Gazette reporters' favorite stories of 2008

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Gazette Staff
Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Reporters interview hundreds of people and write dozens of stories in a year's time.

Some articles are drudgery; others are a delight.

Some become favorites that reporters never will forget.

Here are some articles Janesville Gazette reporters chose as favorites from 2008:

Reporter: Frank Schultz
Headline: "Teens brighten day for passing motorists"
Date published: May 11
Synopsis: Two girls hold up signs encouraging passersby to smile.

What a rough year it's been. Even before the horrible economic news kicked in, you could feel it. So much bad news.

Maybe that's why I turned my car around.

I was the Gazette's weekend reporter on a sunny Saturday in May.

I can't remember what I was doing on Beloit Avenue late that afternoon. That's when I spotted the two 14-year-olds holding up signs at the side of the street near their homes at Woodland Heights trailer court.

"Kindness counts," said one of the signs.

"Smile today," said the other.

I was nearing the end of a long day. I could have kept going. I think I groaned as I turned the car around.

I chatted with the girls for a few minutes. They said they decided people were too grumpy and needed to lighten up. People smiled and waved as they drove by. Some even stopped and took pictures with them.

I drove back to the Gazette building downtown and wrote it up. It was a little story on a back page. I hope it gave people a lift.

Thanks again, Samantha Folkens and Tesla Conway. You made my day.

Reporter: Anna Marie Lux
Headline: "A traveler with a camera"
Date published: March 30
Synopsis: Janesville's Bob Keith traveled alone to Iraqi Kurdistan in March 2008 to find out what people are thinking. He did not talk to diplomats. He did not talk to government leaders. Instead, the 52-year-old talked to everyday citizens trying to embrace normal lives.

Keith's story was one of my favorites in 2008 because I admire people with a deep sense of curiosity and a desire to discover the world. Keith, a self-described blue-collar worker, said he was skeptical of the "millionaire news anchors feeding him information about the war."

So he went to see for himself.

Some Iraqis thought he was crazy. So did some of his friends. But everywhere, Iraqis were curious to talk to the lone traveler with a knapsack. Their question was the same: "How'd you get here, man?" Keith explained it is possible for an ordinary United States citizen to travel to Iraq, but the person has to take risks.

"You really have to care," he said.

That's what makes his story so extraordinary. This normal guy, who has worked in a feed mill, factory and bar, cared enough to quit his job and investigate an intensely dangerous region of the world. Not surprisingly, he sleeps better at night because he went beyond television sound bites to find deeper pieces of the truth.

Reporter: Marcia Nelesen
Headline: "Turtle hunter is ducky friend"
Date published: Aug. 2
Synopsis: Being the city reporter, I don't seem to get out much, except for visits to council chambers. So the first picture that came to mind when ruminating about the year was of an ugly reptilian head snapping and hissing at me. It doesn't paint a pretty picture, but I had never seen such a creature before in the wild.

My visit to Milly and Dave Babcock's pond outside of Milton turned into one of my favorite interviews. Milly allows Bob Swann to trap snapping turtles in her pond. I'll never forget the way the trap rocked and rolled with the turtle inside.

Swann was a great interview and Babcock the consummate hostess. There I was, out of the office on a beautiful day, snacking on a fruit smoothie, seeing a wonder of nature and getting paid to do it.

What more could you ask?

Reporter: Catherine W. Idzerda
Headline: "Long life of love: Couple shares secret of their success"
Date published: Nov. 24
Synopsis: It's corny, but I really liked the story about Bud and Leona Busch, the couple who have been married for 66 years. It's not like they had a secret formula for a successful marriage. Here's what they said: Compliment each other, apologize even when you think you might be right, and keep at it.

Marriage has been analyzed to death by all sorts of experts. Bud and Leona Busch never had the time to do that kind of emotional hand ringing. They accept one another's faults and live with them. They appreciate each other's gifts and are grateful for them.

I cut their photo out of the paper and tacked it up in my study as a symbol of what a marriage can be.

Reporter: Kayla Bunge
Headline: "Two for the show"
Date published: Oct. 20
Synopsis: When there's a presidential election unfolding, reporters are beholden—sometimes practically chained—to the newsroom. But this pair of stories put me in the middle of Democratic and Republican Party headquarters, where I met a group of dedicated volunteers.

For months leading up to the election, they were spending hours making telephone calls and going door-to-door, trying to convince strangers to vote for their candidate.

I observed Gina Smith talk on the phone with a woman about the economy, health care and foreign policy. The talked as two friends might chat over a cup of coffee.

I sat in as 17-year-old Jensen Wallisch cheered after a man answered her six-question phone survey about his voting intentions.

The rooms—ground zero for the local arms of the presidential campaigns—buzzed with enthusiasm. I couldn't help but be sucked in.

It didn't matter whether we agreed or disagreed on the candidates or the issues; I was quietly cheering them on as they trudged through the night's tasks. The volunteers—those who took grassroots campaigning to a new level in this election—were the ones who did the grunt work.

The candidates had it easy.

Reporter: Ann Marie Ames
Headline: "Show offs" and "Wits, not weight"
Date published: July 11 and July 25
Synopsis: I admit I have a twisted sense of humor. But one of the joys of my favorite story in 2008 was dragging photo intern Matt Wisniewski to farms in all corners of the county and through every barn at the Rock County 4-H Fair.

Actually, I'm lumping two stories into my 2008 favorite: an advance story about a new showmanship contest at the fair and a feature we fondly referred to as "little kid/big steer."

It wasn't easy coordinating photos and interviews with nine busy 4-H'ers and their families, but it was a joy to hear kids and their parents talk about their passions. And it was refreshing to work with sources who thanked me for my work and invited me to hang out on their show box.

They made it easy for me to do my job.

Reporter: Gina Duwe
Headline: "Retelling Vietnam"
Date published: March 15
Synopsis: Seventeen Evansville-area Vietnam veterans gathered to retell their experiences for the Veterans History Project, a permanent archive run by the Library of Congress.

I picked a similar story as my favorite a couple years ago, when the same organizers did this project with World War II veterans. It's my favorite again this year for the same reasons. I love hearing first-person accounts of significant historical events, and listening to these veterans tell their stories was quite the treat.

It felt great to be able to share the struggles these men faced but had kept buried deep for decades. While I could put their words on paper, only the men in the room that day could truly understand what the others were saying.

Reporter: Ted Sullivan
Headline: "The bonds we have with our boats"
Date published: Aug. 16
Synopsis: Southern Wisconsin residents love their boats and the memories they create.

This was my favorite because I can relate to the attachments people have with their watercraft.

I love the motorboat I learned to water ski behind, the sailboat I took out with my dad as a kid, the fishing boat I flipped while speeding across rough waves.

The men I interviewed for this story love the boats they own. Two local guys have enjoyed countless underwater adventures in their submarine. Another man takes his family out on a handcrafted boat made by his grandfather. And yet another spent 16 years building a re-creation of a unique 1890s steam yacht like the one he rode in the 1940s as a child.

It was fun to spend the day at Lake Geneva and learn about these men and their boats.

Reporter: Stacy Vogel
Headline: "Living in poverty"
Date published: Aug. 24-26
Synopsis: A three-day series about families in poverty in Janesville, focusing on the causes, effects and solutions.

Writing about poverty might seem depressing, and at times it was. But I met so many amazing people working on this series—parents who were struggling to give their children better lives and people who wanted to help those families achieve. I was amazed and honored by the families willing to open up to me and our photo intern, Matthew Wisniewski.

And I loved finishing the series with a sense of hope by talking about solutions.

Plus, I got to work with some really talented people at the Gazette who made the photos, videos, Web site and layout for this package truly special.

Reporter: Shelly Birkelo
Headline: "No longer alone"
Date published: May 30
Synopsis: Diane Clem and Joe Shekey met in February at a "You Are Not Alone" meeting for those 40 and older who are widowed, divorced or single in Janesville. On their third date, they got engaged, and they married in August. They are the 46th couple in the 20-year-old group's history to marry.

Since much of the news this year has been depressing, it was fun to write a warm, fuzzy story. It was heartwarming to see two older, widowed adults fall in love all over again and act like giddy teens.

Reporter: Jim Leute
Headline: Good news
Date published: Several
Synopsis: My favorite story of 2008?

That's easy.

It was the one that didn't have anything to do with production cuts, mass layoffs or IRS raids.

Make that the several I wrote about businesses and organizations that are prospering in the face of economic uncertainty.

There was the story about a hospital and physician group that plans to invest millions in a Janesville project.

There were others about local manufacturers that have played their cards right and are expanding to the community's benefit.

There were more about companies that want to move their operations to our area and hire local workers.

There were even more about businesses and organizations that put their money where their mouths are and invested in a wide variety of building projects, whether it was in the heart of the city or out on its farthest reaches.

We've been repeatedly hit over the head with bad news in 2008. But it was the "good news" stories and the people behind them that are keeping this community a great place to live, work and play.

Last updated: 11:01 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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