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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
Generational divide defines gubernatorial race
Paul Soglin had already completed three terms as mayor of Madison before Kelda Roys was born in 1979.
Now they’re both running for governor, illustrating a generational divide among Democratic candidates.
Soglin, at 72, and Roys, 38, are the oldest and youngest of the nine best-known candidates. Seven of the Democrats are Baby Boomers, while Roys and union firefighter head Mahlon Mitchell, 40, come from the tail end of Generation X.
Democrats have long bemoaned not having enough young candidates, while the face of the Republican Party in recent years has been dominated by politicians in their 40s.
Gov. Scott Walker, House Speaker Paul Ryan and former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, also the former state and national GOP party chairman, range between ages 45 and 50. Walker, the oldest, was first elected governor on his 43rd birthday but has been in office continually since he was 25.
Wisconsin Democrats haven’t had the same youth movement, as evidenced by the decidedly gray field of governor candidates. The average age of the nine top tier contenders is 58, and two are in their 70s.
“The pipeline for leadership hasn’t always been there,” said Mandela Barnes, a 31-year-old candidate for lieutenant governor. “We are realizing that and taking steps to address it.”
Part of the answer is finding more young people to run for office, but it’s also important that candidates address issues that matter to voters in their 20s and 30s, Barnes said.
Democrat Sarah Smith, 25, said inequalities—around income, race and gender—are among the issues that matter most to younger voters like her. The burden of student loan debt, something Smith said she and her friends “talk about constantly,” is also a major topic of concern.
Smith, the state chair of Young Democrats of Wisconsin, said she’s glad to see a couple of younger candidates for governor but isn’t concerned that most are older.
“If we elect somebody who is 72 but willing to sit down with younger voters and listen to what’s important to them, why they would stay in Wisconsin or leave, that’s what matters most,” Smith said.
“I do think it’s important for voters to see themselves reflected in the candidate who is running for office,” said Roys, who was elected to the Assembly in 2008 when she was 29. “For voters, they need to believe a candidate understands and cares about them.”
It’s been tough for younger Democrats to break through because of the sheer number of older Baby Boomer office holders who have been there for years, and in some cases decades, said Scot Ross, director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now.
For example, the three state senators representing liberal Madison and surrounding areas are 56, 74 and 90. Sen. Fred Risser, the 90-year-old, is the longest-serving office holder in the country. He was first elected in 1956.
Younger Democrats running for office in 2018 say they see reason for optimism.
Sheboygan businessman Kurt Kober, 39, initially planned to run for governor but is now running for lieutenant governor. Kober is a retail strategy director for The Clorox Co., who returned to his hometown this year after living outside of Wisconsin for about a decade.
Kober said he wants his campaign to focus on how to make the new economy work in Wisconsin, addressing such things as expanding broadband internet access, improving road conditions and ensuring workers are prepared for the next generation of available jobs.
Older candidates say age alone doesn’t determine whether they can speak to younger voters. They point to 76-year-old Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run both for inspiration and proof that a septuagenarian politician can attract younger voters.
Matt Flynn, 70, is the second-oldest Democratic gubernatorial candidate. Flynn served as Democratic Party chairman in the 1980s, ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 1986 and Congress in 1978, 1988 and 2004 and was deeply involved in state and national politics for decades.
Now he’s downplaying his age and, like Soglin, invoking the success of Sanders—who won the Wisconsin presidential primary and remains popular among liberals.
The pain clinic tucked into the corner of a low-slung suburban strip mall was an open secret.
Patients would travel hundreds of miles to see Dr. Andrzej Zielke, eager for what authorities described as a steady flow of prescriptions for the kinds of powerful painkillers that ushered the nation into its worst drug crisis in history.
At least one of Zielke’s patients died of an overdose, and prosecutors say others became so dependent on oxycodone and other opioids they would crowd his office, sometimes sleeping in the waiting room. Some peddled their pills near tumble-down storefronts and on blighted street corners in addiction-plagued parts of Allegheny County, where deaths by drug overdose reached record levels last year.
But Robert Cessar, a longtime federal prosecutor, was unaware of Zielke until Justice Department officials handed him a binder of data that, he said, confirmed what pill-seekers from as far away as Ohio and Virginia already knew: The doctor who offered ozone therapy and herbal pain remedies was also prescribing highly addictive narcotics to patients who didn’t need them, according to an indictment charging him with conspiracy and unlawfully distributing controlled substances.
Zielke denied he was overprescribing, telling AP he practiced alternative medicine and many of his patients stopped seeing him when he cut down on pain pills.
His indictment in October was the first by a nationwide group of federal law enforcement officials that, armed with new access to a broader array of prescription drug databases, Medicaid and Medicare figures, coroners’ records, and other numbers compiled by the Justice Department, aims to stop fraudulent doctors faster than before.
The department is providing a trove of data to the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, which draws together authorities in 12 regions across the country, that shows which doctors are prescribing the most, how far patients will travel to see them and whether any have died within 60 days of receiving one of their prescriptions, among other information.
Authorities have been going after so-called “pill mills” for years, but the new approach brings additional federal resources to bear against the escalating epidemic. Where prosecutors would spend months or longer building a case by relying on erratic informants and only limited data, the number-crunching by analysts in Washington provides information they say lets them quickly zero in on a region’s top opioid prescribers.
“This data shines a light we’ve never had before,” Cessar said. “We don’t need to have confidential informants on the street to start a case. Now, we have someone behind a computer screen who is helping us. That has to put (doctors) on notice that we have new tools.”
And Rod Rosenstein, deputy attorney general, told AP the Justice Department will consider going after any law-breaker, even a pharmaceutical company, as it seeks to bring more cases and reduce the number of unwarranted prescriptions.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been in lockstep with President Donald Trump about the need to combat the drug abuse problem that claimed more than 64,000 lives in 2016, a priority that resonates with Trump’s working-class supporters who have seen the ravages of drug abuse first-hand. The president called it a public health emergency, a declaration that allows the government to redirect resources in various ways to fight opioid abuse.
But he directed no new federal money to deal with a scourge that kills nearly 100 people a day, and critics say his efforts fall short of what is needed. The Republican-controlled Congress doesn’t seem eager to put extra money toward the problem.
While the effectiveness of the Trump administration’s broader strategy remains to be seen, the Justice Department’s data-driven effort is one small area where federal prosecutors say they can have an effect.
The data analysis provides clues about who might be breaking the law that are then corroborated with old-fashioned detective work—tips from informants or undercover office visits, said Shawn A. Brokos, a supervisory special agent in the FBI’s Pittsburgh division. Investigators can also get a sense for where displaced patients will turn next.
Authorities acknowledge there are legitimate reasons for some doctors to prescribe large quantities of opioids, and high prescribing alone doesn’t necessarily trigger extra scrutiny. What raises red flags for investigators are the dentists, psychiatrists and gynecologists who are prescribing at surprisingly high rates.
The effort operates on the long-held perception that drug addiction often starts with prescriptions from doctors and leads to abuse of more dangerous black market drugs like fentanyl, which, for the first time last year, contributed to more overdose deaths than any other legal or illegal drug, surpassing pain pills and heroin.
But that focus can cause law-abiding physicians to abandon disabled patients who rely on prescriptions, for fear of being shut down, said University of Alabama addiction researcher Stefan Kertesz. Those patients will turn to harder street drugs or even kill themselves, he said.
“The professional risk for physicians is so high that the natural tendency is to get out of the business of prescription opioids at all,” he said.
Another addiction expert, Dr. Andrew Kolodny, founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, said prosecutors’ emphasis on “drug-dealing doctors” is appropriate but inadequate on its own.
“It’s just not really going to have that much of an impact on an epidemic,” he said. The bigger change will come from a stronger push for prevention and treatment, he said. And, he added, “They should go after the bigger fish.... The legal narcotics distributors and wholesalers who have literally been getting away with mass manslaughter.”
Investigators said Zielke charged $250 a visit and made patients pay in cash. But Zielke said prosecutors unfairly targeted him. Instead of more prosecutions, he said, the government “should promote more alternative therapies,” he said. “And they should find out why so many people have pain.”
A second indictment by the anti-fraud unit involved a cardiologist in Elko, Nevada, accused of routinely providing patients fentanyl and other painkillers they did not need. Justice officials hope to expand the data-driven work nationwide.
Will it work? As Soo Song, who watched addiction warp communities while serving as acting U.S. attorney in western Pennyslvania, put it: “The best measure of success will be if fewer people die.”