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Those we lost: Ordinary people who quietly made a difference


Not all extraordinary people are newsmakers.

A review of local obituaries for 2017 revealed individuals who were quirky, engaged, generous and kind but maybe never made headlines.

These people were homemakers, farmers, social workers and business people. They were pingpong champions, curlers, outdoorsmen, cookie makers and volunteers.

Their names might not have been known outside their social circles, but their lives enriched the world.

Velma June Burke, 74, Janesville

When Burke hit an exceptionally good shot, she’d kick up her leg and set her foot on the pingpong table.

She also did it when something went badly, said her daughter Tami Burke.

And this from a woman who didn’t take up pingpong until she was into her 60s.

“She played tennis when she was younger, and she wasn’t able to do that anymore,” Tami said. “One of the neighbors said, ‘Why don’t you come done to the senior center and check out pingpong?’”

Playing pingpong at the Janesville Senior Center is not for the faint of heart. You expect a group of nice, over-60 types gently tapping the ball back and forth. What you get is cutthroat speed and 20-something reflexes.

Burke won a gold medal at the U.S. Senior Olympics, and after she died, a tournament was established in her name. The prize is called a Velma.

Long before she was a champion pingpong player, Burke was a crack cookie baker.

“She probably made them five times a week,” Tami said.

Burke knew what kind everybody in her family liked, and she took a batch almost every time she went to the senior center.

“She got more joy out of making them for others than for herself,” Tami said.

That seems to sum up her character.

Two days before she died in August, Velma was thinking about who could benefit from the produce in her garden.

“She said to me, ‘Call up Ann and Greg and see if they want any tomatoes,’” Tami said. “She was always thinking of others.”

Mildred “Millie” Ottilie

(Zimmerman) Seidl, 94, Janesville

Her obituary said, “Millie brought order and beauty into her family’s everyday life.”

That’s true, but she also brought pies, fish chowder and her sense of humor to more than four decades of curlers.

Along with her husband, Jerry, Millie helped found the Blackhawk Curling Club, which started in an old cattle sale barn located on what is now the Back of the Yards softball complex. The club later moved to the Blackhawk Center on the Rock County Fairgrounds and is still in operation today.

She was a top-notch curler, and she and Jerry, along with Maureen and Tim Parker, threw an eight-ender at a bonspiel in Monroe. An eight-ender is a perfect score, one of those lifetime events like a hole-in-one.

Millie placed vice, or the third position, when she curled with her husband.

Millie became famous for the line, “You get what you get.” It was what she said when she threw a stone that didn’t go the way Jerry wanted.

She was also an excellent skip. The skip is the person who has to figure out the game’s strategy and often has to throw the most difficult shots.

More than anything, Millie helped established the club’s reputation for hospitality, said Nancy Wilhelm, a Blackhawk member who curled with Millie.

“She really set the tone,” Wilhelm said. “She had so much energy. She taught so many of us how to be gracious curlers and gracious hosts.”

For years, Millie made fish chowder for the men’s bonspiel, a curling tournament held at the end of the year.

“We couldn’t not have it,” Wilhelm said. “She would bring it in this giant pot, and one of the men would have to go out and carry it in—and it would be gone.”

She was also famous for her lemon meringue pie. At one of the club’s fundraising auctions, one of her pies went for $90.

In 1978, the YMCA selected Millie as one of its Women of Distinction for her contribution to the sport.

Dennis Harold Duesterbeck, 68, Elkhorn

Farming was in Dennis Duesterbeck’s bones.

His family has been farming in the town of Sugar Creek for more than 160 years, working through season after season, year after year, decade after decade.

As a boy, he showed pigs at the Walworth County Fair, and the experience reinforced his love of agriculture.

“Those friendships he made then lasted a lifetime,” said his wife, Cathy Duesterbeck.

He was a champion showman. A story in the Sept. 3, 1968, edition of The Gazette begins with, “Dennis Duesterbeck of Delavan-Darien FFA won a majority share of junior swine honors at the Walworth County Fair.”

Throughout his life, he was involved with 4-H, the pork producers, FFA and the FFA Alumni.

Dennis attended at two-year short course program at UW-Madison and last received an associate degree in agriculture at Gateway Technical College.

He was a farmer, an animal nutrition specialist and an agent for Rural Insurance, a Farm Bureau Services program.

But it was the fair that captured his heart. As an adult, Dennis served as assistant to the swine superintendent and then as the swine superintendent.

He served on the Walworth County Fair Board for 22 years and was a long-time member of the Walworth County Fair Foundation.

“He loved going to the fair,” Cathy said. “He was like a kid in a toy store. His happiness just bubbled over.”

He loved seeing the youth involved in the fair and was delighted to see participation by whole families—kids in 4-H and FFA and adults in open class events.

Despite his leadership roles, he was known for being a very down-to-earth man, Cathy said.

He was an uncomplicated person, someone who didn’t fret about what he couldn’t control, Cathy said.

After a heart transplant in 2005, he accepted that it meant changes in his life. Because the transplant compromised his immune system, he couldn’t be as active in the fair, Cathy said.

When he died in January 2017, his funeral was at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Delavan, just 10 minutes from his home. It was the same church where he was baptized and confirmed and the one he attended all his life.

Duesterbeck’s home was just 10 minutes from the Walworth County Fairgrounds, the place where he competed as a youth and served as an adult. That small triangle of southern Wisconsin gave him all he needed to have a happy life.

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Janesville native loses more than 300 pounds, hopes to inspire others


For years, Travis Miller dreamed of the day when his mom could hug him and wrap her arms completely around him.

That was impossible when he weighed 600 pounds.

Today, Roberta Miller can’t quite see eye-to-eye with her son without a step stool, but she can hug him.

Travis has lost 345 pounds since 2017 began. He now weighs 255 pounds and doesn’t plan on stopping there.

Last January, Travis was diagnosed with diabetes and said he had “pretty much given up on life.” He had mobility problems and lived in nearly constant pain because of his weight.

“I finally decided I can either do something now or continue the path I am on and die early,” Travis said. “So I decided to change my life.”

The Janesville native’s 600-pound life was a result of food addiction, Travis said. It began in high school and continued until he was 40 years old.

“Food addiction is probably one of the worst addictions because you can get it anywhere,” said Travis, now 41.

Once he was mentally prepared to change his life, Travis decided to have gastric sleeve surgery, a procedure that reduces a patient’s stomach size and suppresses the appetite.

He spent months meeting with doctors and psychiatrists to prepare for surgery. But first, his surgeon told him he needed to lose 50 pounds.

So he lost 50 pounds.

Then 10 more.

And then 10 more.

The pounds dropped off until Travis had lost 100 pounds, completely on his own.

He vowed that nothing would get in his way of a new life.

Ten years before, Travis had wanted to have weight-loss surgery. His hopes were crushed when his insurance provider denied coverage, his mother said.

To lose weight, Travis stuck to a strict 1,000-calorie daily diet with no soda or sugar, he said. For exercise, he hiked in Janesville parks.

“You can find ways to lose weight,” Travis said. “You don’t have to hire people to tell you what your body knows because only you know your body.”

Travis had the gastric sleeve surgery Aug. 25. Since then, his life has completely changed.

After surgery, Travis could eat only tablespoons of food at a time without getting sick. Slowly, he has worked his way up to a couple of cups of food per meal.

He takes daily vitamins to provide the nutrition he needs but no longer gets from food. His body allows him to eat only so much.

“Your whole lifestyle changes,” Travis said. “No more going back to your old ways, or (you) get sick. I don’t want to go back to my old ways, so I stick with the program.”

The biggest changes are in the things Travis is able to do.

Before his weight loss, he could not sit in a bathtub, cut his toenails or ride a bicycle. During work at the Bliss Communications printing facility, where he is a senior lead operator, co-workers made sure he had a chair to sit on because he couldn’t stand long.

Today, he can stand as long as he wants. He can take a bath, trim his nails and ride a bicycle.

“I can do anything I want. Nothing stops me,” Travis said.

The most challenging part of his journey has been the mental part, he said. People have to want change before it can happen.

His mother, Roberta, went with him to every doctor appointment and meeting at University Hospital in Madison over the last year.

While Travis lost weight, Roberta said she was conscious of what kinds of food she made available in her home. She hid her “goodies” so he wouldn’t be tempted to overindulge.

Roberta said support was the most important thing she gave her son—especially a willingness to listen.

“Just be there and listen to them,” Roberta said. “Whether they’re going through a good time or a bad time. There’s ups and downs with it.”

Travis said he wants to help others who are looking to change their lives.

The doctors at University Hospital told Travis he is one of their best success stories. Travis will speak to a group of people who are hoping to lose weight at the hospital in May.

“If this can help anybody, even one person, it’s all worth it,” Travis said. “(I) try to pay it forward to help whoever I can.”