Drew Erdmann and Will Church used to fish together along Lake Leota in their hometown of Evansville.
Erdmann fished alone Saturday. William B. Church, 21, was struck by a vehicle in the early morning of Nov. 17, 2018, and died.
Erdmann and other friends and family gathered at the lake to remember Church with a potluck, badminton and fishing on a warm, peaceful day.
“He was always a mood brightener. He’d make you laugh no matter what,” Erdmann recalled. “The look on his face would just cheer you up.”
A group ate under a pavilion roof next to the lake, sharing smiles and memories, but one thing they couldn’t share was exactly how Church died. The driver was never found, so a new GoFundMe fundraiser aims to raise money for a reward for information.
Church’s mother, Robin Milbrandt, has been told he was walking home from a party on County M near Evansville. Some friends had left the party earlier and asked if he was OK. They were assured he was.
Rescue units were called at 12:11 a.m.
Milbrandt doesn’t know if anyone was walking with her son or how many people were in the vehicle that hit him. No one has ever come forward as far as Milbrandt knows.
“We are currently investigating it,” Capt. Aaron Burdick of the Rock County Sheriff’s Office detectives said last week.
“We have followed up leads. We’re still following up leads up to today’s date, so it’s still basically fresh in our minds, and we’re doing our due diligence in trying to solve it,” Burdick said. “It’s serious, and obviously it’s a tragedy that it happened.”
William had graduated from Evansville High School two years earlier and had a job in Oregon.
“He was a really good kid. Meant the world to me, that’s for sure, and to his sisters,” Milbrandt said Saturday.
William’s father, Bradley William Church, died in a car crash in 2003, and kids would cruelly taunt him about that, hoping to get a rise out of him, Milbrandt said.
But he could light up a room with his smile, she said, and fishing was his passion.
Church’s favorite fishing hole was Lake Leota. He could walk there from his home.
“If I couldn’t find him anywhere, I knew to find him out here,” Milbrandt said.
Finding those responsible for his death would bring closure and relief, Milbrandt said. She would feel better knowing that someone could do such a thing and not get away with it.
Family friend Katrina Maldonado spearheaded the GoFundMe effort.
“It’s hard enough to lose a child, but to not get any answers or closure or understanding of what happened … they are in a lot of pain,” Maldonado said.
Maldonado said she hopes the reward money will prompt someone to speak up or that the publicity might even get whoever did it to come forward.
Meanwhile, all Church’s loved ones can do is meet once a year at his favorite fishing spot.
“It’s nice to be out. It’s a beautiful day,” Erdmann said.
“He was a good kid,” Erdmann added. “Too young.”
History came to life Sunday as a special group of men and women were honored for their service during World War II before an audience of 500 people at the Eclipse Center in Beloit.
Sunday marked the 76th anniversary of the surrender of Japan in World War II, with VetsRoll hosting the Millennium of American History that brought together nearly two dozen World War II-era military veterans and women who joined the workforce at home, a group that came to be known collectively as “Rosie the Riveters.” Speakers read biographies of each veteran and riveter to illustrate their heroic acts and sacrifices. The honorees were all in their 90s, and some were older than 100.
Guest speakers included retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Marcia Anderson, retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. John Borling, retired National Guard Brig. Gen. and Judge James P. Daley, Wisconsin Veterans of Foreign Wars Cmdr. Cory Geisler, Beloit businesswoman Diane Hendricks, and Wisconsin American Legion District One Cmdr. Karl Stuvengen.
Anderson spoke of the World War II veterans as being part of the “greatest generation.”
“We will always owe them a debt of gratitude that will never be repaid,” Anderson said.
Anderson also highlighted the ways in which World War II veterans, powered by American ingenuity, brought forth some of the greatest technological advancements of the 20th century—from vehicle and airplane technology to advances in surgery and medicine.
“Each of us sitting here today has benefited from their service,” Anderson said.
Borling said it was important to find the next great generation, urging young people to be inspired by the veterans and their service.
“Impressive is the only word that comes to mind to describe these men and women,” Borling said. “You give us the impetus to find the next greatest generation.”
During his talk, Borling, a 33-year serviceman, told the audience of his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, where he was held for more than six years.
“The slope of the line for America has always been uphill, and we have to keep marching up that hill,” Borling added.
The event’s importance wasn’t lost on organizers who recognized that time was running out to honor veterans from one of the most pivotal moments in American history. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that by 2031, there will be fewer than 5,000 World War II veterans alive.
“We are here to celebrate the heroes of yesterday,” Hendricks said. “It’s an honor to stand here to show respect to the people that gave us the freedom to be where we are today.”
“They fought so an entire world would be free. That’s powerful,” Geisler said.
Listening to aging veterans was vital to preserving history, Stuvengen said.
“Their legacy matters. We owe everything to this generation, and I am very humbled to be in their presence,” he said.
In its 11-year history, VetsRoll has taken 2,185 veterans and riveters on a journey to historic sights in Washington, D.C., having given men and women from 37 states a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reconnect with their past.
David Anthony Barnett
Gerrie Edith (Patnaude) Dunaway
Melinda “Mindy” (Kiley) Farnsworth
Nellie Faye Farnsworth
Brent Gary Jerome
Robert A. “Bob” Jersild
Carol R. Johnson-Vine
Jorgen D. Olsen Sr.
Robert E. Oxley
Gordon Albert Starks
David Frank Woodrich
Rock County itself grew modestly over the past decade, from 160,331 to 163,687, according to newly released numbers from the 2020 Census.
That’s a 2.1% increase in 10 years. The county grew much faster during the decade from 2000 to 2010, a 5.2% rate.
Rock County municipalities that added population in the past decade include Janesville, Edgerton, the town and city of Milton, and the towns of Fulton and Janesville.
The numbers show Evansville was the fastest- growing municipality in Rock County since 2010. That’s no surprise. Evansville has long held that distinction, in part because it’s a bedroom community for Madison.
Municipalities that lost population since 2010 include the city of Beloit, village of Footville, and towns of Bradford, Clinton, La Prairie and Rock.
These and many other numbers are on the agenda of the Rock County Ad Hoc Redistricting Committee. The committee just held its first meeting as it contemplates redrawing the boundaries of the county’s 29 county board supervisory districts.
“We need to get that done as soon as possible so people know what the districts are when they take out (nomination) papers Dec. 1,” Rock County Clerk Lisa Tollefson said.
Candidates in the nonpartisan spring elections must get signatures on nominating petitions and register to get on the ballot between Dec. 1 and early January.
The local voting districts normally are approved by July 1, but this year, the Census Bureau had problems and didn’t issue the data until far past that date, Tollefson said. One reason for the delay was that the census had to be taken during the pandemic year.
The supervisory districts will form the basis for wards and aldermanic districts in various county municipalities, Tollefson said.
The local boundaries will also be submitted to state lawmakers for use in drawing congressional and state legislative districts, Tollefson said.
State officials can change the local lines, however. Tollefson recalled in 2011 when she was town of Harmony clerk and had to create a ward with one residence to satisfy the lines drawn by the Legislature.
The state process is highly politicized. Observers expect a standoff between Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and the Republican-dominated Legislature to be settled in the courts.
The local process has political elements, with the county board given final approval power, but the ad hoc committee will work under guidelines designed to instill fairness, Tollefson said.
The committee will try not to split up communities. For example, the city of Edgerton will likely be its own supervisory district, Tollefson said.
Also important in the process is not drawing lines to disadvantage minority communities or to give advantages to a political party.
Packing most members of one minority group into a single district could unfairly dilute the power of those voters, Tollefson said, while splintering that community into many different districts could do the same.
The committee also will strive to keep unincorporated communities—such as Afton, Newville or Indianford—in one district.
Members of the Ad Hoc Redistricting Committee are Victor Gonzalez, Ethel Himmel, Lisa Imhoff, Neil Deupree, Lisa Johnson and county board supervisors Wes Davis, Robert Potter, Mike Mulligan and board chairman Richard Bostwick.