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When classmates die too soon

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Greg Peck
April 10, 2013

First “Hammer,” now “Buckwheat.” Lots of kids in my high school class had nicknames, and we’ve lost these two guys already this year—both due to apparent heart attacks. What in the world of the Marshall High School Class of 1975 is going on?

My classmates are just hoping these things don’t come in threes, as they too often seem to do.

Mark “Hammer” Berghammer died Jan. 29 at home. When we were kids, I spent many summer days at his house on the Maunesha River. We’d idle away the time fishing or listening to the Milwaukee Brewers on the radio, playing catch or shooting hoops.

After high school, we lost touch. Mark never married and wasn’t one to come to class reunions. I had a nice chat with him when I ran into him during halftime of a Badger game at the old Field House. He told me he was working in Lodi. Only after he died did I learn that at one point in recent years he’d lost his job and wound up living at Madison's Porchlight shelter before finding new work and getting back on his feet.

I felt sad that we didn’t stay in touch and that I didn’t know of these troubles and thus couldn’t have helped him somehow. Funeral services were private, but I called his mother and had a nice talk with her. This week, she sent me a laminated obituary with a color photo of Mark. I appreciated that, too.

On Friday, I learned that another classmate had died. John Bornitzke suffered an apparent heart attack either while reading or after dosing off on the couch late Thursday night or early Friday morning.

John and I didn’t “hang” together in high school. Maybe that’s because I lived in town and he was a hard-working farm boy. He was squatty and stout and a terrific tailback in football and a fine wrestler, as well. He was sort of like a bowling ball knocking down pins when rolling through football defenders. I played basketball and tended to hang out with my teammates.

Up until a few years ago, however, I also went to Canada fishing almost 20 times with another classmate, Mike Taylor, who just happened to be John’s brother-in-law. When yet another classmate texted me Friday about John’s death, I quickly got out my Canada fishing photo album and counted four times that John had joined us on these trips. His wife, Marie, who is Mike’s sister, joined us at least once, as well. John loved the camaraderie of hunting and fishing and was already gearing up for the upcoming open-water fishing season.

I hugged Marie—who was a year behind us in school—during the visitation before the funeral last night in Columbus, and she then asked me if my ears were ringing.

“Why?” I asked.

Because, she explained, as they gathered photos and newspaper clippings to display during the service, my byline kept popping up. Sure enough—I had hurried past the displays to join the receiving line but later saw a story I wrote for The Gazette about one of those Canada trips and another I wrote for the Waterloo Courier while in high school after John scored four touchdowns in a victory over Johnson Creek.

I still didn’t recall—if I ever knew—how he got the nickname Buckwheat. It came because he apparently showed up for football practice covered in black dust from working at a mint farm and resembled the African-American character Buckwheat in the “Our Gang” short films. Pastor Lee Zortman of Olivet Congregational Church explained that during the services.

Zortman also shared a handful of other family stories, including two from when John was just age 4. His father asked his three sons if any wanted to accompany him to the barn as a calf was about to be born. John agreed and watched as his dad had to pull the calf from the cow in a difficult delivery. On their way back to the house, John’s dad asked him what he thought.

“Cool,” John replied, then added: “But why did it crawl in there in the first place?”

Another day, John’s mother, Sally, had scheduled John for a doctor’s appointment. Little John didn’t like doctors’ offices and needles and the like, so he decided to hide. Sally and her oldest son, Jeff, looked all over for him. Finally, they spotted him up on the silo—not on the top rung, but sitting atop the peak. Sally told Jeff to hurry and get his father.

“OK,” Jeff replied, “But don’t worry. He got down from there yesterday just fine.”

We all laughed at the story. That was John—always making people laugh. He had an infectious giggle, and you couldn’t help but laugh with him. He rarely if ever got angry about anything.

John and Marie had two daughters who gave them five young grandchildren whom he adored. I can picture what a great and loving grandfather he was. Marie claimed John couldn’t carry a tune if he had it in his pocket, though his offspring could play the piano so beautifully that it brought tears to his eyes, Zortman told us.

John served six years in the Marines fresh out of high school, and Zortman said he was always willing to help his church and neighbors. That, too, sounds like John, a wonderful guy who died much too soon.

I saw six more of my classmates at the services last night. I’ve discussed John with others by email in recent days. We keep suggesting we need a get-together outside of the five-year reunion intervals. Yet vacations and family commitments and work schedules always seem to take priorities. We haven’t pulled it off yet. Maybe with these sudden deaths fresh in our memories, this summer we’ll make it happen.

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook



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