As a family practitioner in the small town of Colby, Kansas, Rex Kolste delivered babies, performed minor surgeries and made house calls.
His wife, Deb Kolste, recalled that one of his older patients fell and suffered a brain bleed. She had to leave town to live with her sister. She wanted to say goodbye to friends at her church.
So Rex picked her up, drove to the church and carried her inside.
More than one person later told Deb, “We knew he was a saint. He didn’t have to prove it.”
Dr. Rex Kolste died Tuesday at age 66 from a heart attack.
Deb said she has lost a spouse but also her best friend. They were inseparable, almost always together when seen around town.
Rex and Deb moved their family to Janesville in 1994. Rex loved his practice, but when his obstetrics duties hindered him from leaving town for his grandparents’ funerals, he decided he had to make a change, Deb said.
Rex took a job with what is now called Mercyhealth and saw patients up until the time of his death. He also taught in Mercyhealth’s family practice residency program, grooming young residents, many of whom went on to serve local communities
He was known as a man of few words, even in his teaching. A great listener, loved by patients.
“He always knew what he was going to say before he said it. He was way beyond thoughtful,” Deb said.
Rex managed to find time to be a dedicated father and doting grandfather. He and Deb raised Tori, a fifth-grade teacher in Minnesota; Ali, who is doing research in cystic fibrosis; and Drew, manager of the nuclear plant in Byron, Illinois.
Rex had his first heart attack at 50. His father had a heart attack at 40. Rex took those lessons to heart. He and Deb walked or bicycled around the community whenever they could and took yoga classes.
He was amazingly flexible for a man with two artificial knees and one artificial hip, she said, and he had told her just this week he was out to break the 10-minute mark for the mile run.
“He would always tell you he probably wasn’t going to have a really long life, but he was going to have a lot of living in that life,” Deb said.
Rex had a lazy eye, which gave him a frightening visage when he stared at his residents, making them wonder what mistake they had made.
He used it on his children, as well.
“He never complained about anything, and he put up with a lot of crazy,” Ali said. “I don’t remember him yelling at us, ever. He would give us the stare, too.”
The stare’s message, as Ali felt it: “What are you doing? You need to act better.”
“None of us wanted to disappoint him,” Deb said.
Drew said his dad gave him great advice, especially about work-life balance.
Drew moved his family to Janesville six years ago, and his daughter saw Rex, known as “Papa,” every day.
“I think that was the best decision I ever made,” Drew said.
Tori said whenever one of his children developed an interest, he would join them and become their greatest supporter, including in her never-realized ambition to become a good singer.
“Nothing about us annoyed him,” she said.
Michael Coogan, an emergency room doctor at Beloit Memorial Hospital, got to know Rex when they both worked for Mercyhealth.
Unlike some teaching doctors, Rex followed his students into their ER rotations, making sure they got it right, Coogan recalled.
He called Rex a master of both the science of medicine and the art of caring for people, and he passed that on to uncounted doctors, many of whom still practice locally.
“There’s that ripple effect into the community when a good doctor teaches other doctors,” Coogan said.
Last summer, Deb and Gov. Tony Evers had a bill signing in Janesville, and Deb asked some doctors to stand behind them in their lab coats. Coogan dressed in a shirt and tie.
Rex wore shorts and sandals, standing in the back as tall men do, hiding his bare legs and showing only head and lab coat to the cameras. Coogan found that humorous but very Rex-like:
“Rex was one of the best and at the same time one of the humblest physicians I’ve known. Few physicians can be both at the same time as often as he was.”
“It’s just a huge loss and so sad for the family,” Coogan said. “It brings me to tears to just think of him being gone from this part of the world.”
Doctors whom Rex taught lauded him for what he taught them about medicine in Facebook posts. They remembered being the scared victims of “The Kolste Stare.”
“He lives on in all of us that he taught over the years. He was truly one of the best physicians I’ve had the honor to work with,” one of them wrote.
Rex saw patients for many years at HealthNet of Rock County in Janesville. He also served on its board of directors.
“Dr. Kolste did not talk for the sake of talking, nor did he feel that his voice needed to be the leading voice in order to engage in decision-making,” said HealthNet CEO Ian Hedges. “He really was a listener. And not only did that make him a great mentor for a lot of residents at Mercyhealth, but it was also a really great attribute for our patients at HealthNet because we’re talking about so many who are told ‘no’ throughout their whole lives or been misunderstood. The power he had just to listen to them and empathize was his greatest strength.”
The family asked that memorials go to HealthNet.
“The best way we can honor Dr. Kolste is to bring his compassionate spirit into the lives of the people around us,” Hedges said. “He was often bringing people off the brink of worry or giving them attention when no one else would, and that is what we need during this pandemic and during uncertain times.”
The world will be different after COVID-19, but Janesville City Manager Mark Freitag isn’t sure exactly how.
“I am just not a believer we are ever going to return to what we had before,” Freitag said. “... Our entire society will change somewhat.”
In a weekly interview with The Gazette, Freitag described the pandemic as a marathon the community has just begun.
Fire Chief Ernie Rhodes said Friday morning that predictions of Rock County’s peak for COVID-19 have changed. Officials now think the county might not see its peak until late May.
That’s the result of protective measures such as safer-at-home guidelines and social distancing, Freitag said.
Those strategies will move the peak further into the future and will prevent it from being so large that it will overwhelm health care systems, Freitag said.
He said he prays the city will not see as many deaths as predicted in some models, but the city is preparing for the worst.
Below are answers Freitag gave Friday to emailed questions from The Gazette.
Gazette: How would you describe where our community is in regards to COVID-19?
Freitag: People across the community are adapting to a new normal, he said.
Freitag listed three main concerns he has moving forward:
City Manager Mark Freitag in an interview with The Gazette on Friday answered questions about how the city is planning for a second wave of COVID-19, economic recovery and what information he still hopes to receive from the Rock County Public Health Department.
Gazette: What decisions have been made on reinstating city services?
Freitag: The city will reinstate services as allowed by orders from Gov. Tony Evers, he said.
Staff is planning ahead to determine how services can be reopened.
Municipal golf courses and curbside library services are the first to come back online. Facilities such as the senior center and ice arena—where many people gather for games and activities—likely won’t reopen anytime soon.
The recreation department is looking at programs that could be offered to smaller groups if restrictions are loosened. Many summer programs likely will be canceled.
One big question is whether aquatic facilities such as Rockport Pool, the Palmer Park wading pool, the Riverside Park splash pad or The Bubbler will open this summer.
If conditions improve, the facilities might not be able to open until late summer, leaving the city to decide whether it is worth operating them for an abbreviated period.
Gazette: How do you determine which services to open or shut down?
Freitag: Those decisions are largely dictated by state orders.
”If the governor says not to open x, y or z, we will not open them,” Freitag said. “That is a black-and-white issue for me. We will operate within the letter of the law.”
Gazette: How many staff members are working on emergency operations?
Freitag: More than 50 people worked in the emergency operations center when it opened. All hands were on deck to start planning and laying out procedures, he said.
The next two weeks, emergency operations were reduced to two shifts of 25 people each, switching between emergency work and regular operations.
For the last two weeks, about 15 people have been covering all 10 emergency divisions. They are working mostly from their individual work spaces in City Hall or from home and can perform regular duties if their emergency work is done first.
The center is running smoothly and efficiently while everyone is in different locations, Freitag said.
In an interview with The Gazette, Janesville City Manager Mark Freitag talked about challenges and frustrations as the city continues to operate and help fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Freitag, a former military man, compared some of the work to combat.
Gazette: How much of your work is in emergency management as opposed to your normal duties?
Freitag: Initially, Freitag said he was spending 100% of his time on emergency management.
In the last two weeks, he has shifted to about 75% coronavirus-related work and 25% regular duties.
Gazette: The city is encouraging people to wear masks. Is that enforceable?
Freitag: Right now, no. But state officials have the power under the statewide emergency order to make mask-wearing enforceable by law, he said.
If that were the case, police could issue $200 fines to people for not wearing masks in public. The district attorney’s office would be responsible for prosecuting those cases.
Gazette: Can the city enforce consistent safety standards for businesses? How has the city communicated with businesses about COVID-19?
Freitag: It is up to individual business to make decisions such as whether employees must wear masks or have to social distance between customers.
Many Janesville businesses are community-minded and have been taking protective measures for weeks, he said.
The city and Forward Janesville have been communicating with businesses to ask what kind of help they need and to interpret safer-at-home guidelines.
Businesses have been sharing resources to help each other, he said.
The city is helping to connect businesses to county, state and federal aid programs when appropriate, and city officials have recommended that some manufacturers consider retooling to make personal protective equipment.
He said city officials have been “proactive” in reaching out to manufacturers to see if they have needs the city can help them address.
Donald W. Bloedel
Sarah J. Boran
Bert A. Brookens
Betty J. Hanlon
The private group that has been trying to land financial backing for a new indoor sports complex in Janesville is asking the city to shelve plans on the project for months until the COVID-19 pandemic cools off.
Bill McCoshen, who leads Friends of the Indoor Sports Complex, a private group seeking to spur public-private development of a possible $33 million indoor sports complex, asked the city in a letter Friday to “set aside the Indoor Sports Complex Project for now but revisit it in early 2021.”
McCoshen said Friday the friends group has been working with key local corporate sponsors on possible “seven-figure” private backing for the project, but the coronavirus pandemic that swept in during March has those stakeholders leery to commit.
“Local and regional businesses are understandably more cautious about committing significant resources to the ISC project right now. In the past few weeks, more businesses have told us, ‘Come back in the fall when we have a better idea of what the full impact of COVID-19 will be on our businesses and our employees,’” McCoshen wrote in the letter.
McCoshen told The Gazette on Friday the private group has targeted $10 million in private fundraising for the project, but the pandemic has knocked those efforts off stride.
As of this week, the group has failed to secure enough private funding to match “$750,000 to $1 million” in design work the city would undertake as the next step in planning the project, McCoshen said.
The group is asking the city to hit the pause button on plans for the complex until 2021, a move McCoshen said would spell a delay of about a year in the project.
The city has not committed to public funding for the indoor complex, but a focus group through the city last year had designated the Janesville Mall as the preferred site for the project.
Earlier this year, the city and RockStep Capital, the mall’s owner, had been negotiating terms of a deal that could include the mall giving the city the mall’s vacant former Sears property.
Under that prospect, the city would tear down the Sears building to build an indoor sports complex that would have visibility along Milton Avenue, the city’s major commercial corridor.
City Manager Mark Freitag on Friday said the city has not discussed the sports complex with RockStep since the state’s COVID-19 shutdown, but he said the city shared with RockStep the letter from McCoshen’s group.
“Right now, the question is whether the friends group can raise the private-side funding. That’s a difficult conversation to have with potential donors right now. It doesn’t surprise me that they’re asking for a delay in any movement. They’ve got to sort things out with their donor group,” Freitag said.
McCoshen is a political consultant and lobbyist who is president of the Janesville Jets, a hockey team in the North American Hockey League that would be a major user of the indoor sports complex.
McCoshen told The Gazette the friends group still considers the sports complex viable, and potential private donors remain interested in the project despite the pandemic that has shut down the country for weeks and has had a dramatic impact on the local economy.
McCoshen said his friends group has stayed out of negotiations the city and RockStep have had on the mall.
He said that his group ideally would prefer to have design work for a sports complex to show potential backers what the multi-use ice arena and sports facility might look like.
But McCoshen said the friends group was “pleased” at RockStep’s willingness to see a sports complex on the mall’s “front side.” He said that would make the project more attractive to private donors.
“What we think is that seven, eight months from now, when things start to level off, people will know how this (pandemic) is going to impact them both short and long term. We still think having the complex on the front of the mall will be an advantage for us.”