Memorial Day looked different this year, but the spirit of honoring those who died while serving the country remained, said Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Wis.
Janesville’s Memorial Day traditions, including the parade and the Janesville Tank Company ceremony, were canceled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Other such ceremonies across the state and country were also called off or limited over the weekend, which is viewed as the unofficial kickoff to summer.
But the Janesville Patriotic Society continued its ritual of a rifle salute and playing taps Monday morning in a section of Oak Hill Cemetery where 246 veterans are buried with graves marked by American flags and at least two pennies on each stone.
The coins are a symbol of respect left by visitors, usually those who have no formal relationship with the deceased.
Tom Stehura of the Janesville Patriotic Society said the ceremony was considered a small, private event. The group limited publicity to abide by coronavirus safety recommendations that say to limit the gathering of crowds, he said in an email to The Gazette.
Still, dozens of people visiting the cemetery lingered or watched from a distance as the honor guard fired off a rifle salute, followed by taps.
Two members of the guard wore face masks. Others in the crowd had masks or spoke to one another while staying distanced.
Those changes did not stifle the impact of the ceremony, Steil said.
Steil, with tears in his eyes, said he talked to a man at the event who went to school with Steil’s father and served in the military.
Since the country’s founding, a great number of people have sacrificed their lives for freedom, and each of those people have a name and a story, Steil said.
Those people’s stories are much more personal when they come from your hometown, Steil said.
Janesville native Gary Utterberg, a Marine who served in Vietnam, was instrumental in preserving the section of Oak Hill Cemetery for veterans, hanging flags around town and changing the local perception of Vietnam veterans, he said.
Utterberg has never missed a Memorial Day service at the cemetery, he said.
Utterberg was dismissive of the impact of the novel coronavirus and was disappointed the pandemic prevented the installation of large flags that normally line the veterans’ area.
“It’s (honoring veterans) not once a year. It is every day,” Utterberg said.
When siblings Grace and Jacob Shepard walked into Milton High School in September, each had different ideas about how the school year would go.
There would be tests, homework, fun times with friends, high school football, winter break and homecoming. Jacob, a senior, was looking forward to graduation and making lasting memories with his classmates.
Neither expected a pandemic to cut the school year short.
The Shepard family experienced just how serious COVID-19 could be when Grace, a 16-year-old sophomore, was diagnosed with the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
The siblings and their mother, Lisa, moved to Texas a few weeks ago after their father, Jonathan, was transferred there for work.
During the moving process, which occurred just before spring break, Grace came down with a cough. She dismissed it as allergies.
Then came the fever and trouble breathing. The family took Grace to a doctor and found out she had COVID-19 and pneumonia.
“For me, the pandemic felt real, but it didn’t really feel like I could ever personally be affected by it,” Grace said. “And then when I was diagnosed with it, you know, it was definitely very scary.”
No one else in her family showed symptoms, and Grace made a full recovery without having to be hospitalized.
“I got very lucky,” she said.
Instead of returning to Wisconsin to sell their home, Grace and her family quarantined themselves in their new home in Flower Mound, Texas, just north of Dallas.
They played board games, had long talks and spent lots of time together.
Jacob said it was difficult to watch his younger sister fight the disease.
“It’s hard. It’s life and death,” he said. “It would be super tragic if something had happened to my sister, but we got through it as a family.
“It really did make the pandemic seem more real than it currently was to me, and looking back at it all, I’m just very thankful we came out of it healthy, and we didn’t have to seek more medical attention. … I’m just very grateful.”
The Shepards are finishing the school year online in the Milton School District. Grace will enroll at a new high school in Texas this fall. Jacob will come back to Wisconsin to study business at UW-Madison in fall.
Jacob celebrated his 18th birthday in quarantine. While it wasn’t as fun as a traditional birthday, he enjoyed spending the day with his family and receiving surprise Zoom video chats from his friends.
He and his sister say they fight just as much as any siblings, but they believe this experience has bonded them.
“All the fun times I’ve had with my family in this time and how I feel, like, it’s brought us closer together,” Grace said. “There was a period of time where we were building a ton of puzzles and stuff, so that was fun. … It’s definitely tough, but it’s brought us closer together as a family.”
“During these COVID times, I’ve realized how important family really is,” he said. “You always kind of take all of that for granted until it’s real and something threatens the people closest to you. So I think that’s the most important thing I’ll look back on.”
Grace and Jacob’s final year at Milton High School didn’t end the way they had hoped, but it gave them both fresh perspective and a lot to be thankful for, Jacob said.
“These may seem like bad times, but you can always find good times in the bad times,” he said, “and I think that as much as the COVID times have sucked, it has allowed me to realize a lot of things I don’t think I would have realized without it.”
The residents at Fairhaven Senior Services in Whitewater might be on lockdown, but Karin Campbell wants to keep everything in perspective.
There are no soldiers at their doors. No tanks coming down the driveway. They can hear concert videos streamed to their TVs—not air-raid sirens.
Campbell, 87, wrote a letter about her experiences as a young girl in Copenhagen, Denmark, when the Nazis invaded and her mom had to stand in line for hours just to get a small piece of meat or an egg.
“It was a lot of hunger and darkness,” Campbell said during a recent interview. “I was trying to make people realize that this isn’t as bad as what people have gone through.”
She was one of four residents at Fairhaven interviewed about how they have adjusted to changes at the facility in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which seniors are particularly vulnerable.
To be sure, there have been emotional challenges: losing access to visitors, restrictions on going off-campus and losing connections with other residents at the facility.
But the residents were staying optimistic about their situations.
Fairhaven, like other senior facilities across the country, had to make sweeping changes to how it operates, said Brian Robinson, director of leisure services.
The facility has 283 residents in various living arrangements on the campus. He said much of the focus has been on what is within the main building—home to skilled nursing, assisted living and other apartment areas—because these places have more crossover with staff members and residents across locations.
The week of March 9 is when changes started rolling out, but he said the rules have changed over time and might vary depending on the latest updates from health officials.
Robinson said staff asks residents to stay on the campus property for walks.
Barbara and Dale Green, 79 and 82, respectively, are married and go on 30-minute walks twice daily outside or in the hallways.
“See the flowers and the birds,” Dale said. “That’s nice.”
Previously scheduled activities essentially have been canceled. Robinson and others are trying to replace those with other options in which residents are physically distanced and programs residents are able to watch on their TVs.
Residents are no longer doing their own grocery shopping. Staff members are stepping in there.
Another thing some residents miss? Haircuts.
H. Gaylon Greenhill, 83, a former UW-Whitewater chancellor, has lived at Fairhaven with his wife for about 10 years.
“My hair has gotten too long,” he said with a laugh. “I guess given the importance of this episode, that is relatively small.”
Initially, Robinson said some residents adjusted to the changes better than others. They had to enforce quarantines on “a couple” residents who broke the rules, but he said they understood why.
Over time as the pandemic began to set in, he said more residents started to get it.
“It may be a new normal,” Campbell wrote in her letter. “But this is a strong country, and we will overcome this.”
Campbell’s family moved to the United States in 1951 because her father became the director of Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay. She married in 1952.
Now, she has lived at Fairhaven with her husband, Joe, 92, for nearly two years. Campbell said her husband’s hair is starting to make him look like an “old hippie.”
She said it has been challenging not to get out as much, but they communicate with their family over the phone or through video chats, she said, “We know what we look like.”
One of the changes at Fairhaven, like other such facilities, is no in-person visitors.
Campbell said it’s hard not to have visits from their kids or their six grandchildren, one of whom lives in Stoughton. They called for an hour recently, though.
“It’s as hard for her as us not to see each other,” she said. “But this, too, shall pass.”
Barbara Green used to make hospital visits as part of the Seventh Day Baptist Church in Milton.
“I miss doing that,” she said.
The church, however, has made a list of people to contact each week. So, she said that helps her get by.
Her church is able to post videos on Facebook and YouTube, and other meetings can happen via Zoom, she said.
Dale Green said they use FaceTime chats and email to keep up with family. Their kids live in New York state, Chicago and Omaha, Nebraska.
Campbell misses her church friends, even though her church is right across the street. She’s worried about losing her connection with a friend she made within Fairhaven who lives in the Alzheimer’s unit.
“People are nice and call and stuff,” Campbell said. “But it’s not the same as a good hug.”
As has been the case at facilities across the country, a sign outside Fairhaven acknowledges the presence of heroes.
But Robinson said in this case he wanted to thank residents specifically. The sign says, “Heroes live here.”
He doesn’t want the sign to take away from what the staff members are doing, but he wanted to acknowledge how much the residents are sacrificing.
They can’t leave. They can’t go for drives to the store.
But some of the residents did not agree with his assessment.
“The real heroes are the staff,” Greenhill said. “They are so committed for each of the residents in every way.”
“We don’t consider we’re handicapped in any way,” he said.
Campbell doesn’t think the residents are the heroes. She also pointed to the workers who wear masks, clean for them and had to give up other jobs.
“I can’t say enough of Fairhaven,” she said.
Kimberly Davis Givhan
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