. They were a matching set of sweet-shooting pistols, perfectly balanced. 

Wayne was always out and about, and Barbara didn't want to be left behind, her daughter said.

She didn't obsess about domestic duties, knowing they would keep. Instead, she spent her time being a companion to her husband and an active, engaged mother and grandmother. 

-- Tami Lynn Kasten Wright of Janesville and Mexico, dog lover, rock climber.

Tami met her future husband, Ed Wright, on the cliffs of Devil's Lake. The pair were rock climbers. They eventually established a home in Hidalgo, Mexico, near El Potrero Chico, which has been described as “the world famous big-wall sport-climbing paradise in northern Mexico.”

Tami and her husband were involved in the local community, according to Rock and Ice Climbers Magazine. They organized outings to teach local kids to climb and started a spay, neuter and re-home program for the abundant stray dogs roaming the streets.

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