Charles “Catfish Malone” Millard had his own gravitational pull.
His generosity and loving charisma drew people in, said Holly Millard, one of his daughters.
He was like a celebrity in Edgerton and the small communities within it. His wife of nearly 60 years, Rochelle, said a neighbor boy dressed up as him for Halloween one year.
“We rarely got out of the restaurant without him stopping at four or five different tables,” Holly said. “Nope, he’s talking to everybody.”
At his beloved baseball games, too. Whether he was playing or manning the popcorn wagon—a community staple that sold his favorite snack—he would be chatting with people long after the games ended (and beyond when his kids wanted to go home).
That same pull that drew everyone to Catfish was what he felt was keeping him in Rock County.
He never liked to leave, but Shelley Rubitsky, his other daughter, said he made exceptions for his kids’ sporting events and hunting.
“He could never understand why anyone would want to live anywhere other than Rock County, Wisconsin,” reads his obituary less than 20 words before it says, “Fing COVID,” the insidious disease that took him from his family and home this fall.
Catfish died Oct. 3 after spending some time at a hospital in Edgerton and eventually in Madison. He was 85.
Now Edgerton is without the man who delivered mail for 31 years, a career in which he worked six days a week but still found time to help an old woman pull out her rose bushes and bring a man’s car out of a snowy ditch.
The community lost the unofficial mayor of the Oak Hill subdivision, the guy who just so happened to make an extra snow cone so one of his popcorn wagon patrons in need could get one for free.
“I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to explain how wonderful he was,” Holly said during an interview over video chat, her voice breaking as she teared up. “I wanted to be sure everybody knew how great he was.”
“He never held back on his feelings. So, if you were his friend, you knew you were his friend. There was no question. If he loved you, you knew it,” she continued. “I guess that’s the best thing I can say. It’s just important to stay that way in life because we certainly need more of that.”
The Millards don’t really know where Catfish caught COVID-19.
Rochelle said they barely left the house except to go to church, where she said people wore their masks. But he needed to grab onto surfaces to keep his balance.
And Holly said neither she nor her mom got COVID-19 themselves, even though they were the ones who first took him to the hospital. They want everyone to take the coronavirus seriously.
“It just shows, you can ... hardly go anywhere and still get this,” she said.
Rochelle had been working outside one fall day when she came inside and her husband said he needed to go to the bathroom. But when he stood up, he went right back down, she said.
They had not yet gone on their daily walk, but Rochelle was getting worried.
She called Holly, who lives nearby. The family first suspected dehydration, but after tests at Edgerton Hospital and Health Services, doctors wondered if it had been some kind of heart problem, Rochelle said.
That required them the next day to send Catfish to Madison, which is where he eventually tested positive for COVID-19.
One particularly tragic element of the pandemic, which has killed well over 300,000 people in the U.S. and more than 100 in Rock County, is how often victims are left without family by their sides.
No holding hands. No final hugs. No kisses on the forehead. Just words shared through a phone, if that.
Loved ones sometimes drop off an infected person at the hospital, only to never see that person again.
Ellen Ward last saw her daughter when she took her to a Janesville hospital—before COVID-19 forced “Dee” onto a ventilator. Unable to visit in her final weeks, family could only pray with her over the phone.
But sometimes, a small town can pull a few strings for a local celebrity.
Rochelle needed to come by the hospital to fill out paperwork.
“Oh good, you’re here,” she was told upon her arrival. That’s when Catfish was wheeled out of his room, giving them a chance for a five-minute visit.
“Just to say I love you and all that,” Rochelle said.
Nursing staff, without Rochelle knowing, had scheduled her husband’s departure for the time she came for the paperwork, a gesture that brought Shelley to tears when recalling it.
“This would never have happened anywhere else,” Shelley said.
Everyone knows who Catfish is, but where he got that nickname is a little less clear.
Shelley said the “local lore” is that he might have given himself the nickname, perhaps as part of the citizens band radio culture of the time. The “Malone” part of his nickname is even more of a mystery.
Regardless of its origins, the name became attached to him just like the popcorn wagon—under the name Catfish Malone Enterprises—which was a family venture.
“Do you want to know how many pounds of sugar (are) in a one-gallon thing of snow cone syrup?” Holly asked. “Five … I helped make it.”
Others in the area have owned the wagon before, but Rochelle said they have had it for about 11 years.
The wagon often showed up at various baseball and softball games in town, as well as at other local events. They sold popcorn with plenty of butter, caramel corn, snow cones with lots of syrup, soda and cotton candy as tall as Marge Simpson’s hair, Holly said.
“He did not skimp,” Shelley said.
Baseball was a “driving force” in his life, Shelley said. He played every position at some point, but he was mostly in the outfield.
Her dad would also fall asleep during movies, including during the original release of “Psycho.”
He had his “Catfish-isms,” too—phrases he used frequently.
Never wanting to leave Rock County (he grew up in Fulton). It’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. Dress for the weather, not for looks.
He also always said he would never reveal the sanctity of the mail.
Shelley remembered how one of his mail routes took him briefly into Dane County. When his family would poke fun at him about it—”You left Rock County?”—she said he would shudder and say he couldn’t wait to get back in.
Shelley said he got to know generations of people through his work as a mailman. Then he retired and became a school bus driver—meeting the next generation.
Catfish loved kids. But of course, his three children were always his priority.
Shelley remembered him teaching her how to swim and ride a bike by pushing off the picnic table in their backyard. She also learned to whistle like he would when it was a signal for neighborhood kids to go home for dinner.
He was born in 1935, which Holly said might not have been the most progressive time for men who would one day raise daughters. But she said her dad always told his daughters: Don’t let anyone say you can’t do anything.
“He was the perfect father for me,” Holly said.
The night Catfish died, Shelley said the funeral home director came to their home.
The director’s assistant gave him the address and asked if he knew Charlie Millard.
“Know him? I only bought about a million snow cones off of him when I was a kid,” the director said, as Shelley recalled.
When Catfish went to the hospital in Madison, his family believed they would see him again—even up until the 10th day of his stay there.
But the way COVID-19 attacks the body is still being studied. And it appeared that the disease was attacking him neurologically.
Shelley isn’t a doctor, but she said she wondered if the disease targeted where he was weakest, pointing to his vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s.
After that 10th day, Shelley said “something changed.” He was less verbal. He wasn’t eating as much or understanding Rochelle on the phone.
Only a few days later, the family started discussing hospice.
“That’s how quickly it changed,” Shelley said.
Despite how poorly he was doing medically, there was one bright spot: He had moved beyond the COVID-19 infectious stage.
That meant he could come home to Rock County. Holly said she was told that, in the ambulance, he was alert and looking around.
“He got home that Friday (Oct. 2),” Shelley said. “He didn’t make it through the night.”
Still, coming home meant his family could hold his hand. He wasn’t surrounded by doctors and nurses he just met in a hospital he wasn’t used to.
He was where he’d been his entire life.
And his family is forever grateful for what many others who lose their loved ones to COVID-19 are not given. They don’t know how others manage to say goodbye from so far away.
“If he hadn’t gone home, I don’t know,” Holly said. “It would have been hard to live with ourselves.”
Loved ones outside the immediate family were able to call in and say their goodbyes that evening.
But Catfish, the man who couldn’t leave a restaurant without a few extra conversations, the mailman who always chatted up those on his route, the one who gave his kids the “gift of gab,” couldn’t speak.
“For such a verbal, verbal person his whole life, to have him not be able to talk at the end, was just this strange thing,” Holly said.
“Maybe it was his time to be the listener,” Shelley responded. “I know he heard them. I know he did.”
Emergency room doctors at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital-Janesville couldn’t save a relatively young, extremely sick patient who came into the ER with COVID-19.
That’s a foreign feeling for doctors in the emergency department, said John Russo, vice president of medical affairs.
“There was really nothing we could do, and that’s foreign to most of us in the ER,” Russo said. “... We haven’t in the past seen people so young, so sick, and feel like there’s nothing we can offer.
“At least in that instance, it’s more of a helpless feeling than we’re used to.”
Russo and Stacey Woodman, director of the emergency department at St. Mary’s, agree the coronavirus pandemic has led to patients arriving in the emergency department much sicker than usual, whether they have COVID-19 or not.
The emergency department’s census is generally lower now than it was about a year ago, but patients who are coming in are sicker than usual, Woodman said.
That’s happening, in part, because people are postponing medical services in relation to the pandemic, Woodman said.
Some people are avoiding health care facilities because of perceived risk of COVID-19 exposure.
Others had services canceled or postponed while hospitals suspended elective procedures this spring, causing delays for patients nationwide.
“If you wait too long and you don’t get the care that you need in a timely fashion your mortality goes up quite a bit,” Woodman said. “... We have had some situations where people have waited much too long, and they end up coming to our ER either pulseless and non-breathing or they get here and they go downhill really fast.”
It causes strains on emergency departments because sicker patients require more care and more resources, Woodman said.
A few months ago, Woodman said, the emergency department simultaneously saw two people who did not have pulses and were not breathing, which is rare for St. Mary’s.
A lot of work had to be done, but both patients had “great outcomes,” Woodman said.
“When we get in those predicaments, it is all hands on deck,” Woodman said. “It’s everybody who works here that’s chipping in, it’s people that they don’t work in the ER, they are not used to the workflow, but they come down, and they do what they can.”
Local health officials urge the public to seek regular medical services. They want people to know safety precautions are followed and health care facilities are safe places.
It is critical, especially now, to congratulate and recognize staff when good things happen, Woodman said.
Department leaders have been leading emotional debriefs with staff to help them move through the traumatic experiences of caring for critically ill patients or patients who die in their care, Woodman said.
Russo said he and others have tried to show more empathy to staff and wants everyone to understand that they are all in this together.
“I wish that everyone could come in for a day and shadow us and see what we see and the patients who are hospitalized with it (COVID-19),” Russo said. “The reality is that people are truly sick with it.”
Ronald E. Fawcett
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For TAGOS freshman Logan Levitski, school always felt more like a burden than an opportunity as he worked his way through elementary and middle school.
But his recent project at TAGOS Leadership Academy, the city charter school that utilizes project-based learning, has Levitski motivated to both focus on his schooling and pursue college after.
“I didn’t really care for school that much before,” Levitski said. “But then something with it just kind of clicked.”
Levitski was trying to decide on a topic for one of his projects this fall when a teacher asked him what he knew about the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado in April 1999, in which two students murdered 13 others.
As Levitski started to read about the incident, he hoped to understand how people could be driven to such violent actions.
“I don’t really know what about it caught my mind, but I just kind of wanted to look into what the main factors were, what went through their (the shooters) heads and things like the mental illnesses, if there were disabilities involved or any of the sort,” Levitski said.
Levitski has spent the last seven weeks on the project, studying mental health, police reports, journal entries of the shooters and books. He watched documentaries and interviewed the school’s current principal, Scott Christy.
“It’s one of my biggest projects,” Levitski said, “And I hope to gain more than just a grade out of it.”
Marianne McGuire, dean at the school, said Levitski’s transformation as a student has been impressive after he settled on his project.
“I firmly believe that every student has a dream or has an interest,” McGuire said. “Sometimes what happens is there’s obstacles that are placed in front of them, and they struggle with those obstacles. However, when they find an interest and a passion, those obstacles can be overcome. And those barriers no longer become barriers.”
In Levitski, that change is evident, McGuire said.
“What I’ve seen change in Logan is that he came from a mindset where it’s like, ‘School doesn’t do anything to me for me. But now, I’m learning about the human mind, I’m learning about people, and I’m applying it into what I understand about life’. And so he’s been intrigued by why would somebody do this? ... It’s kind of opened up a whole new interest for him in terms of mental health and mental illness,” McGuire said.
About 43 students are learning at TAGOS this year. Levitski said the school has likely changed his life, and he now hopes to someday work in a therapy or mental health profession.
“This school has really changed my outlook on a lot of things. It’s by far a lot better than a traditional school for me,” he said. “I do think that therapy would be a good profession for me, just based on this project. People just interest me, just the human mind and mental illnesses.”
McGuire hopes other students at the school can share a similar experience at TAGOS.
“I’ve seen a change in Logan’s attitude toward school in general,” she said. “He has a newfound interest in doing well not only for himself, now, but also for his future. To see someone who used to think of school as a nuisance and see that not be the case anymore, it’s empowering.”